For most kids, saying they kayaked miles of the Whitefish River would be a great way to spend a summer vacation. Sarah Downs did the kayaking all right, but she also picked up trash along the way — tons of it. “Kayak Klean” she calls it.
The 11-year-old Girl Scout from Kalispell spent days on end kayaking with her mother Laura Katzman cleaning up a section at a time.
Downs is doing the project for her Girl Scout Silver award. Part of the requirements for the award include going on a journey and doing community service. She got the idea after a family outing on the river when she noticed the trash along the way.
Recently they did a section that ended at Birch Grove Road. Their kayaks looked like garbage scows when they were done.
“It takes a little bit of time,” Downs understated, looking over a huge chunk of foam strapped to the top of her kayak.
“I was surprised to find all the foam from the docks,” she said. “We also found a lot of shoes.”
Dock foam is common, as the docks get busted up in the winter ice and by spring runoff. On this day, they’ve also found several oars and two big bags of typical refuse like bottles, cans and other containers. But they also find a couple of backpacks — one which they didn’t dare to open.
They then have to haul it up to Katzman’s pickup truck and take it to the landfill.
The river has a lot of fish and other wildlife, Downs notes. They’ve seen turtles, osprey, bald eagles and plenty of ducks. The garbage isn’t doing them any good, however.
To date, Downs has done about 15 miles of the river and will do the lower section to its confluence with the Stillwater River next summer. She’d eventually like to start an adopt-a-river program in the Flathead.
“There’s a lot of rivers that need to be cleaned up,” she said.
Downs likes science. Katzman has a background in fisheries management and works for the Flathead Land Trust. Sarah’s father is Chris Downs, the fisheries biologist for Glacier National Park.
But Sarah doesn’t want to study fish.
“I want to be a rocket scientist,” she said.