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Oct. 16, 2021 | Saturday
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Rochelle Byrne: Cleaning up the lake
Rochelle Byrne paddle's into Queen's Royal Park, concluding her 420-kilometre paddle from Kingston. (Supplied Photo/ Chelsea Brash)

Rochelle Byrne paddled her way into Queen’s Royal Park in NOTL late Saturday morning, leaving 420 kilometres of cleaner shores in her wake for the Love Your Lake project, which collected more than 40,000 pieces of litter.

The stand-up paddle board excursion and shoreline cleanup is run by A Greener Future, a not-for-profit founded by Byrne in 2014. It works with local communities to promote environmental preservation and Love Your Lake is a series of 100 litter cleanups along the shores of Lake Ontario.

In previous years Love Your Lake featured public shoreline cleanup events from Niagara-on-the-Lake all the way to Kingston. But due to COVID-19 physical distancing measures, Byrne said her team needed to devise a new way to continue the program without holding public events.

The stand-up paddle board was added to the mix after the pandemic hit. Byrne said with many parks and beaches closed off in the beginning, she realized the only way to reach some shoreline areas for a cleanup was by water. After discovering a love for paddle boarding only a year ago, she made a plan to take the journey.

“We still wanted to be able to engage the public and hopefully raise awareness and get people involved, even if it is just virtually. So, we still did cleanups, but we did them independently. It was with our team and some of our core volunteers that have been out with us before,” Byrne said.

This year the team members worked in the opposite direction. They began in Kingston on July 1 and as Byrne manoeuvred the stand-up paddle board along the lake, her team followed on land, gauged her distance, and did cleanups at each stop. The excursion concluded on Aug. 1 at Queen’s Royal Park.

In total, the team collected 40,670 pieces of litter over the month, with 5,923 pieces collected along shorelines in Niagara.

Byrne, 33, said she knew she could handle the endurance side of paddle boarding more than 400 kilometres in a month, having twice completed the Camino de Santiago, a 790-kilometre pilgrimage in Europe.

The navigation, weather forecasting and her lack of paddle boarding experience proved the most challenging. While she has logged many hours in her first year, that is still a relatively short amount of time to decide to paddle around the lake, she said.

“There was definitely a lot of challenges along the way that I didn’t have experience with because I’ve only been paddle boarding for just over a year,” she said.

“There were a lot of times where there were waves that were really big and winds against me and I didn’t even realize until halfway that the current was actually against me a majority of the way because all the water is flowing towards the St. Lawrence.”

And though some sections of her ride were a bit risky because there was nowhere to get off the water if the weather turned, for the most part she said it was “a lot of fun.”

“For someone who was really inexperienced, it would be really scary to be caught in a situation where you can’t get out of the water, and you don’t have anyone to come help you,” she said.

NOTL was an ideal ending point because of the long-standing partnership between A Greener Future and Paddle Niagara, she said.

“We partner with Paddle Niagara because we usually do a big cleanup here. Last year we had about 60 people come out,” she said.

“Tim at Paddle Niagara has been awesome because he really believes in what A Greener Future is doing and it just seems to mesh really well together that like he loves being on Lake Ontario and showing people how to paddle board and I want to keep the lake clean. It just kind of works together.”

Tim Balasiuk, owner of Paddle Niagara, said the company runs a kids camp and one day of the week-long camp is dedicated to beach cleanup.

“Every week there’s a day that’s dedicated to the environment … every single time we have beach cleanup we talk about Rochelle and all of her efforts with A Greener Future,” Balasiuk said.

As for Byrne’s drive to paddle the 420 kilometres to NOTL, he said he’s “super, super, proud” of her.

“I can’t believe it, 420 kilometres. I’ve been paddling for a long time. I’d like to think that I know a bit about paddling and when you talk about long distance paddling, 420 kilometres is, for me, that’s crazy.”

“So, it just goes to show that anyone can do anything they put their mind to,” he said.

Byrne said she hopes this excursion and future efforts by A Greener Future and Love Your Lake will continue to bring awareness to each person’s impact on the environment.

“One step at a time, becoming aware and making one change at a time. If you try and do too much at once it gets overwhelming and then probably not going to end up being successful.”

She said people can make a difference by just deciding to use a reusable water bottle instead of buying plastic, or, once COVID is over, to bring your reusable coffee mug to the coffee shop instead of getting a paper cup.

“It’s little things like that that really add up over time. And if you’re out on the lake paddle boarding, picking up a piece of litter. It doesn’t take a lot of work and every little piece helps,” Byrne said.

Her team continues to engage with communities to promote environmental preservation. You can follow the organization’s progress and learn about ways to get involved at agreenerfuture.ca.

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