On our first morning, about the time the television crew took leave of us, Michael Kaufman of
The New York Times
showed up in a 16-foot, orange lapstrake hull. Kaufman plans to follow us all the way, reporting daily. I must say he is doing the job, handicapped by a croupy outboard motor but hanging on as if this voyage were the only news bone worth gnawing this week. John Stookey, who fomented the idea of rediscovering the waters of New York for fun, was concerned that too much press attention would turn the trip into a righteous crusade against pollution or in favor of birds, or worse. I was happy to see Mike Kaufman of the Times show up. I had heard a potential hurricane was headed our way. If the storm really walloped us, helicopters might not see our overturned canoes, but the bright orange bottom of Kaufman's press boat would be hard to miss.
Early on our first morning, when we stepped ashore at Pelham Bay Park to enjoy the environment briefly afoot, the television crew planted a remote microphone on Herschel Post. Post is executive director of The Parks Council, a public-spirited body concerned with the recreational use of city land. I suspect the television gang selected Post for bugging on the theory that he was the one most likely to let out a freshet of heady guff about man's need to get back to nature. I doubt if they got much. Although both Post and Dery Bennett of the American Littoral Society have good axes to grind on such a trip, they have been taking it casually like the rest of us.
Of all the wild and half-wild creatures we have met so far, the most intriguing is our expedition leader, John Stookey. He is an inspired wanderer, endowed with the curiosity of a wharf rat and the sort of unquenchable zest that made Franklin D. Roosevelt a constant winner. When all hell is breaking loose, Stookey often has a thin cigar in his mouth, canted upward in the fashion Roosevelt used to cock his cigarette holder. I have heard Stookey say, "There is nothing quite as dull as when things are routinely bad. It is far better if things are really awful." We originally intended to take this canoe trip in the long days of early June, but late last May, while driving a tractor enthusiastically up a Vermont slope, Stookey lost steerage-way. He tried to jump clear on the downhill side but failed. The tractor rolled over him, pressing him into the earth and breaking 11 of his ribs.
Stookey can find more silver lining in a dark cloud than any man I know. When the gray leading edge of tropical storm Doria came over us, Stookey observed that we were lucky not to be paddling in the broiling sun. When the worst drenching squall hit us—a real dam buster accompanied by 40-knot winds and lightning—Stookey pointed out that the driving rain was knocking the tops off the waves. Late yesterday as we crept toward the south end of Flushing Bay, Shea Stadium, the home of the baseball Mets, loomed ahead. Stookey immediately proposed that we watch the Met game that evening and feast on hot dogs and beer. He had no idea whether the Mets were playing at home or away, or at all. Nor did he consider that the Shea outfield was probably ankle-deep after a day of deluge. Such minor realities never slow Stookey up.
On the sea I lean toward caution. In my own sailboat I seldom go out for half a day without a copy of Bowditch's Practical Navigator, a pocket edition of the King James Bible, emergency flares, a packet of marker dye and enough water and tinned food for an Atlantic crossing. In contrast, Stookey is master of the art of traveling light. Except for camping gear, the only bulky item he has on this trip is a bundle of nautical charts, all marked with routes, alternate routes and possible avenues of diversion.
Chuck Stewart, my canoe partner for most of the trip, has wandered with Stookey in the past. Before we set out, Stewart warned me about Stookey. "When John goes canoeing," Stewart said, "he loves to portage and he loves to explore." Stookey belongs to the Age of Discovery. If it had been Stookey instead of Verrazano who explored the New World for King Francis I of France, every minor creek and backwater of the Atlantic seaboard would have been charted in half a year.
To get to the south end of Flushing Bay the obvious route is through the narrows between Rikers Island and the runways of La Guardia Airport—but not when you are with Stookey. He led us under La Guardia's runways into a subterranean gloom that reminded him of Mayan temples he has visited. I have been in a few Mayan temples but never in one like the underbelly of La Guardia. The Mayan stoneworks I have seen were etched with glyphics. In sub-La Guardia there was not a literate mark on any of the concrete pilings or beams, not a line of graffiti nor a four-letter word.
In the next three days if we come to a large sewer outlet, I am sure Stookey will lead us up it. We approximated the experience yesterday around noon when we explored a stagnant meander called Pugsley Creek in the Bronx. In looking over the data I brought along to help us enjoy the waterfront, I find the city's Department of Planning considers the Pugsley Creek area a problem, socially and physically. According to a planning department report, the area is one of "rising community tension" where old residents resent the new. The report goes on to say that "the overflow that empties into Pugsley and Westchester Creeks after a storm creates unpleasant odors." Possibly so, but when we pulled ashore in a corker of a storm, I smelled nothing. As for community tension, we detected none that rain-soaked day. The people of Pugsley Creek took us to their bosoms.
From the spot we landed on Pugsley Creek our only access to public streets was through a large swimming-pool facility wishfully called the Castle Hill Beach Club. At the far end of the club property we came to the entrance building. John Stookey has a way of suddenly delegating responsibility to members of his crew. Probably because I looked the wettest and most forlorn, Stookey said it was my job to get us out through the club entrance. Approaching the attendant on duty, I said, "Sir, we have been cast upon your shore...." I was prepared to go into details of our plight—pangs of hunger and so on—but there was no need. Impressed by the volume of water we were shedding on the floor, the attendant waved us through.
Across the street from the Castle Hill Club we had drinks at the Hi-Tide Hideaway owned by the seven Cinnante brothers: Joseph, Emil, Sonny, Sal, Louis—and I forget the other two. Then we ate clams and hero sandwiches next door at Tim Tarn's Barbecue, owned by the same Cinnante clan. One Cinnante brother—Emil, I think—said we must have pasta for brains to be canoeing in such weather. On the radio in Tim Tarn's Barbecue an announcer was doting over the damage already done by tropical storm Doria and her future plans. According to the announcer, Doria had knocked the Virginia capes for a loop and was centered off New Jersey, "packing winds of near-hurricane force," headed for New York. "This is no time to be out in a boat," the announcer declared exuberantly. I looked at Stookey, our leader. He was aglow, enjoying the news of Doria almost as much as his second order of clams. "I have no idea where we will end up tonight," he informed us. "After this rain," I pointed out, "Mount Ararat is going to be the only place."