PENDLETON - About 33 volunteers came together Saturday morning to pull about a half a ton of garbage out of the Umatilla River.
They met at Stillman Park and after a brief safety talk, split up into three groups that each tackled a different section of the river. Armed with yellow trash bags, they got down to the shoreline at about 9:40 a.m. and finished up by about noon, at which point they reconvened for a picnic lunch.
The event was coordinated by the Umatilla Basin Watershed Council and the Stewards of the Umatilla River Environment.
About 15 individuals waded into the muddy waters, mostly people with experience, as the riverbed is extremely slick.
"I fell up to my neck in the river," said Tami Sasser, executive director of the UBWC, explaining that her partner had just told her to be careful. "The words were no sooner out of her mouth," she said.
Sasser wasn't the only who got soaked. At a particularly deep area near 10th Street, said Sasser, UBWC Chairman Gary Rhinehart dove underwater and personally cleared the bottom of debris.
"(He) threw his hat up on the bank and jumped in," said Sasser.
Perhaps the most bizarre items to emerge from the depths were an unidentified mannequin head, a sleeping bag and a tire and rim. There were also several cell phones, credit cards and, of course, general paper and plastic litter.
"A lot of it is from the wind," said Betty Klepper, who founded SURE in 2001. The river, she explained, is the lowest point in the valley for debris to accumulate. "Once it gets into the riverbed, it can't get out."
Lloyd Barkley said his supervisor talked him into helping out. As part of his job with the water resources program for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, he regularly measures flows and takes water samples.
"Without water, where would we be?" said Barkley. From a cultural perspective, he said, the traditional first feasts of the tribes begin with taking a drink of water.
"It's wonderful to watch people taking care of their river," said Klepper.
Sasser, likewise, said the event was a great way to build community.
Klepper helps organize two cleanups each year, the first one was held in May.