UTICA — More than 90,000 visitors hiked Starved Rock State Park during Memorial Day weekend, and eight ventured in on Tuesday afterward, armed with garbage bags and trash pickers to restore the trails to their natural glory.
The Starved Rock Cleanup Crew hits the trails after most busy weekends and throughout the season collecting the garbage left behind by hikers.
Volunteers vs. trash
Kelsey Cox, of Ottawa, helped organize the warm Tuesday morning event and joined the group last year after finding a large pile of diapers in Illinois Canyon.
“I was a little grossed out, and I figured I needed to help out a bit,” Cox said.
She brought her kids, 4-year-old Layla and 3-year-old Liam, for extra sets of hands.
“I told the kids, ‘We had a lot of friends come in over the weekend, and we have to help clean up after them,’ ” Cox said with a laugh. “So, hopefully, they’ll get the idea they need to clean up after their friends.”
Nick Donka, of DeKalb, and his sister, Makayla Heibel, helped to create the group and were also on hand.
Donka provided bags and trash pickers to the group from the Visitors Center, including two smaller pickers for the children. The group raised money last year to afford more trash pickers, including the longer 8-foot picker that Donka used to get the particularly tricky pieces of trash off the beaten path.
Heibel said they, too, were inspired to create the group after finding large piles of garbage along the trails last year, which ruined the park’s natural splendor.
“We both talked about it because we’ve always enjoyed the outdoors and we’ve been going since we were little. Mom said she used to carry me on her back, so I guess I’ve been going since I was a baby,” Heibel said. “I think (the cleanup crew) is super awesome.”
Cox stuck around the Visitors Center and picnic area as it was easier for her kids while others hiked the various trails at the park.
Nolan Hallock said this was his second time picking up garbage and decided to do so after retiring and seeing the traffic at the park increase.
“I definitely don’t like seeing garbage in our state park. It seems like you can put up as many signs as you want, but there’s still people who don’t pay attention or whatever and throw stuff on the ground,” Hallock said. “I just feel that, for now, this is the best solution to keep the park clean.”
What they found
The group found reusable and plastic water bottles, wrapped up dog poop, beer bottles, car seat covers, plastic toys, diapers and more.
A beer bottle was just out of reach with the longest picker, and Donka expected to use some of the group’s remaining cash to get a 20-foot picker for future trips.
Joe Grady, of Streator, and Richard Weitzel, of Marseilles, cleaned up the bottom of Wildcat Canyon, which had a modest waterfall flowing into it and said water bottles were the most common.
They’ve visited Starved Rock for most of their lives and wished hikers kept in mind that plastic water bottles are not biodegradable.
“If you carry it in, you can carry it out,” Grady said.
“And remember most water bottles are collapsible. So you can crush it and stick it in your pocket,” Weitzel said as he did just that with his own bottle.
Donka estimates he’s hiked the trails with a garbage bag around 15 times and said the oddest find was a hypodermic needle.
“Kind of makes you question what you pick up with your hand,” Donka said.
He added on the first few trips, they would walk out with a number of garbage bags, some of which he joked may have been sitting there for decades.
“It’s probably made our job easier today,” Hallock said.
Efforts bearing fruit
In fact, site superintendent Kerry Novak believes the group has had a positive impact on the park in just a year. The staff is unable to keep up with the large amounts of trash on the trails and welcomes the volunteer groups as well as the general hiker looking to take a garbage bag along for a casual stroll.
“A lot of people are commenting how (the trails) are so much cleaner this year and, you know, since they are cleaner people tend to keep them cleaner,” Novak said.
Novak added people likely won’t add to the garbage if they don’t already see a build-up on the trails, but added it’s impossible to make a positive impression on all visitors.
Donka said the trip May 29 was the dirtiest he’s seen it this year, but it wasn’t as bad as some previous visits.
It was Cox’s second visit to the park this year, but she said the amount of garbage remained consistent with what she had seen last year.
“Except the big piles (of garbage). I think those are starting to dwindle,” she added.
Cox was still working on the lower level around the Visitors Center more than two hours later and said she’ll have to go over another portion again as a large group of people had just thrown some garbage around.
She had hoped seeing a volunteer on the grounds would have discouraged them.
Cox said usually hikers are very appreciative of her efforts and some ask to use her garbage bag to throw away trash.
She’s glad as it cuts down on the amount she’ll be grabbing later.
“I’d rather have them do that than on the ground,” Cox said with a smile. “But most people are very grateful that we’re out here helping out.”
How to take part
The Starved Rock Cleanup Crew organizes events on Facebook at fb.com/groups/751458134978878. But the average hiker is able to ask for a garbage bag and trash picker at the Visitors Center at any time.
Starved Rock personnel ask all hikers to stay on marked trails and not to climb walls or cliffs.