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Chris Brokate stomps down on a trailer full of garbage and debris that he and volunteers collected from an encampment along the Russian River in Cloverdale, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Brokate is retiring from his duties and will be moving to Ecuador to live with his brother. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Russian River guardian Chris Brokate marks end of watch in Sonoma County

It’s hard to fathom what 1.5 million pounds of trash might look like — and more troubling still to see that much litter wash downstream in the Russian River to the Pacific Ocean.

Standing in the way to make sure that doesn’t happen has been Chris Brokate, who in 2015 decided one day he no longer could watch as the watershed was transformed into a dumping ground, with litter and debris swept out to sea amid winter rains.

Since that pivotal day, Brokate, founder of the Clean River Alliance, has spearheaded the removal of about 750 tons of garbage and abandoned wreckage from the Russian River watershed through trash collection events and special projects.

It’s a worthy legacy to consider — one acknowledged by numerous awards and accolades — as Brokate, 56, outgoing Clean Team program director for the Russian Riverkeeper, prepares to leave Sonoma County and build a new semiretired life in Ecuador.

Chris Brokate, middle, and from left clockwise, Angela Rodriguez, Ivan Jasko, Carol Shumate and Casey Carr clean up debris from an encampment on the Russian River in Cloverdale, Wednesday, June 9, 2021.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Chris Brokate, middle, and from left clockwise, Angela Rodriguez, Ivan Jasko, Carol Shumate and Casey Carr clean up debris from an encampment on the Russian River in Cloverdale, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

He’s approaching the move on Tuesday with a mix of excitement and sadness, confronting “emotions I’ve never experienced in my life.”

There also is a sense of unfinished business — local policies he still wants to change, public habits he would still like to break, time lost to the pandemic he still would like to make up. Social distancing protocols kept all kinds of road crews, public and nonprofit, from doing their usual work for several months last year, and there is more trash in the environment, as a result, Brokate said.

“The only thing that’s really saving us from seeing massive amounts of trash from coming down the river is this drought,” he said.

His departure, too, has elicited a wave of sadness and acknowledgment that his shoes will be hard to fill.

“Honestly it’s really hard to imagine the Russian River without Chris Brokate,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose lower river district has perhaps most benefited from Brokate’s efforts.

She recalled meeting him at a cleanup event while running for office in 2016 and being “blown away by what a hard working, good, kind and brilliant human being he was.”

“You know, the idea seemed so simple: Why do we have so much trash in the Russian River? Why can’t we just stop that? He just one of those rare human beings who has a gift and uses it for good,” she said.

Casey Carr, left, and Chris Brokate descend a pathway of steep stairs as they clean up debris from an encampment on the Russian River in Cloverdale, Wednesday, June 9, 2021.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Casey Carr, left, and Chris Brokate descend a pathway of steep stairs as they clean up debris from an encampment on the Russian River in Cloverdale, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Exit of ‘Mr. Can-Do’

For his part, Brokate says he’s proud of the work he’s done on behalf of the watershed, though he chalks any successes up to “right time/right place” and support from his core team, key partners and the Russian Riverkeeper, the environmental group that seeks to protect and restore the river ecosystem.

Don McEnhill, executive director of the nonprofit organization, said Brokate’s roles and responsibilities are so wide in scope they may have to be divided among several people.

“It’s going to be impossible to replace him,” McEnhill said. “I don’t think anyone but Chris could have brought things to where they are today. He has such a unique blend of just this boundless enthusiasm. He is Mr. Can-Do — he just figures it out and makes it happen. Then there’s just this infectious spirit he imparts on people who work with him on picking up trash.”

Every once in awhile, Chris Brokate will find things in an abandoned encampment along the Russian River that he will keep around just as a conversation piece, like this Chucky doll. Photo taken Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Every once in awhile, Chris Brokate will find things in an abandoned encampment along the Russian River that he will keep around just as a conversation piece, like this Chucky doll. Photo taken Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Brokate, who grew up in Southern California and was once a volunteer firefighter, has lent his time to environmental and wildlife causes throughout his life.

He moved to the lower Russian River in 2009 and quickly found his place as a volunteer with the Russian Riverkeeper, helping to transform a snarl of weeds, blackberry bushes and trash-filled campsites in Guerneville into Riverkeeper Park, as well as contributing labor to seasonal cleanup events.

During the winter of 2014-15, while living in his mobile home at River Bend Resort in Forestville, he noticed trash passing by in the river after a rain.

