His little black dog, Eva, wandered over first, sniffing with curiosity.
Then Lennie Arkinstall strode across a mound of pickle weed and sea lavender in the Los Cerritos Wetlands, drawn by the unnaturally bright blues and reds of something rustling in a clump of tall grass.
It was an empty potato chip bag, just like the tens of thousands of pieces of trash the self-proclaimed steward of the marsh has removed from the area over the last four years.
The custom-sign salesman gently raked up the wrapper, along with some straws, cigarette butts and lawn trimmings, and plopped the rubbish in a bucket, another small step for a man hoping to rid the sensitive coastal wetlands of debris.
Working out of a small boat with Eva at his side, he has personally hauled out several tons of tires, lumber, syringes, tennis balls, Styrofoam cups, beer cans and soda pop bottles. Even sofas and grocery carts.
"I come out here two, sometimes three times a day," said Arkinstall, 47, as he prowled the marsh for trash on a recent weekday afternoon. "And as I clear away junk and debris I swear I can hear the plants underneath say, 'Thank you!' "
"I spend so much time picking up trash along the shore that the shorebirds think I'm one of them now," he said. "Sometimes I get so close to them, I can feel the wind off their wings on my face."
Federal wildlife biologists and local officials credit Arkinstall for making the area in east Long Beach one of the cleanest coastal estuaries in Southern California.
"He's done a great job; I want my marsh to be as clean as his," said John Bradley, manager of the nearby Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge.
"I'm a professional refuge manager and yet, here's a layman who's shown me a thing or two. His style of stewardship is all about enormous amounts of work, persistence, enthusiasm--and actually setting down roots in a place. I like that."
So do many others. Long Beach City Councilman Frank Colonna honored Arkinstall a year ago with a certificate of appreciation for "making it his personal project to remove debris from the Los Cerritos Wetlands."
"We owe him a lot," Colonna said. "He's been a one-man restoration project--the heartbeat of the marsh."
Arkinstall, who has a 26-year-old son from a short-lived marriage, moved from a Huntington Beach apartment into his boat at the Bahia Cerritos Marina in 1991. Despite living alone, everything was great except for the gobs of trash bobbing along the shores of the nearby marsh. He complained to local officials, but they urged him, he recalled, to "just let it all flush into the ocean."
Instead, Arkinstall decided to do something on the private land, which is owned by the Bixby Ranch Co. and bordered by Pacific Coast Highway, Studebaker Road and the Los Cerritos Channel.
Armed with permission from the landowners and a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, he set to work at the mouth of the estuary, which had been a regional dumping ground for half a century.
Initially, he recalled, "It seemed like an impossible task. Too much for one guy. As I was cleaning, storms came up and brought loads of junk back in. It took four months to clean up a patch 500 yards wide."
Then he called it quits. For a while.
"Two weeks later, I went back with a plan to clean up one 20-foot-wide section each day," he said. "Over the next two years, I was out there every day until the place was almost pristine."
Arkinstall said his driving force is a childhood memory: "Growing up in a fatherless family in Great Falls, Mont., we had the prettiest garden in the whole neighborhood. My mother planned it, and I planted the flowers and trees.
"Neighbors would stroll by and say, 'Oh, my, that's beautiful!' " he recalled. "Now, I get the same rewards, only it's a much bigger garden."
He arranged to have Long Beach city trash trucks haul away the mounds of debris he left on the banks. He also installed a trash-catching boom that prevents debris from flowing into the wetlands.
He's gained a few helping hands from some homeless men encamped in the area's tall brush. In recent weeks, Arkinstall has persuaded them to repair holes in fences and fill several large garbage bags with trash. One of the men routinely rakes large swaths of sandy soil, which makes the ramblings of local coyotes easier to track.
"The men are proud of the work they do for me," he said. "In return, I give them a few bucks, and whatever they do with it, God bless them."
Arkinstall has even contacted snack food companies and asked them to help fund his effort, given that empty chip bags are the most common discard in the marsh.
"They said, 'Call us back when you have nonprofit status. Maybe we can work something out,' " he recalled.
Arkinstall followed through. On July 31, his Los Cerritos Wetlands Steward Inc. was granted nonprofit status by state and federal tax authorities. He plans to call back the snack companies this month.