Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Day 4: Summer Street Bridge to Shay's Boat Yard (Justine Selsing)

I was a little nervous heading out for the fourth day of our paddle. My arms (and psyche) were already sore from all the lifting, shoving, and “threading the needle” of the day before, and the little hints Nik had been dropping all morning about “hoping the tide would be with us” weren’t helping my already-anxiety-prone mind. I had serious doubts about my ability to paddle for 27 miles – or to paddle any amount of miles going upstream. However, I showed no signs of inner panic as I calmly spread Grey Poupon on the sandwich I would eat for lunch (if in fact I made it to lunch) and bravely boarded the minivan that would take us to the day’s launch site.

Nik’s dad and adorable Corgis helped us stock our boat with all the appropriate gear (this time with the added bonus of Ziploc bags for our lunches; no swampwiches today, as delicious as they were) and we pushed out into the river.

“I hope the tide will be with us,” Nik announced for the final time.

“Me too,” I said.

“It probably won’t,” he added casually.

This day, as Nik knew from his prior experience, was to be the Day of Many Bridges. We were told to expect to pass under 20 to 30 overpasses, and were also expected to obtain photo documentation of each and every one. The first, less-than-thrilling instance came within a few seconds of launch.

Breathtaking. Luckily, the visual interest of the scenery promptly increased dramatically as we passed by an improbably-placed memorial wreath. There it was propped, fully upright, against an exposed branch. Was it positioned there purposefully? Were we at the unlikely scene of a fatal canoe collision? Or was this just the serendipitous final snagging place of a wreath swept from its rightful position by the flooding a few months back? Nobody knows.

Still contemplating that mystery, we wandered under some important-looking power lines that were actually buzzing with…electricity, I guess. On the very top, a hawk had made its nest – we saw at least one flying to and fro, and birdwatcher extraordinaire Greg Keches swore he saw a second one nestled inside. We pondered the dangerousness of the habitat choice – was this a risk-seeking hawk? – but then electrical engineering extraordinaire Greg Keches reminded us that the hawk would have to be grounded in order to be electrocuted by the lines…or something.

Then we discovered the telephoto lens in Nik’s dad’s camera bag! All photo-taking hell broke loose. The zoom turned out to be extremely helpful when we sighted a couple great blue herons (photo courtesy of nature photographer extraordinaire Greg Keches), an oriole hanging out in a shrub, and a swimming cormorant (photos courtesy of moi).

We passed by many more bridges, including one being revamped by friendly construction workers. Then it got really hot. I jumped in the water by myself because everyone else was too lazy. I admit I was slightly afraid of the possibility of a spontaneous snapping turtle attack for the first few minutes…okay, for the whole time…but I composed myself and even performed a cormorant takeoff routine at the behest of Nik.

That’s what they look like. When they take off. Anyways, we paddled a little more and chowed down on our nice and dry sandwiches, but the grueling seafaring life was taking its toll and we found ourselves hungering for more. Solution? What else?

Nik showed us what is apparently a common riverside attraction (there was a path leading up from the river's bank) and we, like so many before us, headed to McDonald’s for our trans fat fix. I was informed only afterwards by nutritionist extraordinaire Greg Keches that the “milkshake” I consumed had no actual dairy products in it. Apparently they’re made of potatoes. I will say no more about the emotions I experienced and likely repressed after learning this information but the concept did feature prominently in my thoughts over the next few days.

We then passed some other stuff, like the indoor skate part extreme sports athlete extraordinaire Greg Keches and I both recognized from our past. We also passed the Bacon Felt Factory Nik recognized from last year – oldest felt company in America – and he insisted we were “close.” I was not excited because at this point in the trip I knew not to trust a single word out of Nik’s mouth about time frames.

It soon became clear, however, that we were getting close when the river started to run against us. We had hit the tidal section of the river, and that tide had turned. I was lucky enough not to have to paddle through most of this, and happily telephoto’d from the middle seat.

However, I did switch into the front seat for the last mile or so of upstream struggle. And although I would like the following picture to appear as few times as possible on the internet, I am allowing it to be included here as evidence of how NOT EASY this part of the paddle was. The last few moments before reaching the marina dock seemed like an eternity.

