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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Eco-Canoeist

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth contributor Sy Montgomery profiles Steve Nordlinger. This ex-Marine and martial arts expert has a secret life. He canoes Florida's rivers, streams and lakes, removing everything from those plastic six-pack rings to boat toilets. The Eco-Canoeists' weekly trash-collecting outings have inspired a unique following among residents and visitors to the Sunshine State.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. They are out in force now, groups of people cleaning up their neighborhood beach, tilling the community garden, planting flowers and trees in the corner park. They are volunteers and volunteerism is said to be the backbone of the environmental movement. It is also said to be contagious. That's what Living on Earth contributor Sy Montgomery found after spending an afternoon with one Florida man who's turned collecting trash into a water sport of sorts, and inspired a dedicated core of followers in the process.

(Items falling)

NORDLINGER: We're hitting an area that was destroyed by tornadoes, and we're expecting to see some pretty big stuff in the water.

MONTGOMERY: Steve Nordlinger unloads 6 canoes from his big white van. He's ready to launch them near the spot where Highway 46 spans the St. Johns River in Orlando, Florida. Despite the urban setting, this waterway teems with wildlife. Alligators, turtles, fish, egrets, herons, and eagles are all here. But that's not why Steve Nordlinger is here.

NORDLINGER: When I came to Florida, it just totally offended me to no end that this beautiful environment that needs to be protected is being stomped on by litter and trash, fishing line, beer bottles. Different things you find in the water.


MONTGOMERY: Steve Nordlinger is a self-appointed river keeper. Each Sunday he leads a small fleet of volunteers on a mission: hunting for trash, and not just the plain old litter you find lying on the ground. We paddle the St. Johns today to grapple with garbage in the water.

NORDLINGER: Here's a plastic bag. Water in it.

(Items moving, dripping)

MONTGOMERY: Trash collecting from a canoe demands skill, endurance, and a sense of adventure.

NORDLINGER: It's kind of like doing 3 things at once. You're kind of balancing yourself, you're watching out for the motor boats while watching for trash, you know, watching for alligators. All at the same time.

MONTGOMERY: Steve Nordlinger isn't just out to make the river look pretty. Trash in these waters can be dangerous. Animals like turtles can mistake Styrofoam for snail eggs and can stuff themselves to death on the ultimate junk food. Discarded fishing lures, lines, and hooks can entangle and maim animals from manatees to pelicans. Even innocent-looking stuff can kill out here. Just ask volunteer Scott Vorkopick.

VORKOPICK: I didn't really have any idea how bad it was until one of the trips I was out with Steve and I think we cut down -- how many dead anhingas from trees?

MONTGOMERY: Anhingas are those big black birds so characteristic of Florida's waterways who swim under water and spread their wings out to dry in the sun.

VORKOPICK: That one day we cut down 2 anhingas, and it wasn't even from fishing lures or fishing line, it was from string like this.

(A motor runs)

MONTGOMERY: Along the reedy shore, volunteer Carl Medard finds a piece of trash almost as big as his canoe. The casualty of a boat wrecked in a recent storm.

MEDARD: You want me to describe this, a toilet, right? Bathroom. You know, commode. (Laughter in the background.) It is in a nice shade of green, so it goes with the environment as well. (More laughter.)

MONTGOMERY: This quixotic quest to clean up Florida's millions of miles of rivers, lakes, swamps, canals, and ocean began on the tea-colored Little Okonolahatchee River that flows through the Cypress Swamps of Orlando's Jay Blanchard Park. Steve Nordlinger started coming here when he first moved to Florida, fresh out of the Marine Corps. And when Park Ranger Dale Hatch first encountered this 6-foot wiry guy practicing martial arts on the soccer field, he was a bit apprehensive.

HATCH: When I first saw this guy up in his Marine fatigues, and so I'm out there with those defense weapons, I said, "Uh oh." (Laughs)

MONTGOMERY: For the next few months, park rangers kept finding wet muddy garbage in trash cans, and they couldn't figure out where it was coming from. But then, Ranger Hatch discovered that like Clark Kent, Steve Nordlinger had an alter-ego: the ego-canoeist.

HATCH: And all of a sudden I just happened to be by the river one day, and this guy comes paddling up in a little canoe, just with all sorts of trash hanging out of it that he pulled out of the river. And it was Steve, and I recognized him once I got closer. And we had to catch him accidentally, cleaning our river.

