On a recent Sunday morning, I spent three hours picking garbage off the shores of Cedar Lake, on the west side of Minneapolis. I’d wanted to do it since the spring, when my 3-year-old daughter went looking for pebbles on the beach and instead found a surgical glove floating in the muck.
I thought it’d be kind of idyllic, just me, the sunrise, and the loons (more on that later)—and might go so quickly that I’d find myself cleaning Bde Maka Ska as well. I even felt a little guilty, targeting a bucolic lake—one that would appear to suffer only from stray hacky sacks and abandoned Terry Tempest Williams books—rather than, say, the parking lot of BJ’s Liquor Lounge.
In fact, I got barely halfway around Cedar while filling four bags, not including the bicycle I hauled out (and left by the trail, if anyone wants a totally rideable, slightly askew hybrid). My thoughts, for the most part, were not idyllic. Here, nine observations from the most surprising three hours I’ve spent on the Chain of Lakes.
1) Those plastic floss picks: what the hell? Has flossing at the beach become a thing? Are people like, "It’s Saturday, wanna ’mock and floss?" These things are a menace. They even look like something you’d use to garrote shorebirds, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find gangs of raccoons doing just that. Luckily, and disgustingly, I plucked about 75 of these out of the water.
2) Fishing line: holy crap, the shoreline is booby-trapped with miles of lost tackle. Tightly strung between logs and limbs, impossible to see, the lines are often still attached to hooks. How anything can wade ashore is beyond me. It’s like something from the beaches of Normandy. I would recommend a fishing ban if I didn’t think it would start a class war and go unenforced. Perhaps fishing should be formally restricted to designated piers, to eliminate casting into trees. As it is, the city is wrapping its lakes in razor wire while enabling anglers to slowly poison themselves with toxic fish.
3) Straws: they still suck. It’s become fashionable to suggest that straw bans like those in Seattle and San Francisco are toothless, as it were, in a world where industry creates mountains of garbage every day making floss picks and, well, straws. But on the ground, there are still lots of straws, straw wrappers, and the lids that accompany them. There’s no reason for any of it. In fact, straws should probably be considered medical devices, available by prescription only, for people struggling to chew and swallow. Everyone else can, you know, drink.
4) Micro-plastic: mega-bad and getting worse. Hard to spot, harder to pick up, it’s mostly big plastic broken down to the size of fingernail clippings, and I fear we’re becoming inured to it. It fades into the background, like wallpaper. Once you see it, though, you see it everywhere—I imagine you could sift the shoreline and come up with 10 percent plastic, at least. Plastic is the new dirt.
5) People are terrible. Garbage follows humans like dust trails comets and snakes shed skin—it’s who we are. And there’s nothing like cleaning up other people’s garbage to remind you of this disgusting fact. The more you clean, the more you wonder how anything survives in our midst—including us—until you look up and see the ducks and gulls and frogs and remember that lots of things do, at least for now, and that’s kind of miraculous in itself. To be fair, most of the garbage in Minneapolis does make it into the North Loop incinerator, up to a thousand tons a day. Much of what I was picking up was probably spillage from trash collection itself, from overturned cans or garbage trucks bouncing along—the comet trail of city living.
6) People are great. To walk the shoreline of Cedar Lake for hours, not just on the trail but in the water, is to be impressed with this city for maintaining—and in many cases restoring—such natural spaces in the middle of a metropolis. Against unrelenting pressure from businesses of all kinds that want to profit on parkland. Against runoff and invasive species and tight budgets. For more than a hundred years. (Southwest Light Rail grievances aside.) The Park Board deserves credit. And so do the volunteers culling buckthorn this summer from the woods around Cedar. And the half dozen people who stopped to thank me for picking up trash, and made it all worthwhile.
7) Runners are joggers are cats. I didn’t expect much interaction with the people running around the lake, and I didn’t get it. For a long time, this city has elevated joggers—sorry, runners—despite the fact that they are simply people moving faster than the rest of us. They go where they please, on trail or off. Plugged in. Eyes forward. You would sooner get a glance from a blade of grass. They are like the cats of ancient Egypt, sleek and inscrutable, propelled by mysterious motivations, revered for not giving a whit.
8) Yes, there are urban loons—most of the time. We think loons only live up north because that’s where we’re finally relaxed enough to notice them. But loons have been on Cedar Lake as long as anyone can remember. Same with Bde Maka Ska, Harriet, Nokomis, Lake of the Isles, etc. Not just during migration but all summer long. I love tracking urban loons, hoping that if we realize they’re here we might attempt what’s necessary to keep them in town: clear, clean water; natural areas for nesting; not too much pressure from watercraft; maybe even a nesting platform. That said, I haven’t seen a loon on Cedar since late June. Here’s hoping the spell isn’t broken.
9) Those grabber gadgets are godsends. I always thought of them as the sanitation equivalent of leaf blowers, more trouble than they’re worth. And they’re vaguely institutional, like you’re performing community service. I borrowed one from a friend and at first I was self-conscious, as though I were sweeping the beach with a metal detector. But they’re crazy effective and probably accorded me some undeserved credibility as I waded among the weeds. He must be official, he’s got those grabbers! And man did they save my back. I went for a swim afterward and felt at ease, despite all the threats to this and every lake, knowing my grabbers and I were surrounded by four bags less plastic.
Tim Gihring is the former editor of Minnesota Monthly, a regular contributor to the Star Tribune, and current brand narrator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.