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The series, West Virginia Water Trails, explores waterways in southern West Virginia. Listen to hear stories from communities coming together, to create new economies — with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.

W.Va. Water Trails: Women Led River Clean Up Crew Inspires New Generation To ‘Trash Your Kayak’ 

Michelle Martin during a typical day on the river, collecting trash.

Tons of trash and thousands of tires have been removed from West Virginia’s rivers. The work is often spearheaded by West Virginians who just want to enjoy a peaceful float trip in their state. Michelle Martin is leading one charge to clean up the Little Coal River and turning the trash into treasures.

This story is the fifth of a series called West Virginia Water Trails. Hear stories from people coming together across southern West Virginia, to create new economies and communities- with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority. 

Martin still gets excited about cleaning up the rivers in southern West Virginia. She’s an accountant by day and a self-dubbed river tire rescuer on the weekend. It started back in 2016 during a trip with her sister on the Little Coal River in Boone County.

“We were just in awe of the beauty of the clear water, the landscape,” Martin said. “But then it kept being scarred by tires and trash. So one day she said, ‘Let’s get this tire’ and I said okay let’s get it. To our surprise we were able to wrangle it up on one of our kayaks and we floated it several miles downstream.”

Michelle Martin during a trip on the river while collecting trash.

Martin always carries plastic bags with her to collect trash while she floats. Eventually, it adds up and the kayak starts to look, well … trashy. So, she embraced the idea and started a Facebook group called Trash Your Kayak Clean Up Crew WV.

“We want to inspire other people who are out kayaking because thousands in the summer time are out kayaking the rivers every weekend. So while you’re out there, take five or ten minutes of your time, take a little bag of trash … take away more than what you brought in.”

And it’s working. She’s proud to say there are more than 800 members in the group. The cover photo shows Martin with several other people, flexing behind a large tire.

Trash Your Kayak Clean Up Crew after getting a large tire out of the river and on a jon boat.

“That picture is us getting out ‘Beast 2’ because it’s so big we had to make a plan,” Martin said. “It takes a lot of effort when you’re dealing with a couple hundred pound tire like that. We finally got it up on the jon boat so that was us kind of celebrating like, ‘yeah we did it.’”

The work has inspired young people in the region. One of the Facebook group members is 19 year-old Lilly Bias. She hesitantly joined Martin and her clean up crew on a Saturday morning about two years ago.

“Through that event we learned how great cleaning up the river was and how fun it was,” Bias said, “which was surprising to us.”

Lilly Bias on a river collecting trash after being inspired by Michelle Martin and the Trash Your Kayak Clean Up Crew.

Bias had such a good time, that she ventured back out on the river a few weekends later for a clean up with her mother. Then, Bias organized her own clean up last year with 100 volunteers.

“Once you’re part of Trash Your Kayak, you can not get out,” Bias said. “When you’re experienced, you want to keep coming back and want to keep hanging out with these great people who are trying to better the community.”

Each cleanup is a chance to take part in a little friendly competition in the Facebook group to see who can collect the most tires. It’s also an opportunity to find treasures.

The Facebook page is a place to share 'treasure' finds during clean ups.

A few scrolls down from the cover photo on the Facebook page pulls up images of people and items they’ve collected on the rivers. Martin shared a photo of Daniel, who found a glass piggy bank on the Little Coal River, or as Martin likes to call it, “Coal- Mart”, a play on the names of big retailers.

“We’ll post on Facebook, ‘attention Coal-Mart shoppers, clearance on coolers this weekend’ because we find a lot of coolers on the river,” Martin said.

Martin quickly found that volunteering to clean up the river can get expensive.

“We’ve learned that solid steel shovels which are $30 - $40 work better on prying out tires. I’ve used my own funds but I thought ya know what if we kind of use the boards and things from the river and call it River to Home,” Martin said. “I’m getting things from the river to make art for your home.”

She sells the items at festivals to help offset some of the expenses. She also creates items for gifts and others for her own home. One piece she’s decorated her home with is made of three items she found on the river. One natural item resembles a fish.

Michelle Martin created this piece of art from things she found along rivers in W.Va. She calls it“hooking a river cryptid". The body was made from driftwood from Kanawha Falls and the wood base and brass stem came out of the Coal River.

The Trash Your Kayak Cleanup Crew plans to join Boone County Career and Technical Center students on the river on April 29th. Volunteers are welcome to join the clean up on the Little Coal River and a provided lunch. You can find more information on the Trash Your Kayak Cleanup Crew Facebook page.

Southern W.Va. Bureau Chief, Reporter/Producer, jlilly@wvpublic.org, 304-384-5981, @JessicaYLilly

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