Tom Bailey's walking stick, turned gray by age and weather, skimmed stealthily along the water surface like a snake approaching its prey. A patch of sunlight danced on the water and glinted off the aluminum hook at the tip as it darted in and out of the shadows.
The stick glided deftly through a rocky, water-filled crevice. With a sudden movement, the hook snagged its quarry.
Tom Bailey let out a muted grunt of satisfaction. He raised the walking stick, removed the beer can from the hook, stomped it on a rock, and stuffed it into one of the deep pockets of his U.S. Army Ranger field jacket.
Unlike many others who are busy now cleaning up streams to celebrate Earth Week, Mr. Bailey wasn't interested in the official event.
The 58-year-old Overlea resident has respect for nature all right, but he prefers to pay his respects in solitude and without fanfare.
And he does it nearly every day -- not just on days set aside for it.
Ever since he retired from his job with the phone company two years ago, Mr. Bailey has spent several hours a day cleaning out a quarter-mile section of Stemmers Run. The stream begins in Parkville about two miles away, winds through Fullerton and Overlea and eventually empties into Back River and the Chesapeake Bay.
Over the years, Stemmers Run has suffered from the life-draining pollution of urban runoff, as well as the effects of careless humans. So Mr. Bailey checks the sensitive ecosystem for signs that life is re-emerging.
He also tries, by example, to educate a younger generation to the joy of having such a country-like setting to enjoy -- and to respect.
It's not easy.
"The other day, I found four six-packs of empty beer bottles strewn along the stream bank," Mr. Bailey said on a recent expedition.
He picked them up and deposited them near the wooden foot bridge that provides access over the stream to the Linover recreation field.
"I had so much other debris to haul up the hill, I thought I would come back later to get the beer bottles," Mr. Bailey said. But when he returned, he found the bottles had been thrown back down along the stream bank.
"I'm afraid kids today see the stream's watershed as just a place to hide out or hold drinking parties," he said sadly.
Last spring, he discovered two adult mallard ducks and a nest of just-hatched ducklings.
"I was so overjoyed because it added more life to the stream," he said. But several weeks later they had disappeared.
"I guess some kids found them who didn't appreciate what the ducks meant to the stream," Mr. Bailey said.
Mr. Bailey acknowledges that when he took his children to the stream 25 or 30 years ago, he never appreciated what the family had.
"It was beautiful place to go, all right, and there wasn't the kind of trash you find here now," he said. "But I don't think that I paid as much attention to more subtle things that make the stream so important to us."
Last summer, he came upon a mother and her young son shifting the sands and mud bottom of the stream for evidence of insects, a sign that Stemmers Run is getting healthier.
"I was so overjoyed to find someone else around here who was concerned about the quality of the stream," he recalled.
His efforts began shortly after his retirement, when Mr. Bailey found himself standing on the foot bridge surveying the watershed.
What he found appalled him: Large cast-iron sinks embedded in the stream bank, old mattresses and pieces of carpeting clogging up the stream current, pieces of corrugated sheet metal lying on the bottom and too many bottles, cans and plastic foam cups to count.
The 8-foot twin viaducts that carried the stream under Lillian Holt Drive were clogged almost halfway with debris. He chose them as his first project. It took nearly two weeks to clear them.
"The county just hasn't the money or the manpower for these kinds of things," he said.
As he cleans up, Mr. Bailey piles the debris at several collection points along the stream. County trucks come by and haul some of the junk away. He takes home bottles and cans and puts them out on recycling day.
Walking along the stream this week, he pointed with his omnipresent walking stick at old tire rims, carpeting, plastic plates and other debris that he refers to, in his own made-up Latin phrase, as Trashius Americus.
He uses the stick to fish out cans, bottles and other small pieces of trash.
The stick was given to him by the youngsters at a soccer camp he runs every year in Anne Arundel County. There he brings together healthy young people and those with mental or physical impairments to share in the sport he played and later coached in the Overlea-Fullerton Recreation League.
His walk finished, Mr. Bailey climbs the long wooden steps from the footbridge up the hill that leads to Terrace Drive and home. His pockets are full of crushed cans, his hands occupied by four six packs of empty beer bottles.
"Not a big haul today," he said. "But just think, if everyone hauled this much every day what a wonderful thing we would be giving back to the Earth that gave so much to us."