GREAT BARRINGTON -- During an alternately sunny and windy Saturday, more than 50 volunteers dug out garbage from around the Housatonic River, removed invasive species and planted native plants to protect the soil from erosion just ahead of Tuesday's Earth Day.
Four decades ago, when Melvin's Drug Store burned to the ground, it tumbled into the Housatonic River and created a mess that local conservation workers are still cleaning up.
A lot has changed since then, and the walk along the Housatonic River off Church Street is now a sight to see -- with a walkway constructed along the riverbed, and steps that go along a scenic section where onlookers can watch the river splash over rocks. Coconut fiber logs are dotted along the river to protect against erosion. It's a far cry from the sight onlookers would have seen before the Great Barrington Housatonic Riverwalk took an interest in repairing the damage done by years of pollution.
Rachel Fletcher has been directing the Housatonic Riverwalk and sprucing up the river area since 1987. "It was the most devastated section of riverbank in South County," she said. Since that time, volunteers have picked up more than 400 tons of trash from around the river, she said.
"There used to be a trash heap 15 feet high of Japanese Knotweed," she said.
While things are much better these days, Fletcher said volunteers still were picking up metal and glass Saturday. "We couldn't do a lot because the river is so high," she said. "And the water was moving fast."
Volunteers raked along the river and planted seeds to protect the soil from erosion. There was pruning and cleaning along the trails, filling garbage bags full of the trash that was collected.
Will Conklin, director of Greenagers, an organization which works with youth in the community, was one of those out on Saturday. His group engages youth in farm work around Berkshire County and Columbia County, volunteerism, gardening, service learning field trips and apprenticeships.
Todd Johnson, an apprentice with Greenagers who attends Berkshire Community College, helped pick up garbage and did some raking. "It's a beautiful place to work," he said. "It's only walking distance from getting lunch in town." Johnson is studying environmental science and likes "learning about the ecosystem and the impact humans have."
Brooklyn's Alex McDonald, whose father, Joe, has a home in Great Barrington, helped out with his 12-year-old son, Milo. They normally clean up the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which used to be a toxic waste dump.
"It's a lot cleaner [here] than the cleanups we do," McDonald said. "It's a much nicer cleanup."
Heather Cupo, a local horticulturist, managed the plantings on Saturday and lead the removal of invasive species like gout weed and garlic mustard. "They take over and they don't play well with others," Cupo said. "They don't share the space well."
Aggressive vines that were taking over trees were also pruned.
The trail is considered a National Heritage Trail since civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington.
"We're going to be at this for at least another 10 years," Fletcher said.
"If it looks like nobody cares about it, then people treat it like nobody cares about it," Cupo said.
To reach Nathan Mayberg:
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