September 10, 2016
Poultney, VT

Kayaking for Meso

imageA few years ago while living in Vermont, I heard about this group kayaking on the Hudson River and going through the Locks. At that time I had never been through a lock and the thought of it scared me a bit. I was planning to kayak the Erie Canal so I’d need to go through a number of them eventually so I figured this would be a good way to learn about them. As it turned out, I never made it to the event that year or the year after. Instead, I learned about them first hand when I paddled the entire length of the Champlain Canal and Hudson River earlier this year.

Earlier this year I got to meet the founder of the event, Mark Wells, at a kayak open house in Saratoga Springs, NY. Sadly, I would again have to miss the event as I was planning my own epic paddle and would not be in the area during the event. We all know how that turned out and when I saw that there was slightly fewer than two hundred registered to attend, I jumped at the chance to join them and signed up. Turns out, I was #200. In the end we had over two hundred and twenty kayakers in attendance.

No longer needing to learn about the Locks, I instead got to learn about why we would be kayaking and it broke my heart. While I was familiar with mesothelioma and its connection with asbestos, I did not know that children where coming down with this incurable cancer due to asbestos exposure. I also did not know that the US has still not banned asbestos use despite having Thirty Billion dollars available to settle up with those who become struck with this cancer. In fact, more money has been put aside to pay off claims than to fund research for a cure. That struck me as odd. Rather than paying off victims, how about we stop using asbestos and find a cure?

With my kayak still in Yorktown Heights, NY I needed a way to get up to Vermont and then other to the event and whenever I need something, there is always one-person waiting, keys in hand. Yes, Arlene was there again to haul the kayak and I four hours north up to Vermont on Friday and then over to the event and hour and a half away, on Saturday morning. Then she’d have to sit around and wait four hours and pick me up at the end.

We left Vermont at 7:15am Saturday morning and headed to Admirals Marina in Stillwater, NY. On our way there I began to realize that there was something special about Stillwater during my trip. My mind began to flood with memories. First up was the Sea Plane that landed after doing a flyover. Then I recalled how lovely the homes along this part of the Hudson River were. Everyone was so friendly here. As we drove down the road I recalled a park I stopped to have lunch in. It was a nice park and kayak friendly. I met a gentlemen there who was fishing, but had no interest in catching fish, he was just enjoying his time on the water. I recall the large barge than had passed me in the middle of the night before as I camped out on an island. It had come to a fast and full stop right in front of the park and I radioed the Captain to find out why. I was concerned there might be a Southbound Tug he was waiting for that I’d need to lookout for as I approached Lock 4 up ahead. His reply was “routine maintenance”, but I’d soon learn the real reason.

While these memories were coming back, the biggest one had yet to hit me. Yes, I knew Stillwater and a few minutes after passing that park in the car with Arlene, I remembered it all. Stillwater, Lock 4. The Police, the Firemen, the Search Helicopter and Rescue boats; I remembered it all now. The boy who lost his life swinging off the bridge on a hot summer day had not been forgotten, but the location had and as soon as I made the connection, it was all there. I was there. I’d be back there again.

We arrived at Admirals Marina around 8:45am. The very marina that served as the launch point for the rescue boats and the divers that dreadful day back in July. Now here we were for a different somber yet exciting day. The yard was full of kayaks of every shape and size. We even had a paddle board and a rare Hornbeck Pack Canoe too. I checked in at the Registration Desk and set to unloading Lex-T-Sea. After getting her set up and in the water, I tied her off the dock next to the Pontoon Boat that would be accompanying us today. We’d also have two Police boats, a Banana Rescue Boat and an Air Boat accompany us on this day. I was sure that most of Emergency Personal I saw were at the scene that hot July day.

With everyone in the water, the group took off for Lock 4. Paddling under the very spot where the boy lost his life, but few if anyone was thinking about that today. It was the only thing I was thinking about. As I usually do in group paddles, I put myself last to make sure any stragglers were not left behind on the water. While we did have various boats out there to protect us, only two would have as much access to the water as I had and they were positioned in front. The others would have to remain in the navigation channel most of the time, as the river is shallow in many areas, but the current still swift. I was happy to take up the rear and keep everyone in front of me. The Pontoon boat would be behind me.

