OWASCO — When a cannon fired Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people at Emerson Park in Auburn knew The Great Race was over. The triathlon came to an end, but the day was far from over.
Live music continued to play, food trucks kept feeding customers and boaters took to Owasco Lake to soak up some rays. And empty cans and bottles would eventually end up in the water.
Taking on the responsibility of making sure Owasco Lake stays can- and bottle-free, a small paddle board rental business does its best to collect all the trash leftover from the day. For four years, Owasco Paddles has collected empty cans from the lake. Once the cans are redeemed for cash, the proceeds are donated.
Starting last year, Owasco Paddles decided to donate to The Home Stretch Dog Haven, a nonprofit dog and cat rescue out of Moravia. According to The Home Stretch's owner, Gretchen Fickeisen, thousand of cans and bottles were collected, pulling in hundreds of dollars used to neuter, feed and house rescue animals. She said the funding helps address an "out of control" cat population problem in Cayuga County.
Niki Warne, known as "The Captain," has helped manage Owasco Paddles for about four years. She said the can cleanup started as an effort to keep the lake clean, but later she felt that the money could be used differently. After Warne discovered The Home Stretch's Facebook page, the two organizations partnered up.
While Fickeisen leads a team on land to sort through trash receptacles throughout Emerson Park, Owasco Paddles patrols the lake by going boat to boat looking for empty cans.
"We each take a kayak and fill them up with as many trash bags (of cans) as possible and take as many trips as we can before it gets dark," said Colin Smith, who's been doing the clean-up for a few years now. "It gets crazy."
Some boaters are reluctant to give away their empty cans because of the money they could potentially make back by redeeming them. "At the same time though, they'll be throwing the cans overboard half the time. You might as well clean things up and give the money to something good," Smith said.
Warne said her mother, Lori Dillon, was the one who pushed to start the clean-up. It was in 2014 when Dillon and her friend Audrey Iwanicki assumed ownership of Owasco Paddles after one of the original owners unexpectedly passed away.
Iwanicki said that in the first season of new ownership, Owasco Paddles didn't pick up trash left from Great Race boaters.
"I remember we had a customer come from England that year. They went out on the lake and when they came back, they said 'this is such a gorgeous lake, why are there so many bottles and cans on the bottom?' So, we were like 'alright, we need to do something about this.'"
Two years ago, Dillon passed away. The business remained, though, with Iwanicki, Warne and a handful of employees continuing what was started.
"After all that happened, they kept this business going and thought of the community to keep this lake clean ... and that's just amazing to me," Fickeisen said.
After the sound of a cannon declared this year's Great Race over, Smith, who would become known as "The Can Guy" to boaters, hopped in a kayak and began making his rounds. After his first trip out, he had collected five full trash bags of empty cans and bottles. "That was one trip of many," he chuckled.
"Everyone's got to take responsibility for this lake," Iwanicki said. "We do what we can."