In the shadows of a bridge

It was 20 years ago this month, in the summer of 1988. The weather had been unusually hot, with a brilliant sun shining for days on end and muggy conditions prevailing most evenings. It was a sticky and uncomfortable summer. Our daughter, Willow, was born Aug. 10 of that year. Just over a month later, on Sept. 12, 1988, I left on a two week paddling adventure that would cover the 328 nautical miles between Plattsburgh and New York City. In the course of our journey during the blistering days of late summer, we sought shelter in the shadow of bridges and found adventures beyond what anyone could have anticipated. The idea for the journey was initially borne in 1980, during a drunken barroom pact among a group of my old college buddies at Plattsburgh State. We were out of school and on our way to careers, yet we all agreed to come back after graduation to complete the trip. We would paddle Lake Champlain, the Champlain Canal and the Hudson River all the way to Manhattan. It was to be one final group adventure, one last hurrah before the real world caught up with us. With college degrees in hand, we set out and never looked back. Soon, it became obvious that with families, employment requirements and the ever pressing financial responsibilities of adulthood, it was unlikely the group would ever make the trip together. However, the journey remained a pipe dream, an omnipresent What if? among the crew for years. Fate has a funny way of making ends meet. Out of the blue in June of 1988, I got a call from Plattsburgh Mayor Rennells office . The mayor had received a request for a guide and outfitter to coordinate a canoe trip from the mouth of the Saranac River in Plattsburgh to Liberty Island in New York Harbor. The request came from the 46th Talavera, Air Defense Royal Artillery, British Armed Forces. Would you be interested? he asked. The 46th Talavera, I knew, was based in Muenster, West Germany. Oddly, though I recognized the name of the outfit, I couldnt recall why or where it was familiar. When I finally remembered weeks later, the memory raised concern. Sgt. Joe Strachen, who was heading up the program, explained that the journey labeled Exercise Liberty Triangle was a fun way of getting used to danger with adventurous training. The British Armed Forces allow soldiers two weeks leave ever year to engage in such adventure training. The aim, he continued is to engage in activity with an acceptable, but nonetheless real risk to life and limb to build character, promote teamwork and develop leadership skills. These qualities,thus developed, will stand a soldier in better stead to successfully cope with the stress of wartime situations. We agreed to obtain sponsors on each side of the big pond to fund the trip. Sgt. Strachen notified me that Short Brothers of Belfast, Ireland was to be their sole sponsor. Short Brothers, an aircraft and missile systems manufacturer, supplied the Talavera with The Javelin, a shoulder launched, surface to air missile that was vital to air defense. Short Brothers outfitted the group with Javelin t-shirts, hats and other gear. Sgt. Strachen provided the company with a complete itinerary of our proposed route with scheduled stops to Short Brothers so they could arrange press coverage. Through a number of contacts, I secured corporate sponsors including Miller Brewing Company, Grumman Canoe Division, Day Bros., The American Canoe Manufacturers Union, Dupont Cordura and Kelty, Inc. Rockwell and Newell, a well-known New York based public relations firm handled press details for the US sponsors of the expedition. Grumman supplied a fleet of 20-foot canoes which Day Bros. delivered to us. Paddles, PFDs and other gear came from the American Canoe Manufacturers Union and Kelty, Inc. Miller Brewing supplied food, beverages and financial support. Mayor Rennell of Plattsburgh was to see the group off in Plattsburgh with a proclamation. Days later, Mayor Whalen of Albany was scheduled to present the Talavera with a Key to the City during a ceremony in Corning Park. The journey was to end at Liberty Island in New York Harbor with a large press contingent on hand. Dozens of letters and phone conversations were exchanged in the following weeks, before a group consisting of one officer, two noncoms and six gunners pulled into my driveway on Saturday, Sept. 10. No one in the group had ever paddled an Indian canoe as the British refer to open canoes. However, most were familiar with kayaks, which they consider a canoe. The next day, we practiced paddling skills on a local lake, dumping and recovering boats, retrieving gear and establishing a safety network. The group was eager to learn and took orders well. In the evening we packed food and gear and hit the road at 5 am to Plattsburgh. On Monday, Sept. 12, in a brief ceremony Mayor Rennell proclaimed all of the paddlers Honorary Citizens of Plattsburgh and offered tokens for the mayors of all the cities we would visit along the route. As we paddled from below the footbridge at the mouth of the Saranac River into the lake, the waters were flat and calm. By the time we reached Crab Island, just a few miles south of the river, the lake was blowing up a chop. As we passed the small outcrop, Lt. Robinson,the commanding officer, ordered all hats off in respect as a salute to the fallen soldiers on Crab Island. As we paddled the swells off Ausable Point, a Valcour patrol boat and a State Police boat came out to check on us. Although concerned for our safety, we continued and made it to Willsboro Point by dinner. We stayed at Willsboro Point Marina the first night and spent three more evenings on the lake before entering the Champlain Canal at Whitehall. Fierce headwinds out of the south and a steady rain conspired to put us off our announced schedule. It took two days of tough paddling to cover the distance from Willsboro to Crown Point. We were on the lake a day longer than expected. However, this one short bout of fickle weather was to later prove most convenient. While in camp the following evening at Dresden, Sgt. Strachen revealed that earlier in the year, the 46th Talaveras former Commanding Officer and his family had been killed in an explosion at a ferry landing in the Netherlands. They were blown up while traveling home to Britain. At the time, it was thought that the Irish Republican Army was responsible for putting a bomb under the vehicle. The 46th, which had previously been posted in Belfast were a rough lot. Like most British soldiers in Northern Ireland, they were reviled by the Irish. I remembered why Talavera was familiar. Time Magazine had carried a story of the bombing. It was the first terrorist action on the European mainland to be attributed to the Irish Republican Army. (To be continued)

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