'Dirty jobs' that have helped shape Chattanooga's outdoor scene

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Mae Washington sprays down the restroom with cleaning solution on April 29, 2022. She has worked as a custodian with Tennessee Riverpark for nearly 20 years. Washington's daily tasks include cleaning the restrooms, keeping the grounds litter free, and more.

In January, Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" returned to television. After a 10-year hiatus, host Mike Rowe was once again in pursuit of America's most difficult and disgusting jobs - pig farming, roadkill collecting and golf ball diving, for example.

Besides being messy, many of the featured jobs seem to share another quality: outdoor work - which isn't surprising. Between the weather and wildlife, the outdoors can be a gritty, unpredictable place. Add to that a busy, eight-hour workday, and suddenly even simple tasks become a challenge.

And that got us thinking. What hard jobs have shaped Chattanooga's outdoor scene?

Here, we highlight five outdoor workers in Chattanooga who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty.

Name: Kathleen Gibi

Title: Executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful

Job duties: Leading litter cleanups along the Tennessee River and its tributaries

Kathleen Gibi gets a lot of attention in her organization's 26-foot-long aluminum boat.

"In Alabama, people speculate that we're gator hunting," she says.

But the boat's massive size is actually to give her easier access to farflung river coves, which is where litter accumulates, she says. Then, the boat becomes a mobile dumpster.

Each year, Gibi organizes a series of cleanups along the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Last year, she hosted 45 events with the help of 700 volunteers, ultimately removing more than 152,000 pounds of trash from regional waterways.

Amid all that garbage, she's made some interesting (and icky) finds: refrigerators, stoves, industrial AC units - all the result of intentional, illegal dumping, she says.

"I once found a My Little Pony with plants growing out of its head, and a bowling ball - you wouldn't think they float, but they do," she says.

She's found porta-potties, camper toilets and plastic bottles used as toilets.

"For the life of me, I will never understand why campers or anglers urinate in plastic bottles and throw them in the river," she says.

In fact, single-use plastic bottles (empty or otherwise) account for about 70% of all trash removed from the water, Gibi says, so she encourages people to find more sustainable alternatives.

"Even when trash is disposed of properly, all it takes is a flood or storm to put it in the water," she says. "Our goal in hosting all of these cleanups is to inspire others to take action."

Did you know?

The Tennessee River will soon become home to the largest network of litter skimmer and collection devices on any river in the world. The initiative will install 18 Seabin devices along the 652-mile river to help capture debris in the water. The Seabin devices are essentially large electric skimmers attached to docks that can remove up to 3,000 pounds of trash and debris from the water in one year. The devices also filter out oils, gasoline and microplastics from the water.

Name: Taylor Berry

Title: Director of avian conservation at Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center

Job duties: Caring for and training birds of prey; educating the public

The hawks, owls and vultures at the nature center cannot be returned to the wild, so they're kept as "animal ambassadors," helping educate the public about their importance.

Part of Taylor Berry's job is to train the wild birds for such programs.

"Birds of prey are not social like parrots," Berry explains. "Parrots get a dopamine hit from interactions with other animals, so loving on a parrot can be reinforcement for a behavior."

But for birds of prey, the primary reinforcement is food - specifically, chunks of rodents, which Berry uses to encourage the animals to perch on his glove or enter a crate.

Each morning, he must prepare the day's meat, thawing frozen rats and mice in warm water, then cutting them into smaller portions using a pair of scissors. The process doesn't bother him – not anymore, anyway.

"I grew up in a family of hunters, so I'm very used to guts and the smell of organs. There's something called nose blindness - when you go 'blind' to smells you're around a lot," he says.

But he admits there are some exceptions.

Vultures projectile vomit as a self-defense mechanism, and Vladimir, the nature center's resident black vulture, has vomited on Berry a time or two.

"Only when he gets super stressed," he explains, "like during vet visit day."

The vomit, Berry says, smells awful - and burns thanks to a vulture's exceptionally corrosive stomach acid, which allows the animal to safely digest harmful bacteria, such as anthrax.

