Everything about the scene suggests serenity – early-morning sun glittering off a calm West Bay, a handful of anchored boats bobbing peacefully on the water – except for the roar of the machinery cranking through the sand of Traverse City’s West End Beach.
It’s loud and dusty, this beach-cleaning contraption driven by John Fall, but it’s doing work that’s important, particularly to those of us who lose track of belongings during visits to Traverse City’s seven public beaches.
“It’s amazing what people just drop, what they leave,” says Fall, a 12-year veteran of the city’s parks and recreation department and one of four charged with maintaining Traverse City’s beaches.
West End Beach, which sits behind the volleyball courts, is what Fall calls “the worst beach by far” when it comes to items left behind. Most commonly: flip-flops, clothing, coolers, returnables and trash. But, thanks to Fall’s beach-cleaning machine, which digs down five inches and picks up anything the size of a nickel and larger, he’s found a number of treasures here and at TC’s other beaches too.
“The most interesting finds that I’m proud of are the class rings,” he says. “I’ve returned four class rings to people. That was cool.”
Keys, cell phones, change and pocket knives are also frequently found, though Fall notes that the beach-cleaner “isn’t very kind to cell phones and jewelry.”
As he dumps today’s West End debris into his truck bed, a pair of black sandals lies atop leaves, branches, bottle tops and what looks like millions of cigarette butts. “I’ve probably scooped 50 pairs of flip-flops this summer,” he says.
City rules state that visitors can leave nothing overnight at beaches. Bigger items – beach umbrellas, grills, beach bags – as well as anything appearing to have value are picked up and taken back to city offices. The city does its best to find the owners, Fall says, but much remains with the city.
“A lot of keys and phones go unclaimed,” he says. “I have found some kids’ I.D.s that parents haven’t been happy with: ‘You found it where?’”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the beach-cleaner’s biggest day is always the morning after the Fourth of July.
“Two beaches filled five [cubic] yards,” he says. “And if I had a dollar for every empty six-pack, we’d be talking by phone because I’d be retired.”
Normally, Fall and his fellow city workers tend to beaches at least every other week, but festival weeks and hotter weather spur more frequent efforts. During the National Cherry Festival they’re combing the sands of each TC beach three to four times weekly, he says.
As this summer winds to a close, Fall and crews’ beach cleaning duties will slow to a stop. But until they do, he has one request: keep an eye out for city beaches’ worst offenders – folks with babies.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people flippin’ bury their diapers in the sand,” he says.