Brokate decided to go down to the mouth of the river at Jenner to check out the situation and was stunned to find the beach littered with garbage even though he had recently participated in a big trash collection event there.

Chris Brokate, above, advertises a cleanup he organized. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Chris Brokate, above, advertises a cleanup he organized. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

A local man was down by the surf with a bucket and a picker doing what he could, and the two decided to meet up the next Saturday. Brokate would bring some friends, “and that was our first cleanup,” he said.

During the ensuing months, Brokate developed a group of regulars soon known as the Garbage Patch Kids who pitched in on regular days to walk the river or canoe designated areas to clean up trash. A lot of what they pulled out of the river was deliberately dumped: car batteries, tires, furniture, televisions and other household goods, as well as small pieces of litter and trash.

Close work with homeless camps

But it was evident that homeless encampments along the water’s edges were a major source of debris, as well. Though initially disgusted by the sprawling expanses of garbage so often surrounding camps, Brokate soon came to understand that the lack of trash receptacles or disposal was part of the problem.

Soon he and his team were providing 55-gallon trash bags to people they met and picking them up weekly for transport to the dump.

What came to be known as the “Clean Camp” program empowered camp residents to do right by the environment and make their own surroundings more pleasant, but also held them accountable for their own actions. It was a unique approach that provided a model that has been extended up the river toward Cloverdale and into Ukiah, as well.

Brokate also has been invited to share his approach to others around the state, though it known beyond California, as well, he and McEnhill said.

The Clean River Alliance, which Brokate founded in 2016, formalized his litter removal efforts in a nonprofit. The group also worked with homeless individuals in Guerneville on weekly street cleaning efforts. Alliance members additionally provided weekly meals for the winter shelter at the local Veterans Memorial Building and met up with clients at the shelter on Thursday “Clean Days” to collect trash and hand over new garbage bags.

The group’s respectful relationships with members of the homeless community helped create a bridge through which service providers could expand their reach, as well, said Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services. That included taking temperatures and screening people in camps for COVID-19 last year, he said.

“I don’t know if there was anybody who was more creative and hard working in terms of direct service than Chris,” Miller said. “We talk a lot about collaborating, and we all do, but his work: It merged medical, environmental and housing together as well as improving the image of the homeless in the community like nobody else. His energy in making that happen was really extraordinary.”

He noted Brokate’s engagement of the homeless community was not always viewed positively. Some naysayers considered it enabling of illegal camping.

He “put up with a tremendous amount of ‘in your face’ — physically in-your-face, as well as social media attacks — for a long time,” Miller said. “And yet he and his team, because it’s not just Chris, persevered.”

When Brokate had first considered creating a nonprofit, he found a fiscal sponsor in the Russian Riverkeeper. In 2018, the Riverkeeper absorbed the Alliance’s work, putting Brokate at the helm of is Clean Team and making him an employee. The job allowed him to walk away from the green janitorial service he had operated in the county until then.

Brokate partnered with a wider network of groups and agencies, including county parks, to clear abandoned homeless encampments and collect trash on the Joe Rodota Trail during a period when more than 200 people were living there. Brokate and his crew also have installed straw wattles to contain toxic runoff on wildfire scars.

Chris Brokate, the founder of Clean River Alliance, picks up trash along River Road in Forestville on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat, 2018)
Chris Brokate, the founder of Clean River Alliance, picks up trash along River Road in Forestville on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat, 2018)

His plan in Ecuador is to dabble in real estate with his brother, who already brokers properties there, and use some of his earnings to fund beach cleanups of the sort.

He already hosted his first when he bought a house there in 2019. That 70-volunteer cleanup, on “one on of Ecuador’s dirtiest beaches,” collected about 4,000 pounds of litter over two hours.

He confesses it’s probably time he hang up his orange Clean Team tee and trash picker. His hip is a mess, and a shoulder injury that likely warranted medical intervention last year still lingers.

He has no relatives in California and wants to retire near family. And he wants to be able actually to retire — a dim prospect locally, given the high cost of living, he said.

A member of the Sebastopol Sunrise Rotary Club, he is excited to continue environmental work through connections in Ecuador he already has through the club, which has devoted new attention to the issues of the environment, clean water and plastic waste.

But he’ll keep his eye on Sonoma County, too, “watching from afar.”

“I always will be,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the volume of trash collected by Brokate and his team.

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