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‘Married to amazement’ on the Mohawk River

'Married to amazement' on the Mohawk River

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I am stunned every time I look out over the Mohawk River in upstate New York, “married to amazement” as the poet Mary Oliver says. The Mohawk River is confluent with the Erie Canal in most places, and the best word for it is “rich”: it’s remote, and the vibrant greenery and the carefree diversity of animal life feels like a gift every time. While I’m now a Hudson Valley resident, I grew up in Vernon Center, NY, ten miles south of Rome. Our boat Captain John Lipscomb and I hatched a plan to connect him with my folks on his next Mohawk trip to get a sense of how the people living in the Mohawk Valley feel about their river.

A brief history: economic forces in the 19th century inspired the construction of the Erie Canal, which defined Upstate New York then and since. Harnessing the water power brought industry, and industry brought capital to those living and working in the Valley (the word “millionaire” was borne out of this time!). The area is still rich in landscape but has declined economically, and that same industry’s departure from the region ultimately divorced us from the waterway. Train tracks and the New York State Thruway now lie between the Mohawk and most human life, and lock masters on the canal are often John’s sole contacts as he travels the 130 nautical miles from Waterford to Rome.

Boat Approach Lock

John has been patrolling the Mohawk for the past week, and on this gorgeous day, we hopped on the boat just east of Lock 20 in Marcy. As the enormous doors cranked open, swallowed us, and shut behind, things felt pretty placid, but the waters beneath us were rising at a visible rate. John held onto a rope at the side of the lock to still us and before we knew it, we looked behind us at a view completely changed from just moments before.

In Lock 20

My mother, Erika, did a great deal of the organizing to make our boat trip happen. Mom grew up in New Hartford and has deep roots in Utica and the surrounding area. She helped gather a great group for the morning: Tim and Pat run a beekeeping operation further north, raising bees but also mentoring other local beekeepers; Tim is also involved with maintaining the historic Stanley Theater in Utica. Kim and Orin, owners of Cafe Domenico and The Other Side in Utica, also joined us; their spot was a beacon of culture and congregation for my younger self, and it remains a leading venue for culture and performances.

We were off to the races with a quick question from Kim: what do you do on these trips up here? Orin put it nicely when he said, “It seems like Riverkeeper’s role on the water is primarily to be a witness for the river.” John agreed, and said it’s not so complicated; his next job “is to get to know people. We depend on a network.”

School In Session

I see a lot of parallels between the legacy of the Hudson and that of the Mohawk Valley. People are still shocked when they learn I happily swim in the Hudson. When I asked Kim what it was like starting a business in Utica decades ago, she said, “Everyone told us we were crazy.” These are stories of disconnect and rebuilding. As I sat on the gunnel watching the sun glint off the water, I realized that the core of our boat program, and of community-building, is trust and patience. We all know the feeling: when it feels like change could be so simple, but there’s so many barriers in the way. It can feel impossible, even pointless, to strain against the overwhelming force of environmental threats, especially when they’re taxing the rivers that are our lifeblood. Time and again I heard John start a story like this: “So we knew there was an issue, and we started documenting…” or “We sent a letter, and then a year later this news story popped up…” or “I saw the dam, and started making phone calls…” Change often comes years after the first step.

Mom noticed this too. She said, “It’s very comforting to be here today. It makes me feel less anxious…less hopeless. Normally I think we’re up against so much, but knowing that John and Riverkeeper are here reminds me that we can all keep doing better, and it matters.”

Heron

We, of course, were not the only ones on the water – the Mohawk is teeming with life. A kingfisher flew up within arm’s reach of me, and a heron kept its eye on us from a nearby branch. While John spoke, I looked over to see a mink keeping pace with us in the water – of course eluding us as soon as cameras came out.

People care about the natural world no matter where they live, and I think we’re all just looking for an opportunity to connect with it. As we were wrapping up our trip, Pat exclaimed, “I don’t know what I did to be able to be here! On this boat, on this day, I’m so grateful.”

John Graffiti

There is truly something powerful in human connection. As we passed under a bridge outside of Rome, the Mohawk agreed:

Graffiti“Alone, we can change ourselves. Together, we can change the world.”

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