And the results (for both me and sternsman extraordinaire Greg Keches):

After recuperating, we took a few more celebratory pictures before heading back to Hanover.


Throughout our four days on the river, we continued to see signs that the river was a place largely ignored by the general population. Only on the first day, close to the ocean, did we see any other paddlers on the water. For most of the trip, it felt like we were the only ones who ever saw any of these stretches of river. At each bridge we passed under, I thought about how the pedestrians and drivers who pass over see that river every day – but only that tiny piece of it. For them, the river only exists as a few hundred meters of water that they catch a glimpse of before it bends out of sight.

We were riding along the old superhighway as we passed under the new ones. The Wampanoag people, as Nik told us, used to use this entire passage as a major route of transportation. Now, just getting through the whole thing is a struggle, hellish at times because of the fallen trees and shallow areas. There’s been no reason to clear the passage because it’s obsolete in our day and age. We don’t need it to get to and from work every morning. We don’t need the passage for travel or for any part of our daily lives, and because of that, most of us have forgotten about how important our water resources are. If we continue to ignore where our water – and all our resources, for that matter – comes from, we might find some of those natural resources slipping or being taken away from us.

Day 3: Osceola Island to Summer Street Bridge (Greg Keches)

So day three started off by waking up with the sun and cleaning up camp on Osceola Island. Some dirty rotten scoundrels had littered the campsite on the island so we grabbed a trash bag and cleaned up a bit. After clearing camp, we hopped into our canoes and paddled across Robbins Pond to the beginning of the Satucket River. Before departing though, Paula Tyack delivered to us some provisions and water, and Justine. Into the foray we charged with great passion and furious will power. Unfortunately for us, we encountered exactly what Nik had described, the dreaded swamp weed and a shallow river to start. We stepped out of our boats into about a foot and a half of mud.

After about 20 minutes the river deepened and we hopped back in our canoes. The flood plain disappeared and we were transported into a mystical river. Slowly, the river became more secluded and the dark forest engulfed us most dramatically.

Many downed logs found their way between our flotilla and the intended destination.After what seemed like 40,000 portages, we eventually made it to Carver Cotton Gin Mill.

We explored the factory grounds and decided to munch on of some delicious snacks provided by the one and only Paula Tyack. Once refilled with nutrition and heart, we sent the canoes down through a spillway in the Cotton Gin dam and began to head further downstream.

Once again we were greeted with downed trees around every oxbow. Fortunately for the flotilla, we attacked them with the poise and grace of a Gazelle… oh wait… I fell in about every time… at least everyone else did all right. The Satucket did provide more than just downed trees though. We saw some beautiful Flag Irises, Painted Turtles, Great Blue Herons, Mallards, Geese, Fish, and some amazingly large spiders which became regular stow-aways on our canoes due to some pretty bad steering on my part.

After a grueling afternoon, we eventually emerged from the forest and the river widened. We joined with the Matfield and eventually made it to the Taunton. As the river widened though we ran into a slight problem… our one phone decided to stop working on us, and we needed to be picked up soon. Nik jumped out of the river and ran into a random Garden Center/ Nursery where he asked a lady to use her cell phone. Back in the river again, we encountered a beaver and some Class 2 rapids. Awesome. Taunton widened further and after many oxbows and nightfall, we finally arrived at Summer Street Bridge.

So this being my first canoe trip and all, I honestly can say that being on a river is nothing like I have ever experienced. I expected some Huckleberry Finn escapades, but I got a whole lot more. The river gives you a front row seat to just about every creature the Northeast has to offer. All I can say is that the Wampanoags might not be too happy with the way their territory turned out. Suburbia has infiltrated the beauty of the river at points and this was all too clear by the occasional trash found on our passage. I was happy to be able to raise awareness of the Passage and also to raise money for the NSRWA, who are working to preserve the integrity of this beautiful watershed. The journey was majestic; we should keep it that way.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Featured Writer Alex Garver on Lost, the IMF, and the lost art of Wamping

