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I worked for the Watertown Times for about a year – 1976. The relationship ended badly, but while I was in the Massena bureau my life changed, forever and for the better.

The Seaway figures into the year three times, and taught me a lot about writing.

The first time, a couple of weeks after I started, I was invited down into the bowels of Snell Lock in the dead of winter. I remember two things: how brilliantly, gloriously bleak it was, standing topside on a February day in bright sunshine and a wind that drove the temperature well below zero.

It was an “I’m at the end of the world” moment.

The other thing, once I got down below, is a picture in my head of bright safety lights and stone and concrete tumbling everywhere, like some ruin in a science fiction movie. It was amazing, but I was sufficiently overwhelmed that none of what I saw, heard or shivered through made it into my copy. 

So I failed once by being intimidated by what I was covering.

A few months later, as the bicentennial geared up, one of the ‘tall ships’ of that year made its way upbound through the locks. The sailing ship was the “Christian Radich,” and I talked my way on by not correcting the impression that the newspaper I worked for was “The Times” as in “The New York Times,” not “The Watertown Times.”

I wrote three pieces from the half day I spent on board. They weren’t very good, and part of the reason was the language barrier. I knew nothing about sailing to begin with, and my ignorance was compounded by the fact that no one on board spoke more than a few words of English. I figured if no one could talk much, I didn’t have much to write about, ignoring the fact that I still had eyes and ears that worked perfectly well.

Make that two strikes – these pieces failed because I wasn’t paying attention to the obvious, everything around me.

The third was the oil spill. I ended up just outside of Massena, (Wilson Hill) as a bunch of guys from the DEC tried to round up geese to keep them from getting into the oil. Think cat herding and you have a pretty good idea of the challenge they faced. It was a hilarious, wonderful couple of hours – I had no connection to the tragedy that was unfolding west of me, no real idea of how bad the oil was. 

This time, the piece was awkward and overwritten, but…better. There were more details, quotes and a sense of focus. If I recall correctly, I ended up on the back page, alongside real reporters like Larry Cole.

What did I get out of my year, and more particularly, these three stories?

Trust my own eyes and ears.

Write what’s in front of me.

Keep going. 

There were a lot of rough years after that, (I’m a slow learner), but it was a start.

- Scott Atkinson

(Atkinson is the news director of WWNY.)

Bea’s Time

You won’t find a better friend to – or fiercer fighter for – the St. Lawrence River than Bea Schermerhorn of Hammond.

So we were not surprised when Bea copied us on a letter she sent to the Thousand Islands Sun.

Here ’tis:

There have been several articles about the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the St. Lawrence Seaway. As several have mentioned, the people of Northern New York were promised economic growth and cheap electricity, none of which happened. lnstead we got exotic species and an oil spill!

Yes, it was June 1976 when the worst fresh water oil spill on record to date occurred on the St. Lawrence.

The barge NEPCO and tug ran aground spilling over 300,000 gallons of crude oil in one of the most beautiful, fragile, ecological areas in the world.

ln the Chippewa Bay area one can still see the “bath tub” ring around island shores as well as the mainland. That spill contaminated more than 300 miles of island and mainland shore.

The Coast guard crew that came into the area for clean up was familiar with spills in tidal waters but not waters with a current. This problem slowed down the cleanup efforts and they ignored information from “locals” about the currents.

The night of that spill, the stars were out in Massena and the up River area in the 1000 lslands had pea soup fog. lt was reported that the Captain of the Tug radioed Massena for permission to go to anchor but since it was clear in Massena, permission was not granted. The rest of the story is history.

Following the spill, a group of concerned citizens formed an organization called GASP (Group Against Seaway Pollution). William Hess, who was our legislator at the time, arranged several meetings with Seaway officials and local concerned people. lt was learned that 70% of the cargo moving on the Seaway at that time was toxic and if spilled could make the oil spill look like a holiday.

Through the effort of Mr. Hess and several local politicians as well as GASP members the Seaway agreed to locate a retired Tug and boom in the Chippewa area. William Schermerhorn offered dockage for the Tug, at no charge to the Seaway, as well as storage for boom. He also offered his services to pilot the Tug out where ever it might be needed, night or day, because the Seaway crew felt uncomfortable navigating in Chippewa Bay.

About that same time, Winter Navigation came on the radar screen. The Seaway planned to break ice and run ships all winter long. The damage that exercise would have done would be immeasurable. Bea Schermerhorn, a founding member of SAVE THE RIVER, an organization which mounted a successful fight to eventually see Winter Navigation put on the back burner, was put in the Seaway’s bad book!

Since Chippewa Bay area bore the brunt of the oil spill the Seaway punished the area by removing the Tug and boom from its Schermerhorn Landing location.

This is just a bit of history that probably will not be discussed at the birthday celebrations. In addition the Seaway could not pay the interest on its debt, so the interest was forgiven. Then they could not pay the principle so that was forgiven and it is now funded by U.5. Tax Payers.

Seaway decision makers, please factor into any future decisions that you make, the fact that this River is one of Mother Nature’s most marvelous creations and it is not yours to destroy.

