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When Tom McNichol saw swirling trash he launched his Clean Up Boat

Tom McNichol is the unofficial garbageman of the Charles River, beautifying Boston's iconic strip of water.

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Tom McNichol cleans up trash on the Charles River in Boston. The Charles River Clean Up Boat has been operating for 10 years.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Tom McNichol has fished a lot of strange things out of Boston's Charles River. Among the most unexpected are a portable toilet, a recliner, and a dead body.

It's been 10 years since he had to call the police about the body. In the intervening years he and his volunteers have found items that are far more mundane but no less surprising: grocery carts, a home-built raft with a crimson-colored "H," a refrigerator (they apparently float), trash cans, bags of clothing, a rare carving of a Pakistani goddess, lawn chairs, flip-flops, and four or five plastic bags each about the size of a Smart car filled with packing peanuts. He's also found countless beer cans, coffee cups, plastic bags, bottles, and smaller items that wash in from the Boston streets.

Mr. McNichol is the Charles River's unofficial garbageman. Since he started the Charles River Clean Up Boat in 2003, his refurbished aluminum fishing boat has been on the river four days a week every week from May through October crewed by volunteers scooping up trash and recycling. He's led the charge to beautify Boston's iconic strip of water, and inspired and engaged the community along the way.

 

Ten years ago, when parts of the river were still covered with a six-inch-thick carpet of trash, the idea that one man could make a dent in it seemed foolish.

"It was a remarkable idea that he came up with," says James Healy, who has worked for Boston Duck Tours for almost 20 years. "It was something that was really needed. A lot of volunteer organizations would clean up the parks and riverbanks, and no one was out there cleaning up the river. For one man he has made one big difference."

The Charles River Clean Up Boat is part of a larger cleanup effort that began in the 1960s when the 1966 pop song "Dirty Water" immortalized the Charles River's murky problem: The river was polluted. It was not uncommon to see scores of dead fish or strange-colored water (think pink), making swimming unwise (and illegal).

Through a number of efforts, including the creation of the Charles River Watershed Association and the US Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Charles 2005 Initiative, to make the Charles fishable and swimmable by Earth Day 2005, the water quality gradually improved, as measured by state tests.

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But there was still the matter of the way the Charles looked.

That's where McNichol, a retired software engineer and sailing coach, came in. One day in 2003 he realized something about the river as he was setting up a sailing course on an 8-1/2-mile section hemmed in by dams that flows past Harvard University, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After the same pieces of trash – including a CVS drug store plastic bag and a Dunkin' Donuts cup – floated by him twice in two different parts of the river, he realized the problem wasn't just new trash being thrown into the river: Caught between the two dams, trash has no place to go.

"So, if you were a plastic bottle that got chucked out here," McNichol says, "you'd just float back and forth until you disintegrated – or until someone pulled you out."

Convinced that the river could be cleaned up, he came up with a list of what he'd need to make it happen. Then, despite naysayers and limited resources, he spent the next 10 years doing just that.

He found an old boat, cleaned it up, and got it into good working condition. The Boston Duck Tours company donated funds to help get the project off the ground. Today, more than 45 companies and organizations, including Boston's Museum of Science and the outdoor-clothing store Patagonia, support the Charles River Clean Up Boat with funds or by encouraging their employees to volunteer as crew members, slots that fill up fast.

McNichol also approached the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. He figured that being short-staffed and having a large workload the state agency wouldn't be able to help financially, but it might be able to haul away the trash. McNichol and the department worked out a system whereby McNichol drops off bags of trash at specific locations and the department disposes of them.

When McNichol started, trash was everywhere. Now, his boat can cruise for miles without seeing so much as a candy wrapper. On a recent autumn day it took 30 minutes before someone spotted the first piece of trash in the river: a fleece rowing jacket.

"This is the way we want the river to be," McNichol says.

 

He knows to look at a few key bends in the river where trash can collect. A good day means finding less than two bags' worth of trash, he says, something that now happens 85 percent of the time. In the early years, his boat would come back packed with garbage bags.

"Do I believe we make a difference?" McNichol asks. "Absolutely, we make a difference." People may take the clean river for granted now, he says, but that's OK: "I think once we cleaned it, people were less apt to throw trash into it."

Those who work on the river notice.

As volunteers lean out of the boat using a swimming pool skimmer to scoop up trash, a Duck Boat tour boat floats by, and the driver shouts out across the water: "Hey, Clean Up Boat guy! You're the best!"

That's pretty much the sentiment among those familiar with McNichol's work.

"The lower basin of the Charles River has definitely gotten a lot better, and the Clean Up Boat has a lot to do with it," says Mark Jacobson, the general manager of Charles River Canoe & Kayak, who has seen how the river has been transformed in the past decade.

Each year, a number of people in other parts of the country contact McNichol for advice. Avid kayaker Rob Nykvist is trying to get his community in Alabama interested in setting up something similar to clean the Dog River.

"Tom's approach to keeping a trash-impaired waterway clean using a shallow draft cleanup boat is as simple as it gets, and, relatively speaking, it is a cheap operation, considering the clean waterway result," Mr. Nykvist says. "I am 100 percent convinced a cleanup boat operation would work in Mobile."

Hoping that his concept will spread is part of the reason McNichol does what he does. "Once I made enough money to be comfortable, money no longer became a sole motivator," he says. It's a sense of accomplishment that pushes him.

And the river itself. "Boy, it just doesn't get any better than this," he says on a recent autumn day on the river. "The sun is nice and warm, and I get to spend a nice day with nice people knowing that I'm leaving the river cleaner than I found it. That's the reward."

It takes about $50,000 a year to keep the boat running: He must pay his captains, buy fuel, winterize and store the boat, and keep it maintained. McNichol's fundraising consists of calling around and asking people for donations until he gets what he needs. He's the first to admit it is his least favorite part of the gig.

He puts in as many as 500 hours of work on the boat each year – a quarter of what someone might put in at a "real" job. But McNichol is quick to point out that he gets a lot of help:

"This doesn't happen because of Tom. There are hundreds of volunteers each year – and people who support this effort financially," he says. "All these people want it to happen. Not everyone has the time or the desire to do the footwork. My job is to make it happen."

 

On a recent trip Jane Otte, a historian and literary agent, served as a first-time volunteer on the Clean Up Boat. After seven hours on the river she looked out across the water. She reached over the side of the boat and cupped some water in her hands.

"That river was probably dying," she says. "And what we saw today ... what a tribute. Woohoo!" She pumps her fists into the air.

"He is making a difference. And he should be very proud."

 

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