DIRTBAG DIARIES: Message in a Bottle


— The following originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of C&K.

Tracking marine debris has taken me, and my kayak, to some incredible places, from remote parts of Alaska to the roadless Olympic coast. On the most inaccessible beaches all the debris we surveyed had one thing in common: almost all of it was plastic.

When considering that every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence, you realize that the problem of plastic in our oceans is global. The effects ripple everywhere, down to the smallest bioregions.

So this year I paddled locally through one of those bioregions, keeping our own plastic consumption in mind—specifically how Americans purchase 1,500 bottles of water every second. To make the point that we’re literally floating on plastic, I took a few (400) discarded single-use bottles, and built a kayak.

I glued the 2-liter stockpile around a wooden frame to make a 16-foot-long, 29-inch-wide hull. It didn’t glide too fast, but handled wind waves well enough. And the floatation? Excellent. Time to paddle it 150 miles up the length of Puget Sound.


I began in Olympia and spent the next month working north. Paddling mainly on the weekends, I met more people during the busier times, took part in cleanup efforts along the route, and hosted a few presentations on marine debris. I was surprised how many people were aware of the effects of single-use plastics, debris-choked oceanic gyres, the myths of recycling.

Paddling conditions were typical of spring in the Northwest: rain, wind, sun, calm, and everything in between. I paddled mostly from a seated position, kayak-style, but often switched to my knees or paddled standing up.

It’s the mornings, launching before sunrise to catch the turn of the tide, that I’ll remember most. The surface, flat as a mirror, would turn slowly from inky black to deep Cascadian blue as the sun slowly painted the heavens, bringing on another perfect blue-sky day.

The water samples I collected at regular intervals will be used in an ongoing worldwide microplastics study. I put old 1-liter bottles back to use: capping, labeling, and securing them to the bow with bungee cord. Later, I shipped them to the lab in Maine overseeing the project. The data I collected on my beach surveys is now part of NOAA’s national database.

A few periods of wind and high water broke the otherwise stellar weather as I continued past Seattle and into the San Juan Islands. As the end of this improbable voyage approached, I reflected on things that I now see differently.

It seems that the way we view single-use plastic makes a statement about the kind of people we want to become. While we are busy looking for ways to save the planet, it may turn out that we end up saving our souls.

— See the short film from Campbell’s trip at CanoeKayak.com.

–Read more from Ken Campbell in his Eco Paddler column.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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