- Bea Schermerhorn

What a Time

roy_rush_house_640

Roy Rush of Massena sent us this picture. It’s (obviously) pre-Seaway. 

Here’s what Roy said:

This house was located on the Robinson Bay Road in Massena.

At the left of the house in the background you can see a wooded area. Not far from there is today’s Eisenhower Lock and tunnel.

Pictured are my grandmother and grandfather – Nancy (Reed) and Jack Rush.

On a Foggy Day

By definition a compass is a device used to “determine geographic direction, usually consisting of a magnetic needle or needles horizontally mounted or suspended and free to pivot until aligned with the magnetic field of earth.”

You don’t fully comprehend the value of a compass until you need one. And, you’d better know how to “use” a compass if the need arises. Our sailboat has a compass. It’s permanently attached to the wheel pedestal in the cockpit.

As you might expect, sailors encounter all sorts of weather. Too much wind, not enough wind, torrential rain, blazing hot sun. The worst is fog. Especially if you are sailing or even motoring your sailboat in the shipping channel on the St. Lawrence River or Lake Ontario.

I remember sailing on the lake when thick fog rolled in and enveloped our boat. You couldn’t see anything. We knew we had to get out of the shipping channel right away. While we had lost our ability to see, our sense of hearing had been heightened. And we “heard” what sounded like a freighter moving along.

We grabbed the chart and used our compass to navigate our way out of the channel. Safely out of the way, we glanced back and saw a huge ship come into view. That ship had been bearing down on us…..in the fog.

That’s when we fully realized the value of a compass and were really glad we knew how to use it.

- Anne Richter

Somehow, in our great pleasure at reading everyone’s thoughts, we neglected to post links to parts two and three of our television series – “The Seaway, Then & Now.”

Here’s part 3. 

And here’s part 2. 

Long before cell phones, before 300 TV channels, before NetFlix and before personal computers, my family watched ships traveling the St.Lawrence Seaway Sunday afternoons.

It was our entertainment and our version of a road trip. My mother and father would pack the car with snacks and blankets and warm clothes and we would drive 25 minutes from Norfolk to the Massena locks. If we were lucky, there would be a stop at the A&W Root beer stand on Route 37 for fortification.

When we piled out of the car at the Seaway parking lot, there was a mad dash to see if there was a ship waiting to traverse the locks. A second story platform over the gift shop provided a bird’s eye view up and down the river to aid our search.

Sometimes the ships formed a line waiting for a chance to enter the locks so they could be on their way to another place. We waved like mad and yelled “hello”. We were American ambassadors welcoming foreigners to our land. We borrowed binoculars to get a better view and to see the handsome sailors. They were always handsome and mysterious. They also looked a little dangerous.

We would make up stories about each crew member and when the men waved back we were thrilled. I decided I would marry one of them and travel the world on a great ship. As a 9 year old, my love of travel was cemented on the banks of the St.Lawrence River watching mysterious ships go by on a perfect Sunday afternoon.

- Cathy Pircsuk
vice president & general manager, WWNY

paul_sargent

Paul Lloyd Sargent lives in Brooklyn part of the time and Syracuse part of the time, but he’s seldom far from the Seaway.

The picture Paul sent is part of a series of photographs begun in 2000. It’s called “Untitled Seaway Studies-2013: BBC Elbe, Summer 2008.” 

The essay Paul sent is also a Seaway study, and it reflects just how mixed one’s feelings about the Seaway can be.

Paul’s essay:

I’m an artist.  I grew up in Syracuse and now live somewhere between Brooklyn and Wellesley Island.  At 38, I have spent at least a part of every one of my years on the St. Lawrence River.  I’ve visited many beautiful spots on this earth but none as fitting as this.

I approach the seaway’s 50th anniversary with ambivalence.  The child in me, nostalgic for the deep bass rumble of a ship’s engine across the water on an otherwise still August night, does marvel that something so colossal, often from so far away, can float right past my house.  My adult self finds this uncanny.

Uncanny is the correct word for it, too, as after all my years of watching these ships pass by, chasing in their wakes, photographing them, even tracking their journeys online while I’m hundreds of miles away, it remains unnatural, so precarious.  In fact, I’m old enough to never forget precisely how precarious: like the stains on our docks, stairs, and carpets, I will never scrub the oil of 1976’s horrific spill from my memory.  I don’t say any of this lightly.  My position on the seaway is nuanced with awe for human engineering alongside an apprehension that humans occasionally undertake great projects to ill consequence. 

In the last decade, I have made the River, the Great Lakes, and the seaway the object of my study and the focus of my practice as I attempt to understand and appreciate what is best for this landscape and waterway I love so dearly.  I’ve written about the area academically and presented images of the region to audiences in cities like New York and Chicago, whose residents, despite their proximity, can rarely locate the path one would take to paddle to the sea.  Throughout this work, the more I read, listen, observe and learn, the more I keep wondering, “What will be left?  What will remain for future generations if we’ve been wrong, if humanity’s best intentions have been misguided, and if rivers must flow wild to survive and endure?”

-Paul Lloyd Sargent 
Brooklyn, Syracuse, 
and Wellesley Island, NY 

 

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