Kayaker Melissa Rohm was on a cleanup mission on Chartiers Creek last fall when something along the shoreline caught her eye. The Scott resident blinked in disbelief, thinking she had found an unusual discarded plastic ornament for her garden.
Then the "ornament" blinked back.
It was an alligator.
"He was about 3 feet long, brownish and blended into the environment really well," Ms. Rohm said. "It was a cold morning, but the sun was shining on him. I was sure he was trying to warm up."
She called to her husband and other nearby paddlers, told them what she had found and said she was going to rescue it.
"David and I both have experience in wildlife rehabilitation -- that's how we met -- but we'd never handled anything quite like that before," she said. "I remember that the alligator was really, really cold and he felt like pure muscle. He flicked his tail around a little bit but didn't squirm too much.
"David had some gray duct tape and he carefully put a little bit around the gator's snout, avoiding the nostrils. My legs started to shake. I guess from the adrenaline."
Mr. Rohm wrapped the alligator in a sweatshirt, placed it in the hatch of his red kayak and paddled quickly downstream to Crafton where he handed it to employees of the state Fish and Boat Commission. They found a new home for it.
"I'm just glad we were in the right place at the right time because that little guy wouldn't have survived the winter," Ms. Rohm said. "People think they're doing their 'pets' a favor by setting them free, but most of them only suffer and eventually die."
The Rohms, co-founders of Paddle Without Pollution, a not-for-profit organization of kayakers and canoeists, will be back on the water with other volunteer paddlers beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday for another four-hour cleanup of the three rivers and some tributaries.
The bags of trash will be off-loaded on the Monongahela River side of Point State Park, where a thank-you party with lunch, games and prizes will be held after the cleanup.
Mr. Rohm, 43, an art director, and Ms. Rohm, 44, an editor-writer for a local corporation, collect litter wherever they paddle. They formed the organization after a trip around The Point where they found more debris than they could collect by themselves.
They said kayakers and canoeists will use launch ramps in Millvale and the South Side to enter the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. They paddle their way down to the Ohio as part of their goal to clean 26 miles of riverbanks, enjoy from-the-water-up views of the city and inhale the sweet and sour fragrances of the rivers.
Last September, more than 30 paddlers filled 73 large garbage bags with trash. Mr. Rohm said canoeists collected "a ton of tires."
"We use nonmotorized boats exclusively so we can operate with very little or no impact on the environment," he said. "Volunteers of nearly any paddling skill level [can] get into ecologically sensitive and shallow areas ... and [other] inaccessible areas that land-based cleanup crews cannot reach."
The Rohms said participants collected "hundreds and hundreds" of plastic bottles, a wide assortment of clothing, an eclectic collection of old sneakers and Styrofoam. "Styrofoam is my arch enemy," Mr. Rohm said. "There are bits and pieces of it everywhere."
"You would think that picking up other people's trash would be depressing, but working with such great volunteers toward a common goal tends to restore your faith in humanity," Ms. Rohm said.
Canoeist Andrea London of Point Breeze said participating in last fall's event on the Mon "was an amazing, organized and fun way to work with other paddlers to clean up our waterways and to help educate others about the importance of protecting our rivers, lakes and streams."
Ms. London, 63, a photographer, said using a canoe to clear a portion of a river "by picking up bottles and cans one by one is an incredibly satisfying and very organic experience."
Canoeists Kim and Bob Salinetro of Banksville found a number of partially inflated silver metallic balloons last year while cleaning up the Ohio River across from Brunot's Island. They'll take a pin to deflate any they find on Saturday to make it easier to bag them.
The Salinetros, who paddle a large red canoe, went ashore several times to collect items littering the riverbank, including glass bottles, shoes and clothes. They also found two pieces of water-worn wood that will decorate their garden.
Mrs. Salinetro, 46, chief of staff for city Councilwoman Theresa Smith, said her boss teamed up with the Public Works Department to supply gloves, garbage bags and trucks to haul away the collected trash.
The event is co-sponsored by the city, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, American Canoe Association, L.L. Bean, The Kerry Co., Mad Mex, Web Landings and Rail Design & Horticultural Services.
The Fish and Boat Commission and Venture Outdoors are providing canoes and kayaks, respectively. Mr. Rohm said the cleanup also is a green initiative with the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
The Pennsylvania American Water Co., the Three Rivers Regatta and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds provided grants for the cleanup.
Paddle Without Pollution also offers summer and after-school programs for inner-city children ages 10 to 18 that teach paddling skills, ecology and proper nutrition and enable them to reconnect with nature. Information: www.paddlewithoutpollution.com.
Lawrence Walsh writes about a variety of outdoor activities for the Post-Gazette.