T-minus 12 hours. Nik and Sam drove to pick me up after a long bus ride from New York City where I spent a few days with my sister, cousin and friends. We arrived at Nik’s house just in time for the last 40 minutes of the Lost finale, the capstone of 6 seasons, all of which I had devoted the equivalent of several consecutive days watching. Interspersing the viewing with comments and questions made it fun, but the ridiculous drama that was so unbelievable- like the forest being magically bulldozed to create a runway for their plane, and more importantly the inability of the episode to answer many important questions- so why was the Dharma Initiative or Hugo’s numbers important- made it disappointing. Though I must say when I watched the whole finale, it and the show in general grew on me. Important topics were explored- a possible afterlife was depicted, faith and reason intertwined and conflicted in Locke, Jack and Jack’s eventual conversion to faith, and the characters were really important to each other and had a lot of love for each other. Plus the characters were quite international and diverse (which the actors commented on and thought was groundbreaking), though the white males dominated as usual- Whitmore, Linus, Jacob, Locke, the Black Smoke and Jack. The Last Airbender and the Prince of Persia were criticized for whitewashing its cast, taking roles that in the original show and game should be played by people of color and filling them with white males. Why does the industry continue to do this?

T-minus 4 hours. Wake up at Nik’s house. Delicious coffee cake and cereal. I made loads of sandwiches- about 15- for Greg, Nik, Sam and myself for lunch. We ate at least three lunches, one directly before ‘dinner.’ I threw some stuff together and decided to take my backpack in the canoe so that I could wear it as we portaged in case we found it easier to carry the canoe with it thrown over our heads. I packed my watertight bag with the clothes, a flashlight and toiletries that I would need that night to be dropped off at the campsite. In hindsight this was quite silly since the canoes inevitable were covered with mud if not sloshing with swamp water. Even worse, I left two extra water bags I had carefully brought from home at Nik’s house. On the second day, after having to go through some trouble to save my backpack from drowning in water I switched the arrangement so that the drybag stayed in the canoe. It was vital in keeping Nik’s Dad’s fancy camera safe from the raging waters. They weren’t actually raging, but they would have ravaged a nice camera.

0:00. Launch time. After paddling across our first pond, I portaged for the first time this trip. Interestingly, I learned to pronounce the word “portage” with a French accent (por-taj), while my fellow Bostonians took a more American approach (por-tij). I learned the word from my Mom who grew up in upstate New York, which I suppose is influenced by the French in Quebec. My pronunciation seemed more natural to me, and plus had a bit more panache so I tried to continue to use it even through an onslaught of ‘correct’, American “portages”.

This portage was quickly followed by another, this time over train tracks. I happen to love train tracks- my dad and I would regularly walk them for miles at a time and the thrill that a train might come barreling down always kept the walk a notch more thrilling than other hikes. We took several great pictures with the canoe strewn across the tracks, but I do feel they would be a bit more epic with a train approaching in the background. When we had just that opportunity, Nik and Greg intelligently got as far away as possible. Sam and I decided to enjoy the feeling unique to passing trains- just a few feet from where we stood a mass of metal locomotive whizzed past, pushing in front of its path a wall of air and sound. The conductor blasted his horn so obnoxiously and the train was passing so close at such great speed, that my amygdala got the best of me- a wave of fear and self-preservation washed over me and I began running down the hill away from the train, screaming. Twas fun, I must say.

1:25 hours after launch. The next section was a narrow stream that became increasingly impassable, with strainers blocking the way. Apparently all part of the plan. We took out the canoe, put back in again. Repeat. Sam and I got stuck on the wrong side of the stream and had to force the canoe over bushes, grass and around trees. I called this activity “mowing.”

Back on solid ground, we began executing the next segment of our trip- a mile long portage. I have no clue how far we walked in reality, but it was damn far for carrying a heavy canoe! After 15 minutes of portaging I asked Nik how much further. He said matter-of-factly, “We’re one third there,” and gave me a large grin. I didn’t smile back. It was about this time that I decided that if I returned home and told people I had gone canoeing they would get the completely wrong picture. They might imagine what I had imagined- pristine rivers with strong flows winding their way through idyllic Massachusetts. No, the activity we were then engaged required a new verb to begin to encapsulate its essence. Wamping, derived from the Wampanoag Nation, was born. Wamping connotes the type of adventures found on the Wampanoag Commemorative Canoe Passage- long portages, mosquitoes, shallow water, numerous strainers, and cold refreshments at the end of the day. Those of us who love gnarly canoe trips use it.

