By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Three years ago, if you traveled down the Merrimack River at low tide, you’d have likely encountered all kinds of junk sticking out of the mud.
From tires to couches to car engines and even rusted old cars, just about anything you’d find in a junk yard could be found along Haverhill’s stretch of the river.
Fast forward to last week, when members of the nonprofit Clean River Project, along with a group of volunteers, had to scour the banks and riverbed at low tide to find what was so easy to find just a few years ago.
Most of what they pulled out was junk that floated down from upstream, such as plastic bottles, toys, pieces of wood and other debris. But, they did find a metal handgun in the mud about 15 feet from the shore behind Riverside Park — at least that’s what the group thought it was, so they called police.
When officers arrived, they checked the handle of the heavy metal pistol to see if it was loaded, and out popped a CO2 cartridge. It was a BB gun, but it created quite a stir among the more than 20 volunteers from Stanley Supply and Services of North Andover, who helped with the cleanup as part of Stanley Black & Decker’s pro-environmental efforts.
“Everyone said they wanted to return and do it again,” said Sue-Ann Dunlop, human resource generalist for Stanley Supply and Services. “It was an unbelievably enlightening day for all of us.”
One of her volunteers did encounter a problem while digging trash out of the riverbank behind Riverside Park. She said he ran into a bees’ nest.
“Even after being bit several times, he is willing to return as a volunteer again,” Dunlop said.
It was the eighth time in the last three years that the Methuen-based and all-volunteer Clean River Project has come to Haverhill to clean the river. This time it was to make the waterway as clean as possible in preparation for Team Haverhill’s downtown River Ruckus Festival, scheduled for Sept. 7.
Rocky Morrison, president of Clean River, brought three pontoon boats, which his group and the volunteers from Stanley loaded with trash they picked out of the mud. In all, they collected about two tons of trash and junk in about three hours. All the junk was delivered to the city’s highway yard on Primrose Street for recycling through a partnership Morrison has with the city.
The Stanley volunteers arrived with boots, water shoes and sneakers, and Morrison handed out work gloves and life jackets.
Morrison said the volunteers pulled mostly small things out of the mud, including three shopping carriages, 10 tires, five rusted bicycles, three fire extinguishers, the top of a coin-operated washing machine, as well as various children’s toys, blankets and many plastic water and soda bottles that were trapped in brush along the shore and had to be retrieved by hand.
“With a large group from Stanley Supply, we were able to cover a lot more area,” Morrison said.
When Stanley employee Jane Turner found the handgun in the mud, Morrison raced to the scene in his pontoon boat.
“I called police thinking it was a real gun, and they sent two officers to retrieve it,” Morrison said. “If someone pointed that at you, it looked so real you’d believe it was a real gun. And it was in good shape so it wasn’t in the mud for very long.”
Morrison said his group did find a real gun a few weeks ago while searching for submerged vehicles in the Methuen/Andover stretch of the river near Interstate 93.
“Our diver found a high powered rifle with scope near the old boat ramp behind where Bea’s (sandwich shop) use to be,” Morrison said. “He didn’t find any cars, but he did find the rifle, which we turned over to Methuen police.”
Past cleanups along Haverhill’s stretch of the river resulted in over 3,000 tires being pulled from the mud. Morrison said most of the tires were found in an area opposite the old paper mill which he dubbed “tire cove.”
“We didn’t have a chance to go to tire cove this time as we concentrated on other areas, but we are coming back in September with Coast Guard volunteers from Newburyport,” Morrison said. “They’re waiting to come out and have been emailing us saying they’re ready to go.”
Clean River Project will have a booth set up at the River Ruckus event and will be recruiting volunteers as well. Rockingham Boat will be offering pontoon boat rides to benefit Clean River Project.
For more information about River Ruckus 2013, visit online at www.teamhaverhill.org.