BETTER ANGEL on the Lamoille – Part Two. “What a Happy Boat!”

I did not row on the morning of the 22nd – too tired. Next day, Sunday, I rowed upstream to the University of Vermont dock and back, about 10K meters. This is such a fine rowing venue.

Meredith didn’t take BETTER ANGEL out on Saturday, either, because she was looking after the kids and the house.

Sunday she had her turn. She set out on the shell, taking time to visit with an upstream neighbor, then cruised past the dock and came in from downstream. As I grabbed the tip of her port blade to pull her in, she exclaimed, “What a happy boat!”

I had never thought of a racing shell as happy, or as having any emotion whatsoever. Maybe “happy” referred to how she was feeling,

It did, I think, but she meant the boat literally is happy.

She is right. This is a happy boat!

Below: Meredith Breiland launching BETTER ANGEL

Meredith, Don and Erik

BETTER ANGEL on the Lamoille – Part One

On Friday, June 21, in the mid-afternoon, I arrived at Erik and Meredith Breilands’ place. I parked and unhitched the boat trailer, then spent the evening socializing with Erik and Meredith and their vivacious daughters Elsa (age 5) and Margo (2 1/2), and long-legged dog Pogie (1).

I don’t recall too much else about my first hours with Breilands. I hope I didn’t do anything too stupid or embarrassing. The days of travel and the long miles had caught up with me, and I was flat-out exhausted. I slept 9+ hours that night, rare for me, and arose on the 22nd still feeling drowsy.

I rigged the Pocock, BETTER ANGEL, and took the cover off the Owen so people could see it, too. For at my suggestion, Erik and Meredith had invited several members of their Green Mountain Rowing Club to come see the woodies.

The Breilands live on 6+ acres with 400 feet of frontage on the Lamoille River. They have a beautiful home built mainly with their own hands. They have a low profile dock nestled along a protected stretch of the river. They have a wide grassy ramp that slopes gently to the dock. They and others store their singles, doubles and sculls in a large barn atop the ramp. They have miles of smooth water and little other boat traffic. They have a rower’s paradise.

On that clear warm Saturday morning the main attraction was BETTER ANGEL. I invited Erik, an excellent sculler, to row it first, and four more club members of varying degrees of expertise followed. Not everyone had rowed a wooden racing shell before. Everyone agreed the boat was grand. One woman dubbed it a “celebrity”.

It was fun to watch their enjoyment, although, admittedly, I was occasionally nervous. Scullers in general are cautious about allowing others to use their personal boats and I am particularly fussy, especially with these tippy, rare and valuable wooden racing shells. Prior to June 22, only the boat’s builder, Steve Chapin, my late double partner, Stu Brown, and I had ever rowed BETTER ANGEL.

But if I am to drive across America showing these precious boats, what kind of host would I be to say to rower’s, “I’ll row. You watch”? And anyway, isn’t opening up a theme of this trip?

It boils down to trust. I trust my friends the Breilands. They know rowing. They know rowers. They know what this boat means, and they would not expose it to danger. If they trust someone, then so do I. So what might have been a leap of faith was no leap whatsoever.

During several of these test-rows a 19-year-old recent high school graduate had been out rowing a nice little Oxford 2 he had built for his senior class project. He pulled in at the dock just after the last adult docked BETTER ANGEL.

He stepped out of his boat and onto the dock. I asked if he wanted to try my boat. He looked a bit nervous then said, Yes. He took it for a spin, his first in a racing hull. He did fine.

Below: Erik Breiland and BETTER ANGEL on the Lamoille

Opening Up

I spent the first day of summer driving from North Bay, Ontario to my weekend sojourn at Milton, Vermont. The first third of the drive, through wild and beautiful country, was followed by a surprisingly easy skirting around the population centers of Ottawa and Montreal, and an even easier entry into the US of A.

After crossing the US – Canadian border it took only a few minutes to zip through a slice of New York and into northern Vermont. I meandered southward through the bucolic Lake Champlain islands to the home of my hosts, Erik and Meredith Breiland.

I’ll write about my wonderful stay in Milton later, but right now I’ll share a story about a wonderful serendipity that came my way en route. I encountered a man I normally would have avoided. Thanks to his invitation, I opened up and spent a lovely hour I shall not forget. He taught me a lesson about being open.

I had pulled off the freeway to fuel up in the little industrial town of Arnprior, outside of Ottawa. I was sticking the gas nozzle in the tank when a big guy on a motorcycle roared up on the other side of the pump.

His bike was an old Harley-Davidson. He and his motorcycle and his denim jacket were worn and dirty. He looked to be about 80 years old.

