When Rick Smith was a youngster, he often played in the woods of the Gwynns Falls and Leakin Park, a wilderness area he describes as "the largest undeveloped city park in the United States.
Today, he maintains the hiking trails for the city's Department of Recreation and Parks and will defend the honor and beauty of the vast West Baltimore woodland to anyone who insults or defaces it.
As parks projects coordinator for what is officially called Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, Smith has led a crusade in the last few years with neighborhood residents against illegal dumping in the woods.
"I think it's the grossest thing people can do," said Smith, who is also writing a book on the history of the park.
In the last two weeks alone Smith has caught seven people dumping trash in the park.
In six of the cases, Smith said, the dumpers accepted the offer to clean up the park instead of being prosecuted.
In other cases, where violators are arrested, the dumpers are often sentenced to clean up the park as a form of restitution.
The park is a wilderness that takes up 1,216 acres on the city's western boundary. It gained notoriety as a dumping ground for murder victims after four boys were killed there in 1968. Over the years, other bodies have been found there.
But Smith says the park is safe. "I'll walk a trail at 11 o'clock at night before I'll walk at the Inner Harbor," he said.
Smith began memorizing the park's trails when he was 6 years old. After describing the beauty of the park's deer, beavers, muskrats, great blue herons, bluebirds and Baltimore orioles, he also tells of finding asbestos and old home heating tanks dumped in the woods, along with dead dogs and cats.
In a park that boasts a 200-year-old poplar tree, it particularly galls Smith to occasionally discover car wax, paint and heating oil floating in the park's fishing streams.
A recent drive through the park produced roadside views of a mattress, a living room chair and a pail of bottles among the delicate orange flowers of the jewelweed plant.
Smith also keeps photos of the many signs posted in the park forbidding dumping. Next to the signs are piles of discarded tires and other debris.
Many of the signs around the park not only ban dumping and warn violators of a $500 fine, they also print the phone number and address of the city's Quarantine Landfill (6100 Quarantine Road, 396-3772) where people can legally discard their trash.
Other, more creative signs posted by neighborhood residents say, "Dumping is a dirty word," and "Don't Dump, You Chump. Keep Our Park Clean."
Despite the brazenness of some violators, Smith says he believes the park is cleaner than it was when he was a boy living in nearby Franklintown 20 years ago. From his childhood, he remembers having to dodge piles of trash like an obstacle course on some of the park's roads.
Today, he says, he and volunteers -- mostly from adjacent neighborhoods -- routinely tail suspicious trucks, calling police with their license numbers. Smith has other methods of catching dumpers, but he refused to reveal them.
"Dumpers don't realize there are people who live in this area who follow the trucks and get tag numbers," said Smith.
Calvin Buikema, superintendent of parks, said dumping is a problem in other city parks, but no city community is a vigilant as those around Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, where neighbors from Franklintown, Windsor Hills, Dickeyville and Ten Hills routinely police the woods by volunteering for "Dump-Buster patrol" and join Saturday cleanup efforts.
Next to Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, dumping is a big problem on the north end of Druid Hill Park, said Buikema, but, "it's always done at night and there's nobody here at night [to catch the violators]." He also said there is no organized community effort near Druid Hill park to catch violators and help clean up the mess.
But at Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, the cleanup effort brings dozens of volunteers. On April 28, according to the park's newsletter, more than 100 neighbors turned out to clean up the park.
In one day they collected 24 tons of tires, auto parts, carpets, plumbing fixtures and other assorted trash.