As we went to leave I saw there was still one kayak on shore. It was a kayak I had assisted the owner with removing it from her car and carrying it to the water. She was nowhere around. I pointed it out to Mark and soon his phone rang. It was she. The shuttle bus had her but he didn’t come back here. He was waiting at the other park where we’d end up. Mark instructed her to get back here and catch up to us, but we couldn’t wait for her as she was 15 minute away still and the entire group was now loading into Lock 4 on the other side of the river. We had to go.

I paid special attention to the new graffiti on the walls under the bridge. It had not been there before. They were all messages to the boy who died. I paddled over the very spot where the divers eventually found him, just as I had paddled before. I wondered how many people paddled or drove right by on their boats and never gave it a thought. The boy didn’t do anything wrong that day. He, like thousands of us do every hot summer day, grabbed onto a rope and swung out over the water and let go. Just by chance, he hit the water wrong and knocked the wind out of his lungs. The human body will automatically try to reinflate the lungs. I know, it happened to me, as a boy. I had been walking around the edge of an above ground pool when I slipped and fell. I landed right on that narrow rail I had been walking on and the air was knocked out of my lungs. Half of me was over the water and the other half was over land. My luck that day had me finish my fall backward onto land where I gasped for air over and over. Had I fallen into the water, I’d not be writing this today. Like this boy, I too would have drowned, as my body would have sucked water into my lungs instead of air. That’s how quick it happens and that’s all it takes. One little mistake and you are gone. He was gone, but the graffiti on the wall made sure his memory lived on as it does within me.

A little more that two months ago I had paddled the entire length of Lake Champlain and then the Champlain Canal. Until I reached the last of the locks in Troy, the Troy Federal Lock, I had gone through every lock on the canal alone. Today was different, very different. Today I was packed into the lock with two hundred kayakers and three boats. It was an amazing sight and an amazing opportunity. The press stood at the observation deck taking our pictures and shooting video as we entered, were lowered and then exited the Lock. Soon we were through the first lock. Even though I’ve Locked Through eleven times on my journey, it was still exciting. I could only imagine how the people doing this for the first time felt. Were they scared like I was the first time the water began to swirl? Or when the huge steel doors make their gong sound as they bang to a close and something clicks off – GONG, GONG! the sound echoing through the concrete walls surrounding you. Did they get frightened as the water started rushing through the gaps in the doors and over the sill? Or did they just smile among the company of two hundred other kayakers and three boats?

The doors opened and we passed through. As I was exiting, I hear the Lock Master tell Mark that there is a kayaker on the other side waiting to lock through. Mark shouted up to the Lock Master: Tell her to paddle fast! I said to Mark, I wish I knew that when we were in there. We could have had her portage around the lock and be waiting for us when we came out. Now she’d have to wait for the lock to refill and the drain again before getting through. She’d be well behind us all day unless she was a fast paddler and I didn’t think she was. After leaving Lock 4, I immediately noticed a few paddlers struggling. I stayed back with them as the group surged ahead. The pontoon boat stayed behind the stragglers as well. I kept looking over my shoulder to see when the doors on Lock 4 would open. As this proved to be difficult, I simply spun the kayak around and paddled backwards. It’s a technique many kayakers should learn and I use often when leading a group so I can watch them as I lead. About 20 minutes after we had left the lock, the doors began to open again. I quickly paddled up to the Pontoon boat and suggested they go get the woman and drive her up to the next lock, a lock our group was already entering. With the Pontoon boat off to pick up the woman who got left behind, I decided it was time for me to help the five who were struggling. Two were assisting a little girl who was having trouble, but they were having trouble assisting, rather towing her, another was a single girl not making any progress due to a poor paddling technique. I was told he was autistic from the people in the Pontoon boat and I assured them I’d watch her. The last one was a Tandem Kayak that was being paddled by two people new to kayaking. First I went to give instruction to the girl and got her paddling properly. Then I headed over to the Tandem and tried giving them tips, but the woman in front was complaining of an arm injury and they were just going in circles. She was frustrated and no amount of coaching was going to help. I tried one other method. See those orange buoys over there to our right, I asked them, stay away from them. That’s the hydroelectric damn. This seemed to at least give them a goal and they began a push to get away from the orange buoys. Now it was time to get the little girl and give the other two a break. I paddled over to them and asked if I could tow her while they caught up. They were relieved I offered and jumped at the chance. I tied the girl up to my kayak and I set back to paddling making sure I didn’t tip her over as we surged forward at a fast rate of speed. In the distance, I could see the Pontoon Boat was now making its way back to us with a new passenger and kayak on board. We all arrived at Lock 3 at the same time. I untied the little girl and instructed the three of them to work their way to the front so they didn’t fall behind anymore. The woman in the Tandem Kayak bailed out inside the lock and got aboard the Pontoon Boat and the autistic girl, she was doing so well, I never saw her again until the very end. Having learned the proper paddling technique, she easily kept up with the entire group.

