Celebrating 25 Years of the Thames River Clean Up


he Thames River Clean Up is an annual community initiative encouraging volunteers to participate in watershed stewardship by “adopting” small sections of the river to clean. The clean up event takes place each spring on the Saturday most proximate to Earth Day and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I spoke with Todd Sleeper who had led the Thames River Clean Up since 1999 about the initiative.

The Thames River, known also as Antler River or Deshkan Ziibi (Anishinaabemowin), flows southwest for 273 kilometers through the cities of Woodstock, London and Chatham – a complex and fragile ecoregion that is densely populated. Owing to its urban nature the Thames is a river that has very much seen the effects of human impact. As an avid canoeist and angler Todd was taking notice of the increasingly bad condition of the river where he lived: garbage, debris caught up in trees along the banks, degrading water quality, and advisories not to swim in the river or eat the fish. He knew that something needed to be done.

Todd Sleeper hauls garbage from the river in the early days of Thames River Clean Up

He began by reaching out to the groups he saw as stakeholders in the river: anglers, paddlers, birders, scouts groups, and local conservation authorities. 125 volunteers came out to the first clean up event in 2000, cleaning a total of 25 kilometers of the watershed. A lot of heavy lifting was required in those first years: volunteer crews regularly found vehicles, tires, appliances, oil drums, paint cans, and shingles – items that were not allowed in municipal landfills and had been dumped down the river banks. These days he says that the primary issue addressed by the clean up is single use plastics: plastic bags, bottles, coffee cups, straws, etc. “It’s really important that we remove these plastics (from the river). When they breakdown into microplastics and animals are ingesting them, they get into the food chain and into our bodies.”

The Adopt a River program embodies the ethos that many hands make light work; Todd figured that if everyone pitched in a little they could get a lot done. He was right: one particularly successful clean up event cleaned over 200km of the watershed.  Over the years he’s seen first hand how getting folks involved in the clean up through the Adopt a River program invests them in their local watershed’s health throughout the year. It turns out that picking up hundreds of bits of plastic from the river banks will make you think twice about littering, and the way you consume single use plastics in daily life going forward.

Results of volunteer efforts at Meadowlily ESA in London, 2018

Nova Craft got involved in the Thames River Clean Up in its third year back in the early aughts, as a means of boosting volunteer interest and participation. Every volunteer who participates in the clean up receives a ballot and is eligible to win a donated canoe. Nova Craft has sponsored the clean up by donating a canoe to the cause every year since as a gesture of appreciation to the volunteers involved. The annual raffle is drawn a few weeks following the clean up. On May 11th we awarded the prize canoe to 2024 raffle winner Hannah Groenewegen, who cleaned a section of the river in Gibbons Park downtown London with a group of colleagues. Congratulations and thank you Hannah!

Hannah, winner of the 2024 volunteer raffle, and her prize canoe

We’ve loved being a part of an initiative that brings communities together to join in on stewardship efforts in their own backyard. After all the health of the watershed is something we should all be invested in. Though it has grown massively over its 25 years, the clean up is still in need of volunteers – especially site coordinators – to adopt sections of the watershed. Site coordinators are responsible for forming volunteer teams, distributing donated clean up supplies, and maintaining a safe volunteer environment for their adopted area. For more information about the Thames River Clean Up and how to get involved as a volunteer or site coordinator, visit their website here. Not local to the Thames River watershed? Why not start your own Adopt a River program where you live? Or start smaller, by cleaning up your local river put-in or access point the next time you go canoeing. If the Adopt a River program has taught us anything its that small individual efforts add up to big changes.