Tristen Wood kept pulling them out of the water, one after another, along the bank of the Little Arkansas River near the tennis center in South Riverside Park.
Clear plastic bags, tied at the top, spilling river water and who knows what else.
"There’s more than just water in here," the 12-year-old announced with one of the bags he fished out.
"There’s something hard in there," he announced with the next.
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“Drain it! Drain it!” his grandmother and her friend exclaimed with each fished-out bag as they took part Saturday morning in the Great Arkansas River Trash Roundup. About 700 people turned out in the windy chill to help with the river’s main clean-up of the year, the one that used to precede the Wichita River Festival. When the festival was moved from May to June, organizers decided to keep the clean-up close to Earth Day, which is Monday, said Libby Albers of the City of Wichita’s WATER Center.
“This has the potential of being one of the big waterway Earth Day events in the country,” said Mike Martin of Cargill, the main sponsor of the roundup. Increasing sponsorships are helping in the effort to make it “a big community event,” he said.
Members of the public joined employees of Cargill and Spirit AeroSystems and the city in fanning out across the river banks to the north and the south of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, where hot dogs and hamburgers donated by Dillons were being grilled for their return. The volunteers, working with families or friends or individually, used grabber tools and gloved hands to corral crushed cans, paper wrappers and plastic bottles into big trash bags. For the first time this year, because the number of volunteers has been increasing, the cleanup extended beyond downtown to the Little Arkansas River in Riverside Park, Albers said.
Judy Burger was one of the people joining the cleanup for the first time. She lives on the west side of town and usually never visits the river, she said. “We go out to the lake.” But Saturday she was picking up trash with her 8-year-old granddaughter, Alyssa Amick, and her friend Kim Highfield, Tristen’s grandmother.
“It’s crazy all the stuff that’s out here,” Burger said. And “that is just amazing” she kept saying as Tristen continued to fish out the plastic bags that had been slipped over the bank and into the river.
Steve and Barbie Schmidt picked up refuse with their 6-year-old daughter, Emma, who ran around gleefully as if on a treasure hunt.
“We like to walk the river a lot, and when we do, we don’t want to see trash everywhere,” Barbie Schmidt said. “We have a little one. We want her to learn the importance of keeping the community clean and the environment.”
The cleanup also gave the children a chance to brush up against nature.
“Worms!” Tristen yelled.
“Oh cool!” Alyssa yelled.
Ducks looked on, and geese honked at the visitors.
The cleanup also helps the wildlife that lives on the river and that migrates through Wichita, said Martin of Cargill and Darin Byer of Ducks Unlimited, which also takes part in the cleanup and receives donations from the sponsors to help restore Slate Creek Wetlands southeast of Wichita.
“These animals don’t know what it is,” Byer said of the trash in the river. “They’ll eat it and choke on it.”
As Tristen’s trash bag got heavier and heavier, he asked his grandmother and friends, "If people didn’t pick up the trash, what would happen to the river?"