MONTGOMERY: During the last 10 years, Steve Nordlinger says he'd single- handedly removed about 240 tons of garbage from Florida's waters. But that, he felt was not enough. Two years ago, he came to a turning point.

NORDLINGER: I go out, I work really hard, I'm having these wonderful experiences with the birds and the alligators and the snakes and the plants. No one knows about it. I'm not motivating anybody else to do it. I needed to have some kind of a record.

MONTGOMERY: That's how the Eco-canoeist Journal was born.


HOLLENBECK: Hi, happy to meet you.

WOMAN: Nice to meet you.

HOLLENBECK: Welcome to the eco-store.

MONTGOMERY: Part diary, part natural history, part instructional guide, the Eco-canoeist Journal is a hand-lettered, hand-illustrated record of Steve's trash-collecting adventures. Four volumes detailing more than 100 trips in the past 2 years. Beth Hollenbeck sells the books here in College Park, at the Eco-store.

HOLLENBECK: I do know that some people have reacted simply because there are line drawings on the cover, that they think they're children's books and they're coloring books.

MONTGOMERY: The eco-canoeist exploits are worthy of a comic book superhero. Wrestling with sharks, retrieving giant tires, rescuing birds choking on discarded fishing line. But these are real life adventures, and that's the message. Anyone can be an eco-hero, and the Eco-canoeist Journals show how.

HOLLENBECK: And did you bring more books? Because Joe just bought us out.


MONTGOMERY: The Eco-canoeist Journals are so effective, the Orange County school system uses them in environmental education classes. The county public defender was so impressed with the books, he sent one to every commissioner in the county. At the Eco-store, owner Beth Hollenbeck was so moved that she joined the clean-ups herself.

HOLLENBECK: Every time we pull a 6-pack ring or a fishing line or a piece of Styrofoam out of the water, I can remind myself that this is a wild animal that's not going to be injured, that isn't going to have to be rehabilitated. That will not be killed, whose life is not threatened.

MONTGOMERY: And for volunteers, who can now sign up at the Eco-store, each trip is an adventure. Sometimes more adventure than they bargained for.

ANNOUNCER: Rough surf and high winds caused several canoes to capsize this afternoon. The people on board had to struggle to stay alive. Six environmentalists were trying to clean up the Indian River in Brevard County...

MONTGOMERY: One person was hospitalized for hypothermia, and another's legs were badly scraped. But today, only 7 days after the accident, every one of the volunteer crew is back battling the tide of trash.


MONTGOMERY: Why? Most are committed to the clean-up effort. Some come for the free canoe ride. Others have no choice.

MEDARD: Yes, admittedly, I was a naughty boy. (Laughs) I got 50 hours community service. As it happens, I do quite enjoy it.

MONTGOMERY: A judge assigned Carl Medard to the canoe fleet for a motor vehicle violation. But somewhere along the line, this convict became a convert.

MEDARD: I think I've decided, yes, when I finish my 50 hours I will be doing more of it. Now there's only 6 of us doing it, roughly 6. But every little bit helps.

(Items fall)

MONTGOMERY: Today's haul: 3 huge blocks of Styrofoam, a toilet, a 5-foot-tall plastic seat, a 6-foot plastic pipe, 2 chairs, 3 huge plastic bagfuls of trash, and 1 giant bag of recyclables.

(Falling items)

MONTGOMERY: And tomorrow, there'll be more. Steve Nordlinger knows this. He knows, too, that trash isn't the only problem for Florida's wildlife. Every motorboat deposits oil in the water. Every day developers build on hundreds of acres of habitat. But each clean-up has its epiphany. Today, during our lunch break, we looked up to see a bald eagle circling overhead. Earlier, a creature Nordlinger had yearned to see for a dozen years popped up directly in front of his canoe. It was a green sea turtle, and it looked him straight in the eye. For the eco-canoeist, the message in these moments is eloquent and profound.

NORDLINGER: I really get the feeling sometimes that it's -- that nature itself is telling me that no matter what happens, we need you in particular to be out here helping us.

(Motor in the background)

MONTGOMERY: For Living on Earth, I'm Sy Montgomery on the St. Johns River in Orlando, Florida.

(Motor continues)

CURWOOD: Our portrait of eco-canoeist Steve Nordlinger was produced by Kim Motylewski.



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