‘River Keeper’ wants your help keeping PT’s forests clean

Posted 2/12/20

The citizens of Port Townsend don’t know it, but they are being visited by a River Keeper.

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‘River Keeper’ wants your help keeping PT’s forests clean

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The citizens of Port Townsend don’t know it, but they are being visited by a River Keeper.

Deep in one of the city’s many forests, the River Keeper lives with her dog Jasper in a small shelter made of pallets, tarp and other recycled material.

She keeps herself warm with butane-fueled candles. She makes her way to the Port Townsend Food Bank once a week to stock up on nutritious food for herself and Jasper. She doesn’t call herself homeless, per se, more “structurally challenged,” or “a free-range human.”

Even if she were offered a million dollars and a mansion, she says she would still be out there in the woods, listening to the birds sing, watching the trees sway and making friends with squirrels.

If she were offered that million dollars, she would use it to continue her mission as a River Keeper: Wherever she stays, she cleans up homeless encampments that have been abandoned, pulling mattresses, broken tents, empty food cans and sometimes baby carriages from the woods so that it can all be taken to the dump.

“I stay near bodies of water, and I clean up trash,” said the River Keeper, whose real name is Ember (short for Kimberly) Ikenburg.

At 35 years of age, Ikenburg has spent more than half her life living outside. She grew up in Texas, where at the age of 18 she first began living on the streets because she had nowhere else to go. But today, she travels the country, going up and down the West Coast and staying for short periods in communities. In Port Townsend, she hopes to inspire others to get out in the woods and help her clean up trash.

“I’ve been traveling for over 10 years,” she said. “I understand when people have left, and I start hauling the trash out.”

There is a lot of work for her to do in Port Townsend. Abandoned homeless encampments are scattered throughout the woods at Cappie’s Trails, behind Les Schwab, by the Port Townsend Paper Company and at Kah Tai Park.

Since arriving in Port Townsend last May, Ikenburg has been working on pulling out piles of trash from the woods. She walks the trails, wearing rubber gloves for protection, and loads up trash onto a small cart, making piles outside of the woods where it can be picked up and transported to the Jefferson County Transfer Station.

Part of the property she is cleaning up is owned by the city of Port Townsend. Leftover trash from homeless encampments is a constant battle for the city to deal with.

“Regarding abandoned campsites, or those where the occupants had to leave quickly, the amount of detritus left behind is often significant,” wrote Jud Hayes, the Port Townsend Police Department Navigator, in an email response to questions from the Leader. “My role primarily focuses on working with people in existing campsites, but abandoned campsites I have come across are typically littered with drug paraphernalia, empty alcohol cans/bottles and human waste or evidence of human waste.”

In the event of the discovery of an encampment, the first thing the Port Townsend Police Department does is determine if it is an active camp, and then whether the property is privately or publicly owned, said Sergeant Troy Surber.

“If trash is left behind, a criminal report might be generated for illegal dumping,” he said. “If a person responsible for illegal dumping is identified, a citation might be issued to that person.”

If it is public city property, and the items left behind are determined to be refuse with no value, they are hauled away by the city’s streets department. If the items are determined to be of financial value, they will be taken by the police department and placed in safekeeping.

“We will usually be alerted to an issue when we get a complaint from a neighbor or a property owner,” Surber said. “The city had to deal with a large encampment that was abandoned one time and it took around 10 pick-up truck loads to clear it out.”

But if the abandoned encampment is on private property, it can sometimes go months unnoticed, slowly deteriorating, or being washed downhill into streams and eventually into Puget Sound. It’s the property owner’s responsibility to remove trash from their land, but if they live out of state and don’t monitor the property, the encampments stay put.

The issue goes beyond the city limits as well. According to Nicole LaGioia, who works for the National Forest Service in Quilcene, the forest workers have to scour the land each year to clean up trash.

“It’s a significant issue,” she said. “We spend a lot of time and energy cleaning up illegally dumped stuff … It’s not good for the environment. It’s bad for the water, the fish and the animals.”

The water, the fish and the animals are what Ikenburg hopes to protect by walking the trails of uninhabited forestland to clean up after the homeless people who have lived there before.

“The forest is for so much,” she said. “Not just oxygen.”

Inspiration from nature

Ikenburg only began her “River Keeper” lifestyle around 10 years ago, when she got out of a relationship and traveled from Texas to California.

She had always loved the outdoors and was inspired by her grandmother.

“Grandma would give us trash bags and we’d clean up all the parks,” she said. “She taught us how to take care of the Earth. That’s where I got the inspiration.”

She remembered a time when her grandmother planted a wall of sunflowers in their back garden.

“I would lay down and look up at them and notice all the creatures: the insects, the bees, the birds,” she said. “I realized that how we treat the forest is how it treats us back.”

Living in Berkeley when she was 30 years old, Ikenburg began to learn more about environmentalism and activism.

“I thought, ‘When I pass on, what do I want to leave?’” she said. “What is my legacy? ... My life is all about helping this planet on an environmental level. Our forests are getting smaller and smaller and I feel the weight from the trees. They’re getting sad.”

That’s when she decided on her River Keeper lifestyle. She began cleaning up after mankind. When she stops somewhere, she feels out the city and the community to see if it’s a good fit for her and her mission.

“I find out how warm the community is, and try to determine how much can I get done,” she said. “When I am done with an area, I don’t know where I’m going next.”

In 2018, she arrived in Port Townsend during the Wooden Boat Festival. Knowing it was a good fit for her, she traveled down to Oregon where she raised money by picking up bottles and cans for the state’s bottle deposit program—earning 10 cents a can.

When she had raised enough money, she moved to Port Townsend and has been here ever since.

In the midst of a large clean-up project, she hopes to reach out to the community for help. Without a car to transport trash to the dump she hopes that Good Samaritans will see her piles left on the outskirts of woods, and take them to the dump for her.

But she also knows that what she is doing is against the law.

By removing the trash and putting it in piles, she is technically illegally dumping, even though the trash was not hers to begin with.

“People are so afraid of getting in trouble, they don’t clean up their encampments,” she said. “Even if you take a small trash bag out, it’s illegal dumping.”

So Ikenburg hopes to start a program called the River Keeper Program, where she inspires local communities to get outside and start cleaning up trash.

Similar programs exist in small ways in Port Townsend already—for example, the Admiralty Audubon Society cleans up trash from Kah Tai Park on a monthly basis.

Even though the trash isn’t hers, Ikenburg feels a responsibility to clean it up. And she hopes people will feel the same and begin to organize a monthly trash clean-up day. She also hopes people will help her take the piles she makes to the dump, since she doesn’t have a car.

“Trash is human,” Ikenburg said. “If you’re human, this trash is yours.”

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