An elaborate, embroidered patch with the name and logo of a motorcycle club covered the back of his jacket. On the front were 15 to 20 embroidered patches of varying shapes and sizes, neatly sewn in rows and columns.

One patch read TRUMP, another, POW-MIA. I saw the Confederate rebel flag, a profile of Hillary Clinton’s face with a red circle around it and a diagonal line through it, an AK-47 or other assault-style weapon, the white power fist, and others in the same vein.

He looked at me as I looked at him. I am sure he noticed my ubiquitous “California Rowing” hat and, that day, a Station L Rowing Club shirt.

Each man’s clothing screamed out his brand.

We nodded to each other and I walked into the convenience store to pre-pay. He came in as I walked out. I was washing the windshield when he sauntered over, looked directly into my eyes and with a friendly smile said, “Hi. Tell me about the boats.”

“Sure. I’ll pull around back.”

“I’ll go over to Tim Horton’s and get us some coffee.”

I parked around the corner in the parking lot of a shut-down poutine shack. He limped across the street carrying two large cups of coffee and, – although I hadn’t asked for them – a stir stick, packet of sugar, and tiny container of cream for me.

He handed me the coffee and extras. We sat down on the edge of the boat trailer. He said he saw my Oregon license plates and that one of the best times in his life was in 2015 when he rode his Harley out to Oregon.

The best part of his visit had been Crater Lake. He was amazed that the north road to the lake was still closed by snow so late in July. He talked for five minutes about the lake’s geology and geography. He was professorial: I felt as if I were sitting in a college classroom. Most of what he shared was news to me, despite being an Oregonian since 1971.

Then he asked if I would zip open one of the boat covers, so he could have a “peek”. I partially unzipped the cover of the Pocock so that he could at least see and touch the hull – something I had done for several others on the trip.

I thought, this man deserves much more.

So. I unstrapped the boat and assembled a pair of slings; and with one of us at each end of the shell, we lifted it off of the trailer and onto the slings. I rolled the cover completely off and set it on the trailer.

Together, we rolled the wooden racing shell over so it was top-side up.

He knelt with both knees in the dirt next to the boat, and practically glued his eyes on the joinery between the western red cedar hull and Alaskan yellow cedar splash rails. He said, “Who made this? He’s a fuc*ing genius.”

Now it was my turn. I told him that Steve Chapin, the Port Townsend shipwright who built this special racing shell, is a genius and, in fact, one of a handful of craftsmen in the world capable of building such a craft.

I gave him some history of the Pocock cedar racing shell tradition. I said I first connected with that tradition as a college kid in the late 1960’s; that I had met Mr. George Pocock, who for decades built the ancestor shells to this one; that I admire Mr. Pocock and in my mind he is the grandfather of American rowing; and that I consider my affinity for wooden racing shells and my current trip to be my small contributibon to this sacred tradition.

I said the shell’s name, BETTER ANGEL, is inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s plea for peace and union, which concludes his first inaugural address.

He stood up and gave me a long look.

We rolled the boat over and set it on the slings hull side up. He looked at the seam between the halves of the hull and began to count tree rings. He turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “God bless you. What’s your name?”

“Don. And yours?”

“Tim.”

We shake.

“Tim, what brought you to Canada”, for by now I guessed I knew something of his past.

“Raised in Phoenix. Not headed to college. Dad was a U.S. Army soldier in WW2. I served in the U.S. Army in Viet Nam, did my job, came back, got sh*t on by people who had stayed home, visited a friend in Canada, got treated with respect, became a citizen here, had a life. You serve?

“No. High lottery number. I hated the war and loved you who fought.”

“Me, too.”

We talked about careers, family, love of nature, love of boats, other topics. He is my age, 70, a finish carpenter. When he says the man who built BETTER ANGEL is a genius, he knows what he is talking about. He knows what he is talking about on many other topics.

Together we finished our coffee, put the cover on the shell, set it on the racks and strapped it on. We shook hands again and wished each other the best. We drove off our separate ways.

We didn’t talk about what our clothing said. There was no need to. We already liked one another.

S. Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Being Out of Breath

Yesterday, June 18, I arose at Rapid City, SD at 4:00 AM MDT, crossed South Dakota and Minnesota, and arrived at Wausau, WI at 8:15 PM CDT. I drove 730 miles, stopping only for fuel, food, 6,000 steps of walking and the other basic needs.

The entire ride I listened to sports talk radio. I know so much more about the NBA draft now than I ever thought I would. I just love to learn.