Passing through Lock 3, I began having people come up to me and talk about my kayak. They thought I had a lot of gear and I told them how much I had been carrying. One of the women remembered reading about me. Others were intrigued.
As we paddled away for the lock the group at the back was growing and it wasn’t because of me, but because of fatigue and rest stops. Shortly after Lock 3 we arrived at the City Dock in Mechanicville, NY for our photo op, which allowed the group to catch up, but upon departing, they got spread out even more. Some decided to take a rest break along the riverbanks and I held back to make sure they didn’t loose their kayaks to the wind and current now pushing against us.

As the group spread out the police and rescue boats were way up ahead of the back of the group. I had four kayakers head for an island off to the East while others were going down the channel. I also knew that a boat was waiting to come through Lock 2 Southbound and would be upon us soon. Suddenly I heard the horn blowing on the Pontoon Boat. I turned around and saw them waiving. I thought they were trying to tell the kayakers to get off the island so I began paddling over to get the kayakers off there, but I heard more horn blowing. That’s when I saw the white shirt being waived. I had to laugh because a White Flag is a sign of surrender, but I knew they were using it as a sign of distress. I turned around and began paddling up river to see what was happening. Off to my Port side, I saw the police boat turning around so I raced it back…I won. As it turned out, the Pontoon Boat had run aground. The Captain had not realized that this section of the river is very shallow and boats must remain in the channel. Before I could even help them, the current pushed them off the ground and back into the channel as I tied up a tow line to their bow. With the Pontoon Boat back in operation and the kayakers in front of me back on the water, we headed south to our final lock of the day. Lock 2.

My VHF Radio was alive with chatter from the police as recreational boaters were waiting patiently to get by us both to our north and south, but the Locks were holding them back. I was actually surprised that out of this entire group of 200 plus kayakers and the Pontoon Boat, I was the only one aside from the police and rescue boat that had radio communication. The event began in 2011, but has only recently gotten this big.

At Lock 2, we all packed in like Sardines and then locked through. Now past our last lock, the finish was coming up. The group was so spread out now that people were arriving at Half Moon Park and pulling their kayaks out and the back of the group, where I was, was still 45 minutes away. People were tired and sore. I chuckled at the thought of them doing this day after day after day, but mostly I was impressed that so many had gotten out here to support such a great cause and many had kayaked for the very first time.

I followed the last kayaker in and the rescue team on the docks now looked at me and asked if I needed help. I declined and said I’d wait until the last person was out of the water. I pulled up to the kayak dock and jumped out of the kayak. The guy on the dock said, you look like you’ve done this before. I smiled and said, just a couple of times. I then accepted his help in pulling my kayak up out of the water and he carried it to the parking lot with me where Arlene had been waiting.

It was odd being back to a section of my journey under different circumstance. I was happy that I was once again enjoying kayaking. I’ll be looking forward to taking people back out on the lake as I switch my focus for kayaking as a means of travel to kayaking for recreation and charity again, but I can see a time where I might finish up the trip or perhaps, kayak the Erie Canal.

I think I just heard Arlene run out the front door and drive off.

Enjoy the pictures and video

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