Litter bears witness to lessons not taught

Litter bears witness to lessons not taught
John C. Lorson

A discarded plastic cup rests in a small tributary of Killbuck Creek, and chances are good that it’s already made its way from a roadside ditch to this otherwise picturesque stream. Plastic containers take years, even decades, to degrade, and in the meantime they slowly travel downstream from one location to the next, junking up the landscape because of simple carelessness or worse.


Rather than trail, stream or forest, this week’s column begins in the parking lot of a local grocery store. Last weekend I was swinging my ratty little truck into a slot next to a big, shiny, four-door pickup just as the rear door opened and a young hand emerged from the bottom of the door holding the dripping cup, lid and spoon from what appeared to be a just-eaten ice cream sundae.

“Colton, stop!” his mother shouted from the front seat. “Someone will see you.”

She was right in one regard — and so very wrong in another. Someone would have definitely seen him drop his garbage on the ground. And even as nonconfrontational as I may be, I would have undoubtedly walked over, picked it up and handed it back to him.

Kids make mistakes, and if someone actually calls them on it, they frequently learn from them. The glaring “wrong” in this situation was the lesson the boy’s mother conveyed. It wasn’t that it was fundamentally wrong to chuck trash out the door of the truck; rather, it was that her little darling might get caught doing it.

I thought about that incident the next day while in the midst of one the most wonderful work days of my life as I, along with my co-workers at Holmes Soil and Water Conservation District, took to the water to assess conditions along the mighty, muddy Killbuck Creek.

I use those adjectives frequently in describing the Killbuck, which is the “main drain” of Holmes and Wayne counties. Mighty and muddy are a fair enough description for much of the winter and spring; however, in the hottest part of summer, the waterway calms to a slow, clear, sometimes even “sparkling” stream with towering sycamores and cottonwoods arching to meet above the channel. At these times Killbuck Creek is as lovely a stream as you’ll find in Ohio — and one with the rare good fortune of flowing parallel to a recreational trail for several miles of its run.

In nearby counties, outdoor adventurers have capitalized on similar geography for years by combining a canoe or kayak trip downstream with a bicycle trip back upstream. Such “paddle and pedal” or “pedal and paddle” (depending on which direction travelers head first) have proven easily feasible on waterways like the Tuscarawas and Kokosing rivers. My co-workers and I have a theory that the Killbuck could be well-suited for the same, so we embarked on a fact-finding float.

After shoving off from the used-to-be Holmes County Fairgrounds, the most immediate (and literal) obstacles to our scheme became clear within the first few miles in the form of large logjams that spanned the width of the stream in some places. Trees sometimes give way after high storm flows erode sodden stream banks, and they are simply a fact of life along a living river system.

Pressure from development upstream, the channelization of ditches and streams leading into a main watercourse accelerate this phenomenon. Tangles of branches, tree trunks and displaced stumps the size of small cars are, frankly, part of the natural world. As inconvenient as they might be, they nevertheless create wildlife habit and slow the water in places, creating deep, shaded cool-water pools.

In other places, where the flow forces its way through or around the snarl, we get riffles that add oxygen to the water. Sure, getting over, under or around these logjams can be difficult, challenging and sometimes even dangerous, but hey, isn’t that part of what we love about the great outdoors?

Sadly, another “fact of life” along the Killbuck is one shared by most other waterways small and large that run through places where people live — litter. There are pools ahead of some logjams along the Killbuck that contain hundreds, possibly even thousands, of cans, bottles, plastic toys, softballs, car tires, foam packaging, buckets, barrels, milk jugs and beer coolers.

The quantity and variety of waste and debris in these “trash rafts” is mind-boggling. Sadder still is the fact that nearly all of it was chucked out the door or a vehicle, tossed in the weeds by a passerby or dumped along the roadside where “no one could see.”

Litter, especially plastic containers, aluminum cans, glass bottles and the like, tends to travel downstream whether from a parking lot, roadside ditch or secluded pull-off along a dirt road. It floats, rolls or blows along until it ends up as clot in an otherwise beautiful landscape. It doesn’t simply go away. I wish little Colton’s mom could have seen what I saw — both in that parking lot and in the stream. I believe if she did, she could give her son a much better reason to put his trash where it belongs.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email

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