Tony Golin stands six feet tall. His wingspan is greater than that. He is as fit as you’d expect a national caliber competitive water polo player to be. Watching him move with grace and experience deliberately through moving river water, even near rushing rapids, it’s easy to overlook the difficulty, care, and physical ability required for what he’s doing. It’s even easier to forget that he’s a high school student. Tony is soft-spoken and explains his actions with a thoughtful maturity some people 20 years his elder don’t yet have.
He qualified for the U.S. National Team Selection Camp and had good prospects for making the National Team. The COVID-19 pandemic paused all that along with summer vacation and travel plans, leaving Tony looking for ways to get in additional exercise and enjoy the water. He decided to apply his skills and enthusiasm to a good cause.
Since May of 2020, Tony has been swimming sections of the Huron River, pulling a raft beyond him with a tether, picking up trash and lost items as he goes. Weather permitting, he goes out three or more times a week for several hours each time, often spending more than 20 hours a week scouring nooks, crannies, and the often forgotten bottom of the river. In a few months, he has picked up more than 4000 pieces of trash. He consistently fills five to ten trash bags in a single outing.
At this point, Tony likely knows more about what’s in the Huron River sections he swims than anyone else out there. He certainly knows where to find trash or different types of lost items. He even knows when to look. Just downriver from local party spots after a raucous weekend reliably turn up lots of goods. Mondays by Bikini Point on Base Line Lake provide a particularly target-rich environment. So does the stretch of the river below Dexter after tubers and inexperienced paddlers seemingly flip their boats and tubes without realizing they dumped some belongings to the bottom of the river. But spending all that time diving repeatedly below the surface has also given him an instinctive knowledge of how the river behaves, where to find fish, wildlife, natural debris, and how to avoid any number of hazards.
Everyone wants to know what are some of the most unusual items he’s pulled from the river. He’s found everything you can think of beyond the usual litter: bikes, laptops, old-timey movie projectors, car wheels, and so on. The list is long, fascinating, and when I asked him to describe a single item, he understandably responded with ever-so-slightly exasperated deep breath of an avid movie buff being asked to choose a favorite film from many. “An old cash box,” he decided, and then quickly pointed out there wasn’t any cash in it.
That brings us to another inspiring thing Tony does: he does his best to re-unite people with their lost items, and he’s gotten so good at it that friends turn to Tony to help find any number of things they’ve dropped in the river. Over the Fourth of July weekend, he found someone’s brand new iPhone, still working, still powered on, in a sealed waterproof case. Using his tech savvy and some computer detective work, he was able to return the phone to the owner who was, as you can imagine, delighted to have it back. In other instances, he’s used photos taken on phones and cameras to get clues as to where the rightful owners might live. Often, the cameras are totally shot, but the images on memory cards can be recovered once they dry. When he’s lucky, he can use the geotags in images and Google Maps to get an idea of who to call. He manages a Craigslist page, and keeps any items listed that he thinks are worth trying to get back to people.
Tony is methodical in how he approaches all of this. If you ask him what he’d tell others interested in cleaning up the Huron River, he immediately thinks of all the safety precautions he takes. Most importantly, he always brings a spotter—his mother Katie, or his father, Mike. They float close by in a tube or small boat, making sure he resurfaces after each dive, watching for approaching boats and other river users, and they make sure his raft doesn’t tangled or caught on anything.
“I always bring a knife,” Tony said, “in case I get caught on a tree or pinned behind a rock or stuck on something else, I need to be able to free myself and cut the line from me to the raft.” He looked down at his feet. “And I always wear shoes. There’s a lot of broken glass or sharp pieces of metal down there. A lot of times I need to drag my feet like an anchor, so I need my feet to be well-protected. Everyone going out and doing this should wear shoes.” He paused for a second and a small grin crossed his face, “And they protect you in case a snapping turtle tries to bite you.”
In addition to giving snapping turtles a healthy berth when he swims past them, Tony also shows respect for the river and its wildlife. “Give wildlife plenty of room,” he said. “If you find a cave or a beaver dam that’s a good place for them to live or where they might be living, it’s best to leave it alone, even if you think there might be something in there to pick up.”
He and his family are also aware that the river can be temperamental, that flow conditions can change rapidly and sometimes unexpectedly. They check weather reports repeatedly before they go and are always vigilant about what might be coming from up river. Despite that, they’ve still been caught in a heavy rainstorm that arrived early and lifted the river level by several inches in a few hours. The uncertainty in the conditions makes all the other safety precautions they take even more important, they explain.
As we were wrapping up after what was a very short swim for Tony in Hudson-Mills Metropark, he showed me how much trash he pulled off the bottom. He noted it was small haul for him this time. After all, it was just a few bends of the river in a section he’s done many times before. That said, it was still more than most paddlers find over five times that distance during a normal cleanup.
Perhaps the most inspiring thing was that throughout the day, Tony kept asking me where else could he go? What other stretches of the river need help? Where could they launch from? Where was it safe? How do we include more of his friends or other experienced swimmers? He was looking ahead, thinking of the next step, planning accordingly wanting to help more than he already has.
“That’s the whole point,” Tony’s mother Katie, told me. “The mantra of our family has always been, ‘Leave it better than you found it.’
Help Clean Up the Huron
If you’re inspired by Tony like we are, you can help too! HRWC facilitates cleanup projects throughout the year with partner organizations, we manage a group of Huron River Water Trail Ambassadors, guide Woody Debris management teams, and we offer some tips on how to conduct a do-it-yourself cleanup project. Learn more by visiting our River Cleanups page, or email us.
If you can’t get to the river, or if you’d prefer to stay on dry land, picking up litter in your favorite park or along roadsides keeps trash out of the stormdrains and out of the river. You might consider taking care of your curbside connection to a local waterway by adopting a stormdrain.
Be sure to share your efforts to clean up the Huron River by tagging us on social media with #HuronRiver, #TrashTag, and #HuronRiverDIY.