I was hustling to make it to Jerry and Laura’s house for dinner and the night.

Jerry Phelan and I rowed a double the year I stayed with Karen and her daughter in Wausau. It was in the early 2000’s, when Jerry was 52 years old and I was 55.

We rowed almost daily (except in winter) on a foul, man-made lake on the Little Eau Pleine. We beach launched, which often meant carrying the 68-pound boat through hundreds of tiny dead fish with our legs sunk calf-deep in the “primordial ooze”, as Jerry called it. It was rotten water, but calm, and rowing there was a blast.

Another fine development is that I taught Karen how to scull there. She was 40 then and had no familiarity with the sport whatsoever. She is a natural athlete and with her musician’s sense of rhythm, she learned more quickly than anyone else I have coached. Karen and I had many good rows out there together.

When I rowed with Jerry, he stroked and I rowed bow. We worked hard. We did enter one race – a head race, at Green Bay, where we were horizoned due to my poor steering. We are about the same size and compatible in temperament. With more time we could have been fast.

That possibility fizzled in the 2,000 miles between Coos Bay and Wausau, and we never became competitive. But we did have fun, lots of it – in fact, probably the most fun I have ever had rowing.

Most days after warm-ups he and I would row ten timed pieces parallel to the face of the dam, a distance of about 950 meters. We would row a piece, quickly turn around, and row right back again. We aimed to keep our split at race pace, which for us was 1:50 – 1:55 per 500 meters.

One day early on, when we were just getting to know one another, Jerry said something following the seventh piece that gave me a huge laugh and still has me chuckling.

We were huffing and puffing and, in my case, psyching up for the last three pushes, when suddenly in a faux-baby voice, Jerry says,

“Don, I love to row, but sometimes I really get out of breath!”

No sh*t, you get out of breath, Jerry. The way he – a big former U.S. national rowing team member and brainy guy with an engineering degree from University of Wisconsin – delivered that obvious and silly-in-the-circumstances comment really nailed me, and said to me, this turkey is going to become a great friend.

And he has.

Jerry and Laura fed me dinner and breakfast, and gave me a good bed. It was terrific to see them. Today I eased off on the distance and ended up at Manistique, Michigan, a charming little town on the shore of Lake Michigan. Tomorrow I cross into Ontario, Canada at The Soo.

Travelling East and Thinking West

Today I made it from Butte, MT to Rapid City, SD, about 600 miles. I travelled under glorious skies and temperatures in the 70’s, interrupted for but 45 minutes of Wyoming monsoon that had traffic crawling along at 55.

Smell of fresh damp earth, windows open as I roll along hour upon hour. Lots of time for all manner of relevant and irrelevant thoughts.

Given this infinite parameter, and seeing that several people had commented about Burns, OR and about my having been judge for the Burns Paiute Tribe, along the way today something from long ago randomly popped into my head.

The Burns Paiute Indian Tribe had recruited me to come out once month to hear their court’s caseload. I agreed to do so, but only for a few months. The experience would prove to be a fascinating, career-changing move, and a real eye-opener for me as a young judge. And I do believe I did some good. I enjoyed it so much that I would continue as their judge for three-plus years.

This was during 1984 – 1987. My family and I were then living some 160 miles from Burns, in Sisters, OR. Our good friends, Dan Fouts and his family, lived near us during the NFL football off-season. Dan was quarterback for the San Diego Chargers and at that time one of the league’s biggest stars. A handsome guy, he was easily recognizable for his large stature and thick black beard.

My first docket at Burns Paiute was in March 1984. I knew it would be a busy day, with cases having piled up following the previous judge’s departure six months earlier. I was to drive to Burns on a Friday morning for the scheduled 1:00 PM beginning of the court session.

As it happened, Dan’s wife’s two sisters and their husbands were visiting that week. Thursday evening Dan called me and asked if I would like the three of them to drive me over to Burns for my first day of Paiute Tribal Court. Sure, I said.

So at 8:00 AM Friday they picked me up in one brother-in-law’s Cadillac. Off the four of us raced across Oregon’s high desert.

We arrived at court at 12:15. I retired to my tiny office to go through the tall stack of case files, while Dan and the other guys milled around outside, breathed the crisp springtime air, and tried to look inconspicuous.

The courtroom was in a double-wide mobile home. There was a jury box for six, the judge’s bench, a witness chair, a seat for the court clerk, and additional seating for about a dozen.

From my office I could hear the noise of many people gathering in the courtroom. The clerk called me into court, said “all rise”, and I came in to see about 70 people standing crammed elbow-to-elbow, 55 of whom had no place to sit when I said “please be seated”!

