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Carmen Colombo, left, and Rachel Brown spent more than a month this spring picking up litter along the Loop Trail leading from the bluff in Houlton, Wis., down to the Stillwater Lift Bridge. (Contributed photo)

Personal gratification wasn’t the only outcome for Carmen Colombo and Rachel Brown after cleaning up a stretch along the Loop Trail leading down to the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River.

The life-long friends spent more than a month cleaning up litter along the former road from atop the bluff that now makes up a small portion of the 4.7-mile trail connecting the Lift Bridge and the new St. Croix Crossing.

The motivation for taking on this project began with Colombo, who lives at the top of the bluff in Houlton, Wis., while picking up trash on her nightly walk. This section of the pathway was completed, but the loop trail itself remains closed until repairs on the lift bridge are completed.

“I saw some other people picking up trash and started bringing a bucket from my house to the hills and started filling that up,” Colombo said. “I always pick up trash and my friend started meeting me for walks and I was like, let’s do the hill. Rachel was down, so we did it. We’re both OCD, so it was kind of cathartic. It became like a challenge.

“It’s so beautiful with the bluffs and everything, but if there’s trash your eyes go straight to the trash. If there’s a bottle or trash you don’t notice the nature, so we just didn’t want to look at it and decided we should start. Then we got in really deep and we didn’t want to stop in the middle of it.”

They started the clean-up efforts on April 11 and finished on May 14 — taking just four days off during that stretch.

“It was very bad before, it’s great now. It’s beautiful,” Brown said. “We were excited to be done and also that it’s all cleaned up.”

They committed about 60 to 90 minutes per day to the task, which was about as glamorous as one might imagine.

“We both got poison ivy,” Colombo said.

But that wasn’t all.

“The wood ticks like my hair,” Colombo said. “I would be finding them on my neck and face and I did have one bite.”

It wasn’t the only battle waged as Brown recalled one misguided attempt to slip past some brush unscathed.

“It was as tall as I was and I was trying to get past it and it swung back and got me with those big burs,” Brown said. “(Carmen) said it looked like I had a little hat on. I put some olive oil in there. It took 45 minutes to get them out.”

But they were not deterred, filling 10 construction-sized garbage bags with trash along the way.

“They were huge,” said Colombo, who drove a four-wheeler down the hill to pick them up. “It took both of us to pick them up when they were full.

“I’ve been putting them out on the curb. I haven’t seen the Waste Management bill, but I’m sure they’re going to be charging me for it.”

The evenings typically started with a walk that included a few neighbors, before Colombo and Brown changed into sweats for the trash pick-up.

“We would walk the first five-and-a-half or six miles and some of those nights it was hot and humid,” Brown said. “Then we’d put on sweatpants and sweatshirts and gloves. Sometimes it was like I’m already hot and sweaty, I don’t want to put that on, but we did.

“Lots of people would walk by when we were down in the ditch and would be interested in what we were doing or say thank you. It was just a fun thing for us to do together.”

Colombo and Brown have known each other since second grade. Both graduated from Stillwater High School in 1994.

The difference in the landscape was so dramatic they never had difficulty determining where they stopped the previous night.

“There was so much trash, you could see where we left off and where we had already been,” Colombo said.

Bottles, cans and plastic bags were among the most common items picked up, but they also found some used syringes.

“We found a muffler and lots of things that looked like they fell off the back of a car, like a bumper,” Colombo said.

The two remained optimistic throughout. Rather than annoyance at the careless behavior that led the need for a clean-up project, they focused solely on creating a more beautiful setting.

“It wasn’t discouraging,” Colombo said. “It’s kind of cathartic. We were getting exercise and we could see our progress and it was kind of fun. We were under quarantine, so it was a way for us to hang out and have something to do that was positive. It was great. It’s not too discouraging.

“People are saying that they were inspired, but I was inspired by seeing somebody else do this. It’s kind of everybody just paying it forward and we can get it all cleaned up. We know we’re not the only people to ever pick up trash on the side of the road.”

The duo wrapped up the project with a nearly three-hour shift, finishing after sunset.

“I was excited because I knew we were going to finish, even though it was getting dark, if we just kept going,” Brown said. “We didn’t want to leave it for another day.”

And when they finally finished?

“Oh, we were so relieved,” Colombo said. “It was a super steep part of the hill and afterwards it was just relief. The poison ivy was so bad by that point we needed to be done so we can heal.”

The heavy lifting is done, but additional efforts will continue as needed.

“I’ll still carry my bucket down there,” Colombo said. “Things fly out from recycling trucks and it’s not all people intentionally throwing things out. Once you clean it up you really notice anything new and it’s like, I’ve got to get that. We’ll still probably be the litter police.”

“We really started getting together just to walk the hill, that’s how it started,” Brown added. “We just decided to start cleaning it up because we didn’t want to look at (the garbage) and it turned into this month-long thing and we could see our results. We both love nature and like to be outside and to be able to see those results is pretty satisfying.”

Contact Stuart Groskreutz at stuart.groskreutz@ecm-inc.com

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