It became a habit early on when Cowper Chadbourn and his wife, Debbie Doss, first canoed and floated the state’s rivers more than three decades ago.
They’d see trash left at some of the access points, which led the pair to make a conscious effort to clean up and leave them looking better than when they arrived.
“We used to be able to camp on private property,” said Chadbourn (whose first name is pronounced Cooper). “But then every time we discussed access, the landowners said they closed the area off due to littering. They knew boaters had been there before.”
The habit grew, and the couple, married now for 40 years, has converted that practice into massive cleanups that have seen the removal of tons of tires, appliances, hot water heaters, boats, cars, hot tubs, portable toilets and other debris — even two dumpsters — from the Buffalo National River, the Mulberry River, Lee Creek and other state waterways including Bayou DeView, part of the White and Cache river basins in east Arkansas.
Matthew Irvin, stream team coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said of Chadbourn and Doss, “By far, they are the most amazing people on the river that I know of. They are our biggest river advocates.”
Since 2016, Chadbourn and Doss and their volunteers have removed 138 tons of tires from rivers. The biggest haul was in 2017, when they hauled off 66,685 pounds of tires.
The two have differing personalities when doing their work. Chadbourn, 66, is quick to point out the absurdities of life. He laughs at some of the situations he finds on the rivers. He outfits his canoe with saws, ropes, pulleys and long bamboo poles to reach debris left in trees by flooding. He’s created a plywood raft on which to load junk and uses it with his team.
Doss, 68, is a tad quieter, pausing to reflect before speaking. A retired biologist, teacher and conservation chairman for Game and Fish, she’s dealt with water issues for more than three decades. Some of her projects may take a few years before completion; she helped stop the creation of a large pig farm along the Buffalo River about five years ago.
She was also instrumental in stopping a plan to dam Lee Creek near Fort Smith. It was a three-year battle, but worth it, she said.
“We pitched in hard. It was a very pristine stream with rare species,” she said.
What began as a hobby has become their “obsessions,” Chadbourn said.
“I have instant gratification when we clean,” Chadbourn said. “We go in, see [the trash] and clean it up. Debbie’s work takes more time and is more important in the long run.”
Chadbourn’s work certainly is visible. There’s the time he and others found a 1,000-pound steel dumpster submerged in the Buffalo near Tyler Bend. His engineering degree, which he calls “farm-boy level engineering” on the rivers, came in handy. He figured out the weight of the container, how much he had to raise it to clear the river’s bottom and how to use a bilge pump in the wild to remove water that flowed in through the dumpster’s cracks.
Several volunteers got into the dumpster with Chadbourn and actually paddled it downstream to a boat launch where it could be loaded and hauled off.
The two aren’t originally from Arkansas. Doss was born in New Mexico before moving to the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. She attended the University Arkansas in Fayetteville, studying psychology and biology. Doss earned a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
She became a school psychologist in Arkansas, working in all grades from preschool to high school.
Chadbourn was born in Georgia, moved to Ruston, La., and then to Monticello when he was 13. He was also interested in psychology, and he and Doss met in class at the UA. Both enjoyed the outdoors, and their first date involved a scuba diving lesson on Beaver Lake.
The two married in 1982 and lived in Little Rock. Chadbourn worked with Entergy and Doss taught. When Doss transferred to Conway, and Chadbourn began working at Arkansas Nuclear One in Russellville, the two moved to Conway where they’ve been since.
The central location, Chadbourn said, allows them quicker access to rivers across the state.
“They’re out every day,” Irvin said. The only time they aren’t is if it’s raining too hard and the currents may be dangerous. Cowper loved fishing, but now he’s always doing cleanup. He’s fishing, just not for fish.”
Despite the dangers involved, Chadbourn also sees a humorous side to the cleanup. Once, he and his team struggled removing a dumpster buried in the river. The river was running too deep, and they couldn’t free it.
A couple of kayakers passed by, watching their efforts.
Chadbourn said the team decided to return a few months later when the river was a bit shallower. As they worked, the same group of kayakers paddled by again.
“Are you still there?” one of the kayakers asked, thinking Chadbourn’s team had been working on the dumpster each day for months.
“Yes,” Chadbourn replied, “and we’re not giving up until we get it out!”
The cleanups are visual and draw attention from river-goers. Tyler Bend Outfitters, a company that charters trips on the Buffalo, has done its own river cleanups in March for the past 31 years.
Others, motivated by Chadbourn and Doss, also clean river sites locally. But there’s more to it than just removing trash.
“They remove litter for the aesthetics of the river, and it makes the environment so much more beautiful,” Irvin said. “But it’s also helping the habitat for fishing and wildlife.”
He said he’s seen fish and turtles snagged on fishing lines and debris left in rivers. The cleanups also are helping with the economics of the rivers. Tourists who see trash along riverways won’t be as apt to return, said Brad Wimberly, owner of Tyler Bend Outfitters.
“If people come and see trash in the river and the valley, they’ll think the area is dirty and may not come back,” Wimberly said. “If they see it is pretty clean and there’s no trash in abundance, they may want to come back.”
Doss has added another boost to the state’s tourism dollar. She’s created the Arkansas Waterways Partnership which promotes canoeing, kayaking and boating on the state’s rivers.
“Trails are hard to build,” Doss said. “But waterways are already there. You just have to put up signs to show the way.”
Chadbourn said not everyone litters, but there’s enough who do to make a river unsightly. For years, some have habitually tossed tires, metal debris and other trash into river or on private landfills near rivers. Flooding pushes the refuse downstream and onto riverbanks.
“There are 3 million people in the state,” Chadbourn said. “If only 1 percent litters, that’s still 30,000 people throwing stuff away.”
Chadbourn has created working relationships with parks, municipalities and county governments that allow them to bring river trash to certain points for pickup. Landfills may also waive fees, although Chadbourn will still use his own vehicles, furnish his own gasoline and pay dumping fees, if needed.
Chadbourn and Doss now use an app created by Chris Elkins to locate trash. Called “Geotrashing,” the app, available for Android phones, imprints GPS coordinates on photographs people take of trash sites. The couple can pinpoint the spot using the coordinates that are sent to them by users of the app, find it and then clean it.
The two plan to continue cleaning rivers and boating them. They go out as often as they can. Doss likes Bayou DeView for canoeing the best. Chadbourn is partial to the Buffalo and its tributaries.
But he offers his take: “My favorite river is the one I’m on today,” he said. “They all have something different to offer. We’re just dancing with the water.”