Saturday, August 1, 2009

TRUE TALES FROM THE EAST - 9. Friends (Part 1)

There are friends of the road and friends of the heart, says my best friend, Eva. It's a saying usually brought up in the context of bemoaning why we never hear from some old friend.

I got sidetracked from finishing these last tales because of a week-long visit to Oregon from my friend, Al. It seemed more important to actually spend time with a friend than to spend time writing about friends.

I had lost track of Al for 20 years. After moving to Oregon I learned he was living in southern California and looked him up. We've been having a great time ever since, getting together a couple times a year to hike and hang out. We've been friends for nearly 45 years. Here's a picture of Al (on the left) at the 1967 anti-war march on the Pentagon, and a more recent likeness:

During Al's visit we heard Bob Dylan say that "friends are God's apology for our families." Never mind that it's an old quote by someone else, it's still pretty good, don't you think?

After leaving Craig and Jean's home in rural Virginia, I traveled for ten days visiting friends in New England before returning for Craig's memorial service.


"I must not have got all of him." OK, that's not something you expect to hear from your host regarding the goo on the floor swarming with flying ants that you found in your guest bedroom. But the remnants of a long-dead mouse is not an altogether unexpected experience in the rustic quarters that Rick has created on his island on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. Since the shop vac was right there next to the bed, no problem. Whoosh and no more vermin. We doused the remaining ants with Cutter's insect repellant, Rick put out the last of his mouse poison, and all was well. Except for the live mouse spotted later in the evening running across the kitchen counter, but that's another story.

You put up with such minor inconveniences in order to share Rick's little bit of paradise -- a place of his own in The Thousand Islands on "The River." Rick fell in love with the River when he was young and it defined his life. He bought his land on Grindstone Island when he couldn't afford it, then found jobs that would pay the mortgage and let him spend time building a cabin. Like being a merchant seaman.
He started with just the raw land -- woods and marsh with no dock, electricity, plumbing or phone. The only way to get to his place is by boat. But he did have a million dollar view. And today, decades later, Rick has a two-story cabin with running hot water, electricity, phone and dock. His recently finished knotty pine upstairs is beautiful, with a little deck off his bedroom that looks across his bay to the River -- it's still a million dollar view. The first floor remains, shall we say, a work in progress. But Rick has realized his dream. He is a happy man.

I've known Rick since the 1970s when I lived in Michigan and worked for a state conservation group. Our paths first crossed when we both were trying to stop a multi-billion dollar boondoggle by the government to open up the Great Lakes to all-winter commercial shipping. It would have been an environmental disaster for the lakes and his river. Rick is a born community organizer; it's in his genes. Working with others who live on and along the river, including then-incognito Abbie Hoffman (a.k.a. Barry Freed), they created Save the River. We joined forces and after years of real hard work killed the project. It wouldn't have happened without Rick's brilliant organizing and lobbying. And Rick wouldn't be who he is without that battle. In fact, it led to him going back to college; his master's thesis was a political analysis of the history of winter navigation. And all that eventually brought him to his longest-held job as an organizer for the National Wildlife Federation.

It was my fourth or fifth visit to Rick's island since the 1980s. We talked long about political battles won and lost over the years. Mostly, though, we soaked in the wonder of the River. We watched the sun set over his marsh, a mink hunting along the shoreline, redwing blackbirds calling from the cattails. One morning we boated close to a mother loon with two babies riding on her back. We hiked across the interior of Rick's island -- my first time -- and identified lots of his forest birds.

Bird watching is a new thing for Rick. When he retired from NWF last fall he decided that birding would be a good thing to do and set about learning how. He spent the winter traveling the country and by the time he got to Oregon in late February he was better really good at it. Now, after owning land on his island for half his life, he finally is seeing and hearing how many different birds live there.

I asked Rick what he was going to do next winter, since staying in his isolated cabin all year isn't feasible. He really had no idea and didn't seem the least bit concerned: "I'll figure something out."

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