A KEEN employee standing in marine debris in Alaska.
A KEEN employee standing in marine debris in Alaska.

40-Hour Beach Cleanup

“Participate in a week-long effort to clean up beaches on a remote island in southeast Alaska,” my dad suggested. “You’ll get to stay in a lighthouse!” And so I did…

One of the great benefits of working for KEEN is the opportunity to take time off work and volunteer in the community—every full-time employee is given 40 hours of annual paid volunteer leave. For my service hours this year, I chose to work with the Ikkatsu Project on the 2018 South Kuiu Island Cleanup. Our task was to conduct marine debris surveys, collect water samples for data on microplastics, and clean up the debris from the beaches.

"All I knew was that I needed to fit my things in one bag that could be moved from plane to boat to lighthouse, and to expect the unexpected."

Not having participated in many beach cleanups before, nor having ever been to Alaska, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I needed to fit my things in one bag that could be moved from plane to boat to lighthouse, and to expect the unexpected.

On my first day of traveling I met up with most of the crew I’d be working with for the next week. Since there are limited flights to and from Wrangell, Alaska, we all ended up on the same flight. Arriving at the same time in Wrangell gave us the opportunity to get to know each other and figure out our next move together. One of the representatives from the lighthouse we’d be staying at–Cape Decision Lighthouse—also arrived on the same flight and provided some direction to us newbies. He was able to get us a ride into town and to our hostel.

My Hardest and Most Rewarding Work Week

We were put to work as soon as we dropped our bags off. Our first task—buying groceries for the next week! It became apparent at that point how important these people would be to me during this experience. Our only direction was to buy “lots” of meat and produce. There would be 13 people staying at the lighthouse the week I was there. We had no idea what food was on the island already and trying to figure out food quantities for 13 people I’d never met proved challenging.

Our next challenge was to get ourselves, and all of these supplies, to the extremely remote island. We woke up early the next morning and hauled everything down to the dock where we’d be met by a boat that would (hopefully) take us to Kuiu Island. Getting to the island was totally weather dependent—the conditions of the weather and tides ultimately determined if it would be safe to motor out there. We were fortunate to have mostly good weather. So we loaded up all of our supplies, food, personal belongings, kayaks, water, and fuel, and began our almost four-hour boat journey out to the island.

As we approached the island, we could see the lighthouse in all its glory and the previous week’s volunteers standing out on the rocks anxiously awaiting the boat’s arrival. There is only one boat that is hired to go between Wrangell and Kuiu Island. It’s sole purpose is to serve as a transportation vessel for volunteers and supplies to the lighthouse during the few weeks over the summer that the lighthouse is being used. Other than that, Kuiu Island is completely uninhabited by people.

It was raining when we arrived, so there was a quick transition of unloading the boat and reloading the boat with the previous week’s volunteers. And just like that they were gone and we were left standing in the rain while forming a “firefighter line” to move all of the stuff from the rocky boat landing up to the lighthouse, which was perched on a cliff. When we FINALLY got everything up to the lighthouse, unpacked, and settled in, we were given an introduction from one of the lighthouse board members. He explained how things would operate over the next week, including how projects would be divided and who would prepare meals. There was a meal matrix in which we all rotated turns of making meals and cleaning the kitchen.

"Nothing about being on this island was easy, that was clear from the minute we arrived."

The next day we took our first hike to the first of three beaches we would survey and collect marine debris during our time on the island. Nothing about being on this island was easy, that was clear from the minute we arrived. Including getting to the beaches we cleaned. We hiked to all of them, while a few people kayaked. These weren’t your standard maintained trail hikes, however. These were tough, unmaintained “trails” that were muddy and overgrown. All while being aware of what else might be out there with you, specifically bears. Apparently, Kuiu Island hosts some of the largest black bears in Alaska (I managed not to run into one while there).

On our third day we hiked along the water’s edge over large boulders, rocks, and washed up logs to reach the beaches we were to clean. This was my favorite and most challenging hike, as it was somewhat technical to climb over the rocks while the tide was coming underneath us in spots. What I completely underestimated is how physically demanding cleaning up debris can actually be. Part of the reason is the amount of logs on the beaches to climb over and dig under to retrieve the debris.

To my surprise, we collected about 1,850 lbs. of debris between two weeks of volunteers. I’m shocked at the amount of garbage we found on these very remote beaches on an island not inhabited by humans. Meaning all of this stuff has been floating around in our oceans and washed up here from somewhere far away in the world.

The Best Thing About Volunteering in Alaska Wasn’t Alaska

Participating in this project has definitely made me reconsider using single-use plastic, such as straws, utensils, and to-go food containers, and to seek out other options. But something else made an even bigger impression.

What really made this experience for me wasn’t the wildlife we saw every day–whales out in front of the lighthouse and bald eagles overhead, although that was pretty amazing. It wasn’t the fact that I lived in a decommissioned lighthouse for a week that is self-sustaining with a rainwater-collection roof and solar energy. Not that I got to explore a small piece of wild Alaska by foot and contribute to the Ikkatsu Project and Cape Decision Lighthouse Society projects. Okay, it was all of those things, but what really made this experience special for me was the people I shared it with.

Everyone had specific strengths and knowledge they brought to the lighthouse—a retired biology teacher who brought excitement and tons of enthusiasm over every.little.thing (like dragon kelp), a young environmentalist who studies bald eagles and knows a lot about the wild plants, and the active kayaking guide whose passion for the health of our oceans led him to start the Ikkatsu Project. These were only a few of the kind souls I had the pleasure of getting to know, but each and every one of them impacted my overall experience in such a positive way.

I left Cape Decision Lighthouse and Kuiu Island feeling accomplished, impactful, and grateful to have spent it with the people I did.

If you are interested in volunteering with the Ikkatsu Project on Kuiu Island, Alaska, you can learn more at www.ikkatsuproject.org and see the results of South Kuiu Cleanup 2018.

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