As we paddled a narrow, windy water passage, Sam and I discussed economics. He, a star of Pomona’s econ classes, had much to offer in the chat about its uses and role in the world. I, the son of an econ professor, had recently begun exploring the field through books and late night chats with my mom and even though I knew little about the subject, found it interesting. Specifically on trial was the IMF. Based on my reading of Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and its Discontents, I contended that it had often pressured other countries to adopt economic policies that were not helpful for the country at large, let alone the poor of those countries. The culture of the organization did not allow for much criticism or discussion, and the process of making decisions only involved a single 3-week trip to the country under review. The end result was usually the IMF’s one-size-fits all solution, which has most often been to reduce spending and raise taxes. This was needed and effective in Latin America in the 1980’s, but the issues in Thailand in 1997, for example, were substantially different, but the IMF did not take a nuanced approach, but merely implemented its standard approach. Sam responded by explaining some of the reasons why the IMF does the things it does- its loans have conditionality to ensure that they are repaid and that sound economic policy is implemented even though it is difficult for governments to implement policy that is painful. Sam also believed that economic growth required some painful changes, and that this was okay. I agreed, but argued that the IMF uses that logic to rationalize policy that need not be so painful- such as demanding countries liberalize as soon as possible rather than taking a more gradual approach like the one China has chosen. The IMF pushed the liberalization of capital markets before countries had the ability to regulate them, such as in Thailand when capital markets were liberalized without the domestic ability to regulate them. According to Stiglitz, the deregulation of the capital markets was the major cause of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Finally, the IMF’s response to raise taxes and cut expenditures has been widely criticized even from within the IMF, which does not happen often enough. I think Sam and I agreed in the IMF’s role in general- that it could be greatly beneficial to the world at large by developing economies and bailing out economies, but questioned its past performance while Sam defended it.

Day 2. I woke up refreshed and ready to go. The sun was just coming over the horizon, but the sky was already bright. I chose to begin the day with a nice period of meditation looking across the pond. Silence. Beauty. The present moment brought alive with breathing and energy coursing through my body. Then I get ready for the day and put in my contacts, but there wasn’t anything else to do. My three friends were still fast asleep. So I got back in my bag and slept another couple of hours. When we all woke up for real this time, Nik wanted to know why in the world I was up at 4:45 am. I wanted to know why he wasn’t. “Well, there isn’t that much to do if you get up at 4:45 but are supposed to meet people at 9.” Yeah, Nik, that makes a lot of sense…

The morning was blessed with a delivery from Paula and Justine- food and coffee, some fuel for our next day. With 5 people and two canoes, one of us were allowed to, or forced to depending on one’s perspective, ride in the middle of a canoe. I began the day in the middle when it was so shallow that everyone had to get out and push the canoe- except me. I had the important job of documenting the trip, so I sat with Nik’s Dad’s super nice camera taking classic shots- of him pulling me. Justine wanted to get a picture of me to capture the full ridiculousness of the situation.

The challenge of wamping today was not so much portaging as strainers. Log after log would block our passage. I imagine that back in the golden days of the Wampanoags they would make sure these rivers were free of these trees and we talked about doing the same- if only we had had a chainsaw! Well, I don’t think the day would have been easier with one, but at least successive passages would be easier. I think Greg’s face in this picture successfully captures our shared experience.

During the whole trip I would sometimes look around and wonder how I came to be here, in this beautiful place, with these fun people, canoeing. Just a few days prior I had been sitting at home with no big plans for a long time. But on the spur of the moment, I decided to fly standby on Airtran, which everybody should consider! If you are under 23, it costs anywhere from $50 to $100 to fly between two cities. It cost me $80 one way, which was more than 50% cheaper than comparable flights. On both legs I got the flight I was aiming for. So when I decided to visit NYC, I called Sam to see if we could hang out. We could, he said, if I came canoeing. Hell yeah, I said, that would be so awesome. And there I was, wamping around with friends!