Gordon Middleton (left) and Christian Shaw enjoying the last meal of their Erie Canal adventure. Photo: Gordon Middleton

Gordon Middleton (left) and Christian Shaw enjoying the last meal of their Erie Canal adventure. Photo: Gordon Middleton

From the Mag: Water Warriors | The Plastic Tides Gang

Paddlers making a difference in the ecosystem

By Eugene Buchanan

Funny, but at birth, we're not given much actual substance. Sure we receive a few treasures, like our parents and their DNA, if we're lucky, and siblings and grandmas and grandpas. But mostly, we're given things. Disposable possessions like baby pajamas and boxes of diapers and pacifiers and cute plastic objects that make cute sounds.

Often overlooked is one of the greatest gifts of all, given to each human the moment they enter the world: Earth. It's rivers and oceans and lakes are something we all share, as is the health of those waterways.

None of us can solve all of Mother Earth's problems in one sitting. But the following seven paddlers are thinking globally, and acting locally, to bring awareness to important water problems in their areas.

The Plastic Tides Gang

It began in 2012 with a chance meeting at a National Geographic Young Explorer Grant workshop at Cornell University. Gordon Middleton, Christian Shaw and Celine Jennison sat at a table together and brainstormed a way to use paddling to raise awareness about plastic pollution. Barely a year later, with their pre-application for the grant accepted, their project came to life.

"What began as a desire to combine a passion for watersports and adventure with research and conservation became Plastic Tides," says Shaw, a Cornell graduate who helped form the non-profit Plastictides.org to raise awareness about plastic in the ocean. "We're combining adventure along with science to address the serious problem of single-use plastics."

Last spring, despite not winning the Young Explorer grant, they spent 10 days on boards circumnavigating Bermuda. En route they filmed, blogged and collected water samples, all to help rid oceans of plastic. Riding that momentum, they formed Plastic Tides to continue the cause. "The problem is that plastic is everywhere and is used everyday," Shaw says. "We're trying to promote lessening its use because most of the time it ends up in the sea. We're using paddleboards to make a valuable contribution to the growing body of research surrounding marine debris."

Most recently, they've set their sights on the cosmetic industry's use of plastic micro-beads in their home state of New York, where a bill banning them has been stalled by the State Senate. To build hype for the campaign, they paddled the Erie Canal. While the original plan called for paddling 240 miles from Ithaca to Albany, collecting samples to be analyzed by Dr. Sam Mason at Fredonia's State University of New York (SUNY), inclement weather and impassable ice cut their trip short by 60 miles, just east of Little Falls. But not before word spread about their trip and they collected the necessary water samples by towing trawls behind their boards.

In December, they visited SUNY's Great Lakes Plastic Pollution Lab to analyze their samples from the first-ever micro-bead survey conducted of the Finger Lakes region. The results were sobering, with micro-beads found in Cayuga Lake, Oneida Lake, the Erie Canal and the Mohawk River. "All this indigestible plastic waste works it way up the food chain and washes ashore on beaches around the world, resembling dinner for many organisms," says Shaw. "We're using standup boards to help expose the problem."

This Water Warrior feature originally ran in the Spring 2015 issue.

Check out another warrior, here.