You may have seen him on the river, long hair graying, beat-up canoe piled high with discarded tires and trash.
Perhaps you wondered what he was up to and then just proceeded on your way. Or maybe you jumped to some conclusion regarding the man’s mental status.
Fact is, every river needs someone like Scott Richards.
Nearly every week for the past 14 years, Richards has patrolled a seven-mile stretch of the French Broad, hauling off the junk other people leave behind.
“It’s an obsession of his,” Richards’ wife, Jessica, explains. “It’s amazing how much trash he can still find out there, because each storm event will bring more debris. The shifting sands of the riverbed will expose a tire that’s been there forever, and he’ll find it.”
That kind of cargo needs to be carefully balanced. “He’s had to re-stack the load if he hits a rock and loses it,” says Jessica, adding, “It doesn’t happen often.”
The couple moved to West Asheville back in 1995, and Richards bought a canoe he found in the IWanna for $10. “He named her ‘Old Ugly,’” she recalls with a chuckle. But after a number of years, the boat was wearing pretty thin and leaking badly. “The last few times Scott went down the river in Old Ugly, he was doing a lot of baling.”
By then, however, he’d met Dave Donnell, who owns the Asheville Outdoor Center on Amboy Road. “We met at the Hominy Creek river access — he needed a ride back to his car,” Donnell remembers, “and his boat was full of tires and trash, and I’m like, ‘Who are you?’”
Donnell had discovered a diamond in the rough. “Scotty’s the kind of guy who goes out on the river every weekend from April to November. We store the trash he collects at AOC, and then work with Asheville GreenWorks or RiverLink [to recycle things], or the 800-GOT-JUNK guy volunteers to take the stuff. Ninety percent of it gets recycled, and the rest goes to the landfill.”
Nobody’s paying Richards, “nor would he accept it,” Donnell maintains. “He even got struck by lightning out there one time. He wasn’t hurt; he thought it was pretty cool.”
“It’s so ironic,” Donnell continues, “for years he’d go out on the river — you know, he’s got long hair; he looks like a hippie — and people would steer away from him. Now people know him and what he does. Even the Biltmore tour guides, when they travel along that river road, they stop and say to their guests, ‘There he is — that’s Scotty.’”
“Care for the earth is what’s motivating him,” Jessica chips in. “And he’s not afraid of thunderstorms!”
Richards runs a lawn-maintenance business during the week, and Donnell sometimes gives his friend’s cleanup campaign a boost.
“Asheville Outdoor Center is closed on Mondays,” Donnell explains, “and we’d get a bunch of guys out on the river in six or eight canoes, and we’d get 10 to 15 tires per boat in one day. It was a blast.” Back then, Donnell figures they were bagging some 500 tires per year. “When I first opened the business, people coming off the river would say, ‘It was a beautiful trip, but we saw a lot of tires.’ That was in the late ’90s.
“Now we’re having a hard time finding tires. It became our goal: We wanted to get to this place where, for those seven miles from Bent Creek to AOC, there’s not a single piece of human evidence in the river. And that’s about where it’s at right now.”
Serendipity and fate seem to be at play in Richards’ case: Somewhere along the line, Donnell figured Richards needed a better boat and bought him one. Its former owner had adopted a 40-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail and spent 30 years cleaning it up.
“The guy’s name was Ed,” Donnell reports. “So Scott named the boat Eddy.”
Eddies are calm spots behind an obstruction in the moving water, Donnell notes. “It fit with how Scott approaches the river. He’s never in a hurry; it might be six to eight hours later, and he comes in with a boat full of trash. It’s like the whole thing was meant to be.”
Richards isn’t seeking recognition either, says his friend. “If he did, he would have quit long ago. He wants to do it so that people who work and play here can experience this incredible trip without seeing junk. Everyone benefits.
“It’s truly from the heart,” Donnell concludes, musing, “If we had 10 Scotties out here…”
— Direct your environmental news to Susan Andrew: 251-1333, ext. 153, or email@example.com.