Friendly competition at the Ivy Olympics - Teams do what they can to fight invasive plants

By Ruth Longoria

There were shouts of ``Does everyone have gloves?'' and ``Watch out for those stinging nettles'' as dozens of eager environmentalists of all ages set out Saturday morning on a one-hour competition to clear patches of hillside at the area known as ``S.E. 53rd Place Open Space.''

``We are the Sasquatch, the mighty mighty Sasquatch,'' shouted one man as he hauled a bucket filled with long-handled loppers and other hand tools up the hillside trail, and attempted to get his team motivated in the early moments of the competition.

Despite judges watching intently as the men, women and children worked together to pull what looked to be endless lengths of live twine and greenery, the competition wasn't so much between teams One, Two or Three. It was a desperate tug-of-war to contain a competitor that was strangling the life out of native plants, large and small. A life-and-death struggle to end the exuberant existence of the dreaded, invasive English ivy.

``We don't care so much for points in the competition,'' Bruce Bassett told one of the EarthCorps leaders who was defining the rules of the competition. ``We're more interested in just getting out there and doing something to get rid of the ivy.''

Bassett was one of 50 or more folks who showed up Saturday morning for the day-long Ivy Olympics and Open Space Fair in honor of National No Ivy Day. The event was organized by Paul West, park arborist for the city's Parks Department, and sponsored by the City of Mercer Island, EarthCorps and Puget Sound Energy.

There were several types of competitions throughout the day. Back at the registration area, the Island Crest Elementary School parking lot, there also was a barbecue grill set up to feed the workers, as well as environmental education booths, and an ivy craft table, where Seattle EarthCorps workers, Dana Beaudry, 25, and Megan Hess, 24, demonstrated ways to put the pulled ivy to more productive use.

``You don't want to be completely wasteful with what you do with the plant, it can be useful,'' Beaudry said as she tugged, turned and twisted a lengthy stem of ivy and created a bird's nest.

She set the nest on the table next to a few baskets and several wreaths, which she said were to be used as crowns for the winning competitors in the Olympics activities.

Hess said she was glad so many Islanders were involved in the event.

``This motivates people,'' she said. ``If people get out in the woods and see how ivy is growing up a tree and strangling it, they are more likely to go home and get it out of their own yards.''

That sentiment was echoed by Islander Rita Moore, who serves as a native plant steward for the Washington Native Plant Society. During the six years Moore has lived on the Island, she has been involved in many activities. She was an activist for the ``ivy initiative'' last year, which, she said, did more good than harm, even though it failed to gain enough voter support.

``You couldn't have paid for better public education,'' she said. ``A lot of people heard about the problem.''

The problem, she said, is that ivy and other invasive plants have the potential to destroy even the icon that represents Mercer Island.

``The symbol for Mercer Island is an island with trees on it; do we want just a hump with ivy and blackberries?'' she asked. ``As long as people are getting out there and pulling ivy we won't have just dead forest,'' she added.

Back at the hillside, 54-year-old Native Plant Society volunteer Pamela Burton watched as Bassett's daughter Emily, 9, and her friends, Hannah Ehlers and Tara Lawrence, all third-grade students at Lakeridge Elementary School, ferociously attacked the ivy. The kids pulled and tugged, then rolled the strands into large balls like yarn before plopping them onto large sheets of cardboard, to be later dragged down the hillside.

``With all the children involved, that team has a good chance of winning,'' Burton said of the team of several families and friends, which made up team Skook Squatch.

Most of that team were members of the YMCA's Y Guides, a father-son and father-daughter organization, Bruce Bassett said. Activities such as the Ivy Olympics are a great way for parents and kids to interact together and be productive together, he said. Bassett suggested the Y Guides participate because he took an ivy stewardship course through the parks department last summer and learned the importance of freeing native plants from invasive plants that take over and don't allow their neighbors to grow, breathe or absorb their share of water.

Eric Dumant, 36, followed his son, Euan, 5, and daughter, Nolwenn, 4, up the hillside as the children and dad learned firsthand the island experience of pulling ivy. The Dumant family moved to the Island from France four years ago and Euan, who attends the French-American School, added a stream of French words to an excited ``Papa! Papa!'' as he found and pulled his first strands of ivy.

``This isn't too bad,'' Eric Dumant said, as he tossed an armload of ivy onto the team's expanding pile. ``The children are learning and this is a really good thing.''

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