Cottagers soaked up the July sun on their docks while boaters floated along. Music was playing, and everyone was enjoying the lake, Rochelle Byrne remembers. It was like any other Canadian long weekend; except she was alone on a stand-up paddleboard with a 400-kilometre journey, and a ton of plastic pollution, ahead of her.
Rochelle Byrne is the founder and executive director of A Greener Future, a non-profit that raises awareness about plastic pollution in Lake Ontario and coordinates community shoreline cleanups with volunteers.
Last summer, the environmentalist, activist, and educator paddled across Lake Ontario, cleaning up litter and recording data and footage for what would later become a documentary revealing an unexpected plastic pollution problem.
Supported by an on-shore crew of five, including her husband, Mike, she spent 18 days on her GPS-equipped board, starting in Kingston, Ont., where the St. Lawrence River becomes Lake Ontario, finishing her trek 430 kilometres later.
People paddled, surfed, and boated alongside Byrne during her journey, making the intense, 11-hour expedition days much more enjoyable.
Paddling helped Byrne reach communities that her programs weren’t reaching before. People, who aren’t necessarily environmentalists, but lake enthusiasts. “I was able to connect with a whole bunch of people,” Byrne says. No matter who, surfer, paddleboarder, boater or fisher, “We all want to see the lake clean and healthy.”
Other lake enthusiasts, Byrne enjoyed the company of were mergansers, buffleheads, and mallard ducks as wells as furrier friends like beavers and red foxes. “I saw different wildlife every single day,” she remembers.
One day, a larger-than-life loon swam right under her paddleboard. Another day, near Toronto, Byrne watched nearly 50,000 cormorants fly over her. “It took half an hour for them all to pass,” she says. “I had never seen that many birds in my life.”
Unfortunately, Byrne counted more fish dead than alive and saw a number of dead birds, too, making her realize just how much help Lake Ontario needs due to its plastic pollution. “And the biggest problem is that is that not a lot of people know.”