"That's a drink can from Japan."
"What language is this?"
"It's Japanese. It says: 'Keep fire away.' It's a kerosene tank."
"And what's this plastic bottle?"
"It's in Chinese. The next one is in Korean. But that one over there is in Japanese."
Chris Pallister, the 59-year-old president of the nonprofit Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK), asked me a question every time he spotted a new drifting object and picked it up. As I answered his questions, I couldn't help but admit, with a twinge of sorrow, that many of them displayed Japanese characters.
It was late in May, but cold winds stung my cheeks on Montague Island. Pieces of tsunami debris from Japan, set adrift on March 11 last year, were washing up on this uninhabited island in Alaska Bay. To cover that issue, I had asked to accompany members of GoAK and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, who were visiting there to remove the debris.
The island of about 800 square kilometers has an oblong shape stretching from north to south. Waves crashed down especially hard on its southeast coast due to ocean currents and winds.
The coast is attracting tsunami debris from the Tohoku region of Japan--especially lightweight objects such as Styrofoam, plastic and cans. It is essentially a "debris trap."
But the problem of drifting objects washing ashore is not new to Pallister.
He was born in the northwest U.S. state of Montana, which has a host of mountain ranges. He has been a nature lover since early childhood.
Pallister was flabbergasted when he visited Montague Island about 20 years ago, then as an environmental lawyer.
He found its beaches littered with huge volumes of waste, including plastic bottles, cans and fishing nets. On closer observation, he found many of them carried Asian and Russian characters.
It must have taken them years to travel across the Pacific from fishing boats in the ocean.
Pallister said he thought then, that one of the world's most splendid natural environments could end up in ruins if nothing was done.
The surrounding areas are a literal treasure trove of nature.
As we rode in a small boat off the island, we spotted a number of humpback whales blowing water in our direction, with their shiny-black backs emerging to the surface from time to time. I also saw white-bellied Dall's porpoises chasing the boat like so many naughty kids as I looked down into the water from bulwarks on the deck.
Innumerable seafowl crisscrossed the sky. The grounds of the island were covered in fresh footprints and droppings of brown bear and deer.
Drifting pieces of debris are harming some of those wild animals, who have swallowed them by mistake or gotten entangled in them or choked on them.
If seaborne toxic substances are ingested by wild salmon, that could affect the health of humans who feed on them.
Pallister, aggrieved, took it upon himself to clean the beaches and remove waste on a voluntary basis.
But that was too much work to do on the sidelines of his legal profession. So he set up the nonprofit and gradually shifted his priorities onto his removal work until he was a full-time cleaner.
I changed jobs from a lawyer to a garbageman, he joked.
But Pallister appeared so full of life and enthusiasm as he steered his own small boat and briskly waded through beaches.
It is no easy task, however. There is no safe port for incoming vessels on the uninhabited island that has no regular services or means of public transport.
The long winters mean that Pallister can work especially hard during the summer.
And even in summer, rains and winds often confine him to his boat. It sometimes takes him days to complete a single task.
I experienced that firsthand during the latest reporting trip.
Only on the fourth day did I set foot on the target beach after I joined the GoAK members at the Port of Whittier, about 100 kilometers from Anchorage.
A downpour of rain held us back on Day One. Preparations got off to a slow start.
Patches of blue sky were visible on Day Two, so we embarked, but we traveled at reduced speeds to save on fuel. It took us 11 hours to arrive at the waters near the island.
On Day Three, we used a rubber raft to attempt a landing, but waves and winds blocked our way. We had to shut down the engine from time to time to save on fuel, which lowered the temperature in the boat. The crew of 10, including the GoAK members and myself, wrapped ourselves up in sleeping bags to spend the night on board.
Despite the harsh conditions, GoAK members have increased during the past few years. A number of young people who have studied marine biology and other subjects out of fascination with Alaska's nature have joined under Pallister's banner. His son Ryan also joined GoAK.
And they have made Alaska Bay cleaner during the past decade or so, Pallister believed, until he learned that the tsunami debris was arriving from Japan.
He waited for the thick layers of snow and ice to thaw and flew to Montague Island in April to take a look. Among his companions was a member of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Pallister was appalled by an aerial view of more drifting objects than he had seen in years.
Each time he set foot on the ground since then, he found that the amount of debris was increasing.
GoAK's normal annual budget, of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the normal amount of work it could accomplish, were inadequate. Pallister felt at a loss.
The decade of efforts could end up for nothing, he said.
When he came to that part of his story, which he told me on board, I thought his eyes were reddening a tad. He remained silent for a short while.
"Is there anything you would like Japan to do for you?" I asked Pallister.
Perhaps my question sounded apologetic. He grinned at once and shook his head.
If a tsunami were to hit Alaska, it could send debris to Japan, which could help out Alaskans then, Pallister said. That was an unlikely scenario considering the ocean currents, but something big could still end up in Japan, he continued.
Pallister has sounded out the federal government on funding through the offices of a U.S. senator representing the state and through other channels. Requests were snubbed by the federal government, which is already slashing its marine debris removal budgets to help restore its fiscal health. But he is expecting better news from the state government.
He is also hoping for donations from different sources.
All my boat engines are products of Japanese companies--Honda Motor Co., Yamaha Motor Co. and Tohatsu Corp., he said. I'd be pleased to hear good news from them, Pallister said and laughed.
We landed on the target beach on Day Four. I left Pallister and others, who were to stay on the ground for the cleanup, and returned to my post in Los Angeles.
About a week later, I learned that a massive floating dock from the Misawa fishing port in Aomori Prefecture had beached in Newport, Ore. The Oregonians were also troubled by the costs and methods of its disposal.
Would you like Japan to share the burden?
When I asked Chris Havel, an Oregon Parks and Recreation Department director in charge of the matter, he shrugged.
"We are responsible for the ocean shore in our state," he said, adding that the event is not due to somebody's carelessness but is the outcome of a dreadful tragedy.
"We are not placing blame or shame on anyone," he added.
I was told that local Oregonians were putting flowers one after another at the floating dock that had washed ashore.
Some online posters, across the wide expanses of the United States, are still calling on Japan to share the burden of the cleanup costs. But somewhere in the wide expansive land of this country, people such as Pallister and Havel are playing central roles in preserving their seas and beaches.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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