Sure, some had come to see the new judge, and others were there for the 1:00 arraignments. But most were there to gawk at the football star!

And there he was, pressed against back wall, flanked by his brothers-in-law, the three of them making faces at me as I got to work!

I went through the arraignments and into the non-jury trials. More people crowded noisily outside as things progressed into the late afternoon.

At about 3:00 my entourage gave me a high sign to let me know they would be driving into town for a beer and something to eat. At around 6:00 PM my clerk and I finally took a break for some pizza my guys had sent up from town.

After we finally wrapped things up, at 8:00 PM the prosecutor drove me into Burns and dropped me off at the Central Pastime, where I knew my boys were holed up.

I walked in to a scene I’ll never forget: there stood Dan Fouts with the largest imaginable Cheshire cat grin, behind him about 100 men, all smiling at me and hollering “here come de judge; here come de judge!”

When word had gotten around that Dan Fouts was in town, men poured in from all corners of that little burg to have a chance to play pool and drink beer with a bona fide football star.

Fouts was leaning on a pool table piled high with baseball hats. He collected hats and had made the same deal with each man: give me your hat and I’ll buy your beer, pizza and broasted chicken until the judge shows up!

By the time I arrived, Dan and his family, and 100 other guys, were well tanked. Guess who drove us home across the night-time desert? De judge.

Is any of this relevant to rowing across America, you might ask?

The month after that first day as Paiute judge, I took delivery on my brand-new Ron Owen single cedar racing shell, the one that now sits on my trailer, right down there in the parking lot below my hotel window. I still have the boat – and the career.

Happy Father’s Day

Today I had an early row on Payette Lake, drove north on US 95 through fabulous meadows and canyons, followed the Salmon, Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers, topped Lolo Pass, and cruised down into Missoula, Montana.

The weather was perfect with temperatures in the 70’s, some rain, and Big Sky clouds. My stay tonight is in Butte, short of my goal of Bozeman but what of that?

It was one fine, fine Father’s Day. I heard from my son Ian and my daughter Eryn as I always do and appreciate. Being a father is easy with children like that.

Karen called with the latest news of granddaughter Vivienne’s summer in Coos Bay. I sent Father’s Day greetings to her father Dan and was sorry I was not there to help him eat the German chocolate cake Karen had baked.

***

Much of my psychic energy today was devoted to my own father, Howard. Tomorrow it will be three months since the day he died (St. Patrick’s Day) and I am just beginning to recover from the loss.

I felt my father’s big warm and gentle hand on my back every minute of our years, guiding me and never pushing. A true teacher, he gave me the tools for a good life and along with them the responsibility to decide what to do with them. Whether to sink or swim, was all up to me.

He was confident in me, and I, in him. I seldom asked his advice because I knew he had prepared me well. With him as my North Star, I could not go wrong.

The words “love” and “appreciate” don’t come close to expressing my feelings for him. I’ll never see him alive again. But he will always be with me, his hand at my back.

(Karen took this photo in 2015. Heceta Head lighthouse is in the background.)

Tug at My Heart Strings – Not

Up and out early from Ian and Sara’s, coffee across Oregon’s eastern high desert. Memories of my days as judge for the Burns Paiute Tribe. Stop at Oard’s east of Burns. Bought something for my granddaughter; she’ll just need to guess.

Onward to Weiser and up, up through gorgeous farmland then to mountain streams and conifers and smells of the mountains. Warm, sunny skies all the way. To McCall and 5,000 feet elevation and Payette Lake, and the boat I mentioned yesterday, which receives a no vote.

(Amid a vast pasture of tall, green grass I see a clump of 20 or so bright red poppies. Who put those there, I wonder?)

Dinner at McCall includes homemade spaghetti and two meatballs as large as my fist, served by a waitress named Kassandra. Great food was mitigated by the martini I slurped down.

Kassandra asked if I wanted a second of those “bad boys” but I said no; if yes I would have needed to be carried out on a palanquin, which might have been a gas because (1) I would have loved saying “bring me a palanquin, please”, (2) it would have been fun to see if anyone there knows what a palanquin is, and (3) I would have loved the ride back to the hotel.

***

There was a comment today from my first troll, one “Jerry”. Jerry is my good pal, old Wisco oar, Best Man at my wedding to Karen and therefore a facilitator to that union. Don’t pay him any heed. He is retired and therefore without much to do other than to heckle.

***

Tomorrow morning early it’s out on Lake Payette for a row, then over Lolo Pass and into Montana…