Photo courtesy of RiverJunky: It took just under 110 RiverJunky volunteers to gather about 13 tons of trash from the strip of land that runs along the Skykomish River south of Monroe in February.
Photo courtesy of RiverJunky: It took just under 110 RiverJunky volunteers to gather about 13 tons of trash from the strip of land that runs along the Skykomish River south of Monroe in February.

Within less than a year of becoming a licensed nonprofit, RiverJunky has kept nearly 42 tons of waste from entering Washington’s waterways.

Volunteers have cleared roughly 36,000 pounds of trash from sites in Snohomish County. It took just two cleanups to amass that figure.

While both county events targeted property trashed primarily by people residing in homeless encampments, the RiverJunky volunteers put in hours on a global scale to remove refuse left behind near rivers.

About 71,000 volunteers are spread across the United States, Australia and Japan. Identified sites are picked up every five to six weeks, and so far nine events have been held. Hauls range from around 1,000 to more than 20,000 pounds.

RiverJunky is based out of Silver Lake, where founder Jarrod Kirkley lives and works. He puts in about 20 hours a week running the nonprofit while balancing a full-time job. He said the idea to start the service organization was sparked by a personal experience he had last fall.

The avid fisherman was out on the Kalama River, a tributary of the Columbia River, when he caught a long awaited steelhead. After it was taken off the hook and lying on the rocky shore, a hypodermic needle became lodged in its side.

“It just ruined my day,” he said.

Kirkley said he was raised by parents who encouraged him to clean up, and he learned early on to practice stewardship whenever out in the wilderness.

After being soured by the rogue medical tool in 2016, he said he “designed the project, launched it, and it has just been exploding ever since.”

Companies like Microsoft, Longview-based Brad’s Killer Fishing Gear, Woodland-based Lamiglas Fishing Rods and other associations, guide services and companies throughout the state have signed on as sponsors, Kirkley said. Paul Davis Restoration of West King County and Seattle has also recently donated assistance to RiverJunky. Equipment, training and labor was offered for the Skykomish River clean up, and others throughout Washington. 

“We apply technologically advanced methods in structural and surrounding property work for residential and commercial customers, and apply our knowledge to the community service work we’re providing to RiverJunky,” said Paul Davis owner Greg Thode in a news release.

Even with all the funding help, RiverJunky has hit a rut, he said.

Kirkley attributes limited resources to the fact that the nonprofit is still young. He said he expects more interest as operations grow and age. He hopes to eventually receive state funding.

“If we could get state funding, we could clean up the state within six months,” he said.

That kind of revenue could pay for the high price of dumping fees for the gathered materials, Kirkley said. It could also help cover the cost of events, and afford more incentives such as gear and other prizes RiverJunky offers the public through its website, he said.

Locally, RiverJunky has already made a name for itself.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Ian Huri said Kirkley and his crew are at the top of his list when the agency is scouting out areas that really need attention.

Volunteers turned out to Rotary Park along the Lowell Snohomish River Road in Everett in mid-July, Huri said. About 13,000 pounds of garbage was pulled from the woods. It took about two hours to accomplish what was taking the sheriff’s office months, he said.

Huri said it can be trying for the agency to get an area cleaned out like the one last month, or the section on Dale Reiner’s private property south of the Lewis Street Bridge outside Monroe. He said this is largely because of the collaboration and cooperation needed from jurisdictions or landowners.

In the case of the Snohomish River site, there were about eight unsheltered individuals living in tents when the sheriff’s office first went to assess the situation, Huri said. Within a few months that number was down to a handful. Then it took a while to remove a man who was not using drugs, but suffering from mental health issues, he said.

It took just under 110 volunteers to gather about 26,000 pounds (13 tons) from the strip of land that runs along the riverbanks south of Monroe in February. Less than a dozen homeless people had been living in the area.

Resident Paula Peak’s home sits on the neighboring land. She and her husband contacted the Washington Department of Ecology last November. They routinely found hazardous materials on walkthroughs of the spot, and also witnessed other criminal activity.

The property owner issued a no-trespassing order in December, once people in the encampment who wanted services had accepted them. Everyone else had a month to pack up and move out.

A Snohomish County Health District health officer’s order issued Feb. 13 forced Reiner to take action on the remaining debris.

Huri had told the Monitor that the pickup was “pretty much what we expected.” There were bicycles and bike parts, old rotted cloth, old clothing, blankets, mattresses, propane tanks, but “nothing real shocking — nothing that made us really scratch our heads,” he said at the time.

RiverJunky coordinators and certified hazmat volunteers identified unsafe areas before the crowds arrived. It took about four hours, two dumpsters and one truck to carry out the haul.

Jefferson Ketchel, environmental health division director, told the Monitor a health district officer walked the property after the Feb. 25 clean up, remarking, “it was exceptionally clean.”

Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas and his wife were two of the many people who came out to the Skykomish River that morning. He said he sees compassion as the driving force behind RiverJunky’s efforts.

“They are, simply put, an awesome group, and I so greatly appreciate what they have done in Monroe, and the work they continue to do in other communities,” Thomas said.

Huri said a comprehensive cleanup can be one of the determining factors that keeps land from becoming trashed again. Compliance from all property owners is important because if only one section of an area is cleared, people will still see it is not being taken care of. If a spot is being cared for, they are more likely to exhibit the same care themselves, he said.

Huri said RiverJunky is a unique opportunity that exists in the county. He said there have been other smaller organizations that can do small chunks at a time, such the Boy Scouts or neighborhood cleanup groups, but nothing like the efforts and resources the nonprofit offers.

Brittany Schmidt, who lives in Vancouver, Washington, is one of RiverJunky’s nine coordinators. She started as a volunteer after noticing one of the early events posted on a social media page last year.

Schmidt said she works full-time for a garbage company in Portland, “which is completely unrelated.” She enjoys spending her free time in the outdoors, including hiking and fishing. She said she has also felt the frustration of seeing areas trashed by visitors.

Huri said once RiverJunky has settled on a new site, the members take care of coordination that would have previously fallen on the agency’s shoulders. Schmidt was the one who contacted the city of Everett and Snohomish County prior to the Lowell Snohomish Road cleanup.

Sometimes jurisdictions will agree to pay for some of the costs to bring the discarded cargo to the dump, which can be thousands of dollars, Kirkley said. Other times the funds come from the pockets of volunteers. Anyone can purchase RiverJunky products or donations on the website; the proceeds go to paying for cleanups.

Schmidt said many volunteers are more than willing to chip in. She said she is looking forward to when more people will help out.

The things people leave behind affect the wild and the wildlife, on top of posing a large health risk.

“It is ugly,” she said. “Trash is ugly.”

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