by Kathryn Davis

For a decade, Soundkeeper has organized weekly volunteer kayak patrols of Lake Union using kayaks borrowed from the Northwest Outdoor Center. These patrols are not only a chance to monitor various sources of water pollution, but also to remove debris accumulated along the shorelines. Over the years, the trash finds have been spectacular. Ranging from furniture and soiled oil booms to abandoned wallets and personal diaries, the debris collected has told a lot of stories and kept a lot of secrets.

For a long time, we have averaged about five pounds of trash per person on each of our trips. The debris often includes a mix of “fresh” trash along with “legacy” trash that has clearly been waiting to be picked up for many years. But over the last few months, we have found less and less garbage. Dedicated volunteers are returning to the dock with a smaller haul, while our new volunteers sometimes find very little (on-water trash collection is a skill that takes time and practice to perfect). Additionally, the trash we do find looks to be freshly deposited.

Longtime kayak patrol volunteers with a bicycle they found in the lake.


I have a few theories.

The most optimistic explanation is that people today are more diligent about proper waste disposal and that after over 10 years of regular cleanup, we have finally removed much of the legacy trash.

Another explanation could be the season. A lot of debris comes into the lake through storm drains that discharge frequently during the wet winter months. We have also had a more consistent presence on Lake Union this summer through a series of youth kayak expeditions and larger boat-based weekend cleanup events.

A close-up of a plastic bag as a volunteer retrieves it from the Arboretum.

I am curious to see if this trend continues after the weather turns and we slow our cleanup activities. Regardless, our observations demonstrate the power of dedicated removal as a way to improve an aquatic environment over the long term.

For the record, Soundkeeper volunteers have safely removed over 20,000 pounds of garbage from Lake Union since we started patrolling the area nearly 10 years ago. This could not be done without the continued support of our partner, the Northwest Outdoor Center.

Kayakers launch from the Northwest Outdoor Center.

To sign up for a kayak patrol, visit our events page to find upcoming dates. You can help with my next trash challenge- to catalog the different brands of beer recovered! Based on previous observation, I would say Rainier and Coors Light top the list.