Many have done it by sailboat, motorboat, even kayaks. One person recently swam it. But how many people have hiked around Bainbridge Island? I mean all the way around, skirting its shores, circling the entire landmass like a May pole?
The 53-mile circumnavigation is precisely the journey we’re embarking upon, but it’s not just a walk in the rock-strewn, slimy, barnacle-laden park, nor is it a pristine walk on the beach. This journey has a critical element: We’re picking up all the man-made trash we see on the shoreline along the way. What sorts of debris are washing up on this 36-square-mile island, 8 miles off the coast of Seattle in the middle of Puget Sound?
We’re no strangers to beach debris, more accurately described as “everyday plastics.” My friend and co-founder at The Buy Nothing Project, Rebecca Rockefeller, and I have traversed many island beaches picking up plastics. Indeed, we’ve spent months inventorying the buggers, listing them by item. We’ve created disturbing art about our beach plastics, have conducted beach pick-ups and art projects with local classrooms, and founded a social movement with an eye toward addressing that first of the 3 “R’s,” REDUCING the amount of plastics we consume in the first place. If we just shared what we already had, rather than buying new, wouldn’t that have impact? If we’ve learned one thing in the last 5 years of research it’s this: If it’s made of plastic, it will end up in our waters.
The obvious solution to our dependence upon plastics is to find reasonable alternatives and obvious reuse solutions and convince people to choose those over buying new plastics. We aim to show people in innovative ways how plastics will never go away and are ubiquitous in our environment. Hence, we collect those plastics we find washing up on our beaches and determine where they’re coming from. What percentage are single-use plastics like straws, syringes, and water bottles and tampons? What percentage are coming from the fishing and shipping industries, from construction projects, and from our own homes and cars? The only way to find out is to pick up a sampling from every shoreline on our island, to prove they’re on every beach, washed down our watersheds or blown ashore by the prevailing winds.
Bainbridge Island is like any landmass, encircled by the waters of Puget Sound, some beaches more exposed to currents and wind drift than others. We see this circumnavigation as a sort of metaphor for all islands, indeed all continents, with watersheds and beaches dumping and receiving debris over time.
My online search for the earliest pioneers to have circumnavigated our beloved island brought up a single result, and an ironic one at that: Bruce Barcott, writer and friend. We had no idea Bruce had taken on the journey, let alone that he wrote about it in Backpacker Magazine. He even self published a book about it, having also mapped his route on Google Earth in an incredible interactive tour-de-island-force worth checking out. Bruce’s map will be our baseline, a critical resource to discover interesting shoreline features as well as the ins and outs of the inlets, coves and private properties potentially off-limits to hikers like us. But if we’re doing some good (picking up pollution) will we be barred from passing? Due to tide constraints, Bruce apparently didn’t actually complete his full circumnavigation, opting for inland trails instead. We’re going to try our hand at completing a full circumambulation.
I first met Bruce Barcott in Seattle at the offices of Alpine Ascents International. My husband, Pete Athans, and I, along with our 1 and 3 year olds, had just moved to the area from north of Boston, one of the furthest points on the continent away from Seattle. Bruce and Pete were hired by Alpine Ascents International to assist them in procuring a coveted mountaineering concession on Mount Rainier. Two years later, when we were headed for a month to Nepal, Bruce and his family were looking for a home to occupy while house-hunting on the island. They house-sat for us and quickly found a home for themselves on the island. Bruce, in an effort to get to know the island first-hand, decided to hike around its shores, mapping his progress on his iphone.
We, too, will employ iphones and our trusty GPS to log in waypoints and document our progress. Other essential tools will include reusable bags, backpacks, and haul bags for collecting plastics, strapping the big pieces to our backs, and a knife for cutting marine rope and fishing line from rocks and washed-up tree trunks. Our cameras will record specific plastics that marine biologist friends are interested in documenting, and the essential iphone app, Tide Chart.
With a population of 23,000 and 36-square-miles of land, our island demographics prove that there are approximately 834 people per square mile on this speck of Northwest terra firma. That’s a lot denser than I would’ve thought, but significantly less than Seattle’s 7,251 people per square mile. We’re all contributing to the plastics that are making their way down from our homes, cars, and businesses to our seas. And our islandround journey is yet another means to figure out where it’s all coming from, why, and how we can stop it.
If you’re on Bainbridge and want to join us, please contact us and we’ll coordinate days and times to meet up for a leg of the journey. We’d love to have your eyes, hands, and backs for the recovery of human-made debris from the sea. We welcome classrooms, community groups, and all our island friends on this journey. And when this encircling of our island is done, we’ll welcome help in assessing the inventory of documented plastics in our island to determine where it’s coming from and come up with ideas for reducing it in the first place.
It’s winter storm season, and we expect some sobering results and strong shoreline winds but hopefully we’ll encounter some unanticipated surprises as we map our collective plastics, coming closer to uncovering the truth behind the flow of synthetic polymers into our seas.