Underwater search for phone reveals garbage

Bend man discovers Deschutes River filled with trash

By Sheila G. Miller / The Bulletin

Published Aug 19, 2014 at 12:01AM

If you go

What: Annual Deschutes River Clean-up

Where: Riverbend Park

When: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday

It started out as a lesson for his teenage daughter, Rhyan.

On Friday, 34-year-old Russell Huntamer donned scuba gear to search for the 14-year-old’s iPhone, which had fallen into the Deschutes River when she and her friends tipped their inflatable mattress while floating.

But when he got underwater near Columbia Park, he discovered something that should be a lesson to all Central Oregonians: a whole lot of garbage.

“I was very surprised by how much stuff was down there, how much people have been throwing things off of the bridge,” he said. “In any given stretch of 100 feet of river, there’s at least 50 to 100 bottles and cans, let alone everything else from bikes to Mardi Gras beads.”

Huntamer found out what the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council wants everyone to know. The council will host its annual Deschutes River Clean-Up at 10 a.m. Saturday, with volunteers removing invasive weeds and litter. The council has put on the cleanup for about 15 years, according to Education Director Kolleen Yake.

Yake said when the group started the event, there were 12 sites along the river where volunteers cleaned out debris. In the early years, each of those sites had an equal amount of litter. That has changed in the past decade, particularly since Riverbend and Farewell Bend parks opened and floating the river became so popular.

“We’ve had to focus in that area that people float through the Old Mill District, because unfortunately the quantity of beer bottles and (restaurant) chairs and bikes has increased a hundredfold,” Yake said.

Yake said the cleanup always yields a variety of odd garbage: There are the ubiquitous flip-flops and beer cans, but in years past volunteers have found jewelry, chairs, even a safe.

This year, with a variety of volunteer divers and groups that will pick up garbage on land, Yake hopes floaters will get the message: “We hope that a lot of people are on the river because we want to raise awareness about the problem so it doesn’t continue to get bigger.”

Huntamer initially hoped just to find Rhyan’s iPhone, clad in the Lifeproof case that was designed to protect against water and other damage.

“We were thinking we might be able to get to it in time before it was ruined, before the case leaked,” he said.

First, father and daughter tried snorkeling, but the current was too intense. So instead, Huntamer made a deal with Rhyan: She could either pay for a new iPhone or she could pay for half of the scuba gear rental. She chose the latter, and Huntamer rented the gear and the tank and headed underwater on Friday.

“I didn’t find it on the first day when I dove, but I saw an unreal amount of trash,” he said. “I just really thought I should go back down there and get all this stuff.”

Huntamer called Central Oregon Diving, where he’d rented the gear, and the store agreed to donate another day of the equipment, plus two tanks of oxygen. At 9 a.m. Saturday, he was back in the water.

While some of the detritus at the bottom of the river seemed to be accidentally dropped, other stuff, like PVC pipe, road signs, 50-gallon drums and a piece of rolled-up cyclone fencing, did not. Huntamer, with help from his family, was in the water until 2 p.m. Saturday.

“What started off as a way to teach my daughter responsibility turned into something more,” he said. “It turned into a take-care-of-the-Earth expedition. (A dirty river) is something that just didn’t really fit my image of Bend.”

And Huntamer might just get the happy ending he’d hoped for. On Saturday, he found Rhyan’s cellphone.

“We don’t know (if it will work) yet,” he said. “It’s in a bag of rice. There was a little bit of moisture inside the case.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7831, smiller@bendbulletin.com