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Eric's Heroes: The guardian of the Snoqualmie river

Eric's Heroes: The guardian of the Snoqualmie river
Eric's Heroes: The guardian of the Snoqualmie river
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He wears glasses and suspenders and a large straw hat with strings that are tied beneath his chin. Above him, cottonwood fluff falls amongst evergreens like summer snow.

He walks amongst the living things he has surrounded himself with, the things he adores. Trees and plants and bushes. Flowers and apple trees and willows and rows of peppers. His eyes are raised, forever looking up at limbs and leaves and the light in-between.

His name is Doug Ewing, and he is a man in a perpetual state of wonder, amazed by the beauty and the sheer possibility of the natural world.

"You can make a career studying it," he says. "Your whole life. Every day. And every day you'll discover something that just knocks your socks off."

He actually DID make a career of it. He wrapped himself in horticulture and botany, eventually becoming the greenhouse manager for the University of Washington's biology department.

He grew the plants that were studied by the U.W. biologists. Agave plants with 10-foot flower spikes, and Waldo the 80-pound corpse flower. And, when called upon he gave tours and taught children who visited the greenhouse. He smiles when he recalls their faces. "I would jazz 'em," he says. "I would say, 'Look at this! This is amazing!'"

Doug's garden is the garden you imagine in your mind when you say to yourself, "Maybe I'll take up gardening one of these days." It is natural and eclectic a bit chaotic. It is perfect.

And just down the road from Doug's home is a gorgeous bend in the Snohomish river. There are trees on either side and lazy, swirling water in between. It's an impressionist painting.

But on any given day, if you look closely you'll see problems. Beer cans and booze bottles and fast food wrappers. Piles of garbage left behind by partiers. And worse yet, the stuff that's there not just because of carelessness and laziness, but by design.

Doug says, "More and more, I'm finding contractors, truckloads of what they're ripped out, torn apart, and aren't going to take to the dump, and they just throw it along the bank of the river."

And so, almost every single day, Doug walks down to the quarter-mile stretch of river, armed with plastic bags and and a trash picker, and goes to work.

He picks up everything he sees, and when he's finished, he throws the bags into the back of his pickup truck. So far, he has taken 59 truckloads of garbage to the dump.

Doug is angered by what he finds, and disgusted.

"What I struggle with," he says, standing next to his pickup, piled high with bags of trash, "is getting my mind wrapped around who does this? I mean, they weren't raised right."

But his guardianship of this one specific part of this one specific river doesn't end there.

In the summertime, when the waters warm, there is something else Doug Ewing does. Something pretty amazing.

He wades out into the river, wearing cutoffs and a t-shirt, and dives down into the water.

He does it again and again.

When he's down there at the bottom, through his mask, he looks for tell-tale little pieces of fishing line, swaying in the current.

And when he pulls on those, invariably, he finds a hook and a weight, sinkers we used to call them, connected to the line.

When he is finished with his dives, he takes those weights and puts them into a large plastic bin. The bin is filled to the top.

Some of the weights are over a hundred years old. Fishermen and women have been trying to catch steelhead in the river for a long, long time. The weights and hooks get caught on the rocks at the bottom of the river. The lines break, and there they sit, forever. Or until Doug Ewing fishes them out.

The problem is, though, that the weights are made of lead.

The bin, unbelievably, weighs 3,000 pounds. Doug calls it his 3,000-pound soap box to talk about lead pollution in our waterways.

"It doesn't rot. It doesn't decompose. It's an element. And it's seriously toxic. We've taken it out of paint, and gasoline. The biggest source right now of lead entering the environment is fishing weights."

He picks up a weight from the bin and holds it in the palm of his hand. "These bigger pieces that are being abraded by the sediment and sand in the bottom of the river, are flaking off and grinding off little tiny particles."

He says there are now detectable levels of lead in the Snohomish, which will ultimately affect the fish.

And Doug has an answer to the problem. In fact, when we met him, he was carrying the answer in his pocket: a small river rock with a hole drilled into it.

"Why not?" he asks. "That's a sinker. And when it gets stuck in the river and you break your line and it's left, in the bottom of the river, it's just a river rock that went home."

There by the river, HIS river, I asked him the obvious question about his endless efforts to defend this one small portion of paradise.

"You know, that in the greater scope of things, it's a drop in the Atlantic Ocean.."

"It is." he said, "It absolutely is. But can I fix climate change? Can I fix world peace? No. But I can pick up beer cans and keep this quarter mile of this river clean. And... it's something.

Yes, it's something. And this man, this modern-day Huck Finn, diving down into his river in the summertime, cherishing his world, using it as a playground instead of a dumping ground, is something else.

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"I'm not a hero, "says Doug Ewing. "I'm not a hero. I'm just a very stubborn old guy."

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