There’s a reason Mark Sleeper spends a Saturday each fall motoring a tractor to and from Lake Wylie.
It stems from the first Riversweep nearly a decade ago, and a problem that’s rolled over into every Riversweep since. A problem that’s also showing signs of progress.
“We had more tires than we knew what to do with,” Sleeper said of the first Riversweep. “People would come to us and say, we’ve got 50 more in this cove.”
Adding tractors to haul large debris is just one lesson learned heading into the 10th annual lake cleanup event. Sleeper, former chairman of the Lake Wylie Marine Commission and Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation board, holding the latter position during the first Riversweep, will again take to the tractor wheel Oct. 1. Joining him at Buster Boyd Access Area will be other founding partners with the event, like C.D. Collins.
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Collins read a newspaper article on the Lake Wylie Covekeepers, an organization of the Riverkeeper Foundation, prior to the first cleanup event. He introduced himself to then-Lakekeeper Valerie Munei, who didn’t have anyone to oversee Covekeeper efforts in Gaston County where he still lives.
“I volunteered to look after Gaston County,” he said.
Susan Bromfield at the Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce also began contacting chamber members with an idea spurred by “a piece of mail in my office” on cleanup efforts through South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Conversation then turned to getting more of the community involved with Lake Wylie, and something Sleeper calls a “natural fit” emerged.
“Everybody sees trash,” Sleeper said. “Everybody knew it was a problem. It was a good cause that everybody wanted to rally around.”
The first Riversweep arrived on Sept. 21, 2002. Only months earlier, the longtime publication Lake Wylie Magazine had re-launched as Lake Wylie Pilot. The Pilot’s centerpiece on that first Riversweep led with “a complete car door, a pillow full of copperhead snakes and a bucket full of human waste.”
Items drawn from Lake Wylie during Riversweep haven’t always been so dramatic, but they have been steady. That first year found an estimated 840 bags of trash, 181 tires, 92 foam floats and a shopping cart, among other items. In recent years, tens of tons of trash came out of the lake. The other constant, volunteers say, is community support. On a shoestring budget and without any history to lean on, the first Riversweep brought out about somewhere between 320 and 500 volunteers, 91 sponsors and almost $12,000 in donations.
Then-Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby counted that support among the biggest highlights of the first Riversweep.
“This reaffirms by faith in the goodness of the American people,” she told the Pilot then.
Exact numbers on the initial Riversweep, both volunteers and the amount of trash collected, vary from person to person. Back then, more people often helped than signed a participation form, and some trash came in after the Saturday morning event. Originally people didn’t think much about numbers, Bromfield said. They just wanted the lake clean.
“It just seemed like, since nobody was doing it, it needed to be done,” Bromfield said.
Riversweep has a much wider footprint and many more volunteers now, nearing 1,000 last year alone. It’s also easier, founders say, finding help with the community “trained” to expect the event each fall. While she began by calling people she knew to help in a cleanup event, Brofield now takes calls from all sorts of groups asking how they can help.
The lasting impact of that first Riversweep, for Sleeper, is the difference not only in the trash gathered now, but in the way people treat the lake. There aren’t as many tires to haul anymore. Now they see it as a drinking water and recreation source rather than a trash can, he said.
“The whole attitude about the lake has changed,” Sleeper said.
Want to help?
Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and its Lake Wylie Covekeepers and the Lake Wylie Marine Commission will host the 10th annual Lake Wylie Riversweep beginning at 9 a.m. Oct. 1. Registration is under way online at lakewylieriversweep.com. Volunteers who sign up early receive a T-shirt, lunch after the cleanup and entry into a prize drawing. Following the cleanup, volunteers enjoy lunch and an after party at T-Bones On The Lake from 1 to 4 p.m.