"I like to call vultures disgustingly awesome. From a human viewpoint, they're gross. From a biological standpoint, they are amazing."

Name: Mae Washington

Title: Park custodian for Hamilton County

Job duties: Cleaning the Tennessee Riverpark

Mae Washington takes the bus to work, arriving at the Tennessee Riverpark each day before sunrise. For nearly 20 years, Washington has been responsible for keeping the section of park between downtown and the Hubert Fry Center neat and tidy.

"Whatever it takes to make the park presentable," Washington says.

She blows leaves from the path, picks up litter and cleans the four public bathrooms located along her stretch. And they can get messy, she says, especially on the weekends when more visitors mean more wet paper and garbage tracked across the floors.

In March 2020, when Hamilton County employees were sent home due to the pandemic, Washington kept her hours, cleaning and sanitizing the busier than ever riverwalk. And it was thanks to her and other custodians, says Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Director Tom Lamb, that the park remained open.

"She is a legend," he says. "And she deserves our real gratitude for providing a place to get out safely."

Name: Michael Ryan

Title: Co-founder of NewTerra Compost

Job duties: Collecting food waste; mixing compost; educating the public

Compost doesn't have to be stinky, says Michael Ryan, who, at any given time, has up to 14,000 pounds of food waste decomposing on his Wildwood, Georgia, farm.

Each week, Ryan collects buckets of food waste from homes and restaurants throughout the Tennessee Valley. He dumps their contents into a pit filled with wood chips, which help absorb moisture; then he mixes it with a pitchfork.

"A big compost salad!" he says.

Eventually, clients receive a portion of the finished product, or they can donate it to partnering community gardens.

A smelly compost is often the result of anaerobic conditions - essentially, the absence of oxygen. At home, a person can aerate their compost simply by turning it once a week with a pitchfork or shovel, Ryan says. But NewTerra prefers a hands-free method, using perforated pipes to move air beneath the pile, helping the waste break down quicker and reach higher temperatures.

"Three days at 131 degrees F will kill all the pathogens, but we want it at about 145 degrees F for a week or more," Ryan says. And while NewTerra's "aerated static" system helps minimize odors, Ryan says, "when you go to a mechanic, it smells like a mechanic. The same is true for a compost site."

But it isn't foul, he insists. Nothing about his job is - with one exception: contaminants.

Sometimes trash finds its way into his clients' buckets, then into his pile - champagne bottles; mayonnaise packets; dirty diapers, for example.

"When I have to climb into the pile of compost to grab out a Ziploc baggy of rotting corn - yes, that's kind of nasty," Ryan says.

Name: Kelsey Durr

Title: Field supervisor at Southeast Conservation Corps

Job duties: Building trails; managing work crews

Kelsey Durr likes to think of trail builders as "trail fairies."

"We're really good at making things look like they've always existed there," she says.

In reality, she admits, it's hard work.

She and her crew can spend up to eight days on the trail, sometimes backpacking into remote areas, carrying a week's worth of food, supplies and tools for the job - pickaxes, rake hoes and an 18-pound digging bar, for example. To start a new trail, workers must move rocks, roots and organic debris to reach the most compact soil.

"Lots of digging, lots of strenuous, repetitive motions," she says.

And when installing steps or bridges, they often must source their materials onsite.

"Rock shopping," Durr calls it. "You're looking for a very specific size and shape; it can take a while, but you can really get creative. It's one of the things I enjoy most about the work."

Durr remembers once leading a trail crew in New Hampshire, tasked with building a timber bridge across a stream. But first, they had to debark each of the felled trees by hand, using a drawknife.

"The bark retains moisture, so it will rot quickly if you leave it on," she explains.

Earlier this year, Durr and her SECC crew worked on the popular Ramsey Cascades Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains, a park project that involved building retaining walls and water bars out of logs. The logs were not found onsite and had to be flown in on helicopters - in 35 loads, along with tools and equipment.

"I think a lot about how it can take us months, years to build something that most people will pass by in seconds," Durr says. "But that's how I give back, by being of service to something bigger than myself."