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Tracking down litter

Portland runner makes mission of de-littering mountain trails


In summer 2014, Portland trail runner Erin Fitzgerald trained for a marathon.

To prepare, she headed to Mt. Hood Skibowl in Government Camp, where she planned to complete hill runs. In addition to finding a workout, she also encountered plenty of trash along the trail, including bottles, cans and other debris that had surfaced from beneath the melting mountain snow.

On her first run, she left it behind, having no way to carry it out. But bothered by what she had seen, Fitzgerald came back the next day, armed with a 13-gallon garbage bag and a new mission: To fight litter, and to encourage others who recreate along Oregon trails to do the same. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER COOK - Portland trail runner Erin Fitzgerald was inspired to take on trail trash after a summer run on Mt. Hood Skibowl that revealed bottles, cans and other debris left behind after the ski season. She chronicles her trash fighting activism on her blog, adventuresinthumbholes.com

“Summer is the time when people get outdoors,” she said. “It’s important to be aware, and to pack out what you bring in. I believe in the power of intention.”

She chronicles her trash-fighting activism on her blog, adventuresinthumbholes.com. The “thumbholes” are a reference to the finger-sized holes frequently cut into the cuffs of sportswear. In addition to Skibowl, where she has returned six times to do hill runs and collect trash, Fitzgerald also gathers litter when she runs on other trails, such as in Northwest Portland’s Forest Park.

She often photographs what she finds and posts the photos to Instagram with the hash tag #makeapactpackitout, and invites others to post their photos, too. Because energy-boosting gel packs — popular among marathon runners — seem to be especially common trail trash, Fitzgerald partnered with energy gel company GU earlier this year to hold a gel giveaway to raise awareness for the litter problem.

A longtime marathoner, Fitzgerald became a trail runner after suffering from Achilles tendonitis, finding that trails were more forgiving than pavement. In addition to collecting trash on her runs, she has also made an effort to do small-scale fundraising in the areas where she races.

Although she has made fighting trash a major focus of her running life, she says all that’s really needed is for everyone to do his or her own small part in keeping Oregon’s trails tidy.

“I think we all play a role in keeping our trails and wildlife beautiful, and we all need to pitch in and do what we can,” she said. “It can be costly to clean up.”

She concedes that it can be disheartening when she returns to an area she has picked up before and sees it filled with litter once again.

Sometimes, she knows it’s accidental; the gel-pack tops, for example, are small and easy to drop. But in other cases, she knows the litter is deliberate. In one blog post, she describes seeing the same gum wrappers along a trail she regularly runs, and how she has come to believe the litter is intentional.

In early May, Fitzgerald was back on Skibowl for a training run, and by the time she reached the top, she was nearly in tears, angered by how much trash she had seen along the way. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: ERIN FITZGERALD - Trash activist and Portland trail runner Erin Fitzgerald often photographs the trash she finds and collects and posts the pictures to Instagram with the hash tag #makeapactpackitout.

“I’m just sad. To be fair, some of it is probably accidental, depending on what it is,” she said. “But for others, they’re not connected to nature in the same way that I am.”