The Clearwater comes to Alpine

Last nite I witnessed something extraordinary and heartening.  I was at a special campfire in Alpine NJ, along the Hudson below the Palisades.  The campfire was a collaboration between the Clearwater ship of Pete Seeger fame and the Palisades Interstate Park’s NJ Section.  The Clearwater often docks at the Alpine Boat Basin while traveling up and down the Hudson and giving their environmental programs and sails for the public.  The sloop houses a wonderful crew of young folks who live on the boat and not only care for its upkeep, but teach young people how to sail and about the health and ecology of the Hudson river.  It is NOT an easy job. It is, like the Peace Corps – the toughest job you’ll ever love.  One week on the Clearwater is a physical workout like Cory Booker has never seen.  The huge sails are raised by human strength alone.  The sleeping quarters are not much different than they were over a hundred years ago when these boats plied the waters of the Hudson .  No modern conveniences, but that is part of the charm.

It was a beautiful night but that wasn’t what was truly special last night.  It was the company.   The crew, which is often supplemented by young volunteers from around the country, takes different groups on the boat for sails of varying length. This week was the “Young Men at the Helm” program.…  Young men between the ages of 14 – 18 chosen from low income rural and inner city areas go for a three day sail on the Clearwater.  The trip included docking in Alpine last night and having a campout at the Alpine Boat Basin complete with campfire and s’mores.

As I walked down to the Kearney House, which is where the activities for the evening were located, I stopped to consider why this is such a favorite stop for the Clearwater crew.  It is a restored Hudson River tavern located in the NJ Section of the Palisades Interstate Park in Alpine, along the Hudson and below the Palisades.  Built around the time of the American Revolution and rumored to be Lord Cornwallis’ Headquarters, the way many an old house bragged of being where Washington once slept.  The house was owned by a woman named Rachel Kearney who raised 9 children in it.  What is special about the house is not that it was owned by anyone famous or wealthy.  It is one of the few houses preserved that belonged to an ordinary family living along the Hudson over the past two hundred years.  The house, run as tavern by Mrs. Kearney while she was trying to feed 9 children, became a center of the little community there and a refuge for rivermen who sailed for a living and so, it is recognized by the Clearwater as a sort of home away from home, just as the sailors of the 18th century would have seen it.  The director of the Kearney house, Eric Nelsen,  and several of the crew of the Clearwater recognized that this was a chance to let the crew and passengers get the full experience of what it was like to travel the Hudson river over 100 years ago. On occasion, program participants camp outside which is much preferable to sleeping in the quarters on the boat when weather permits or the group is large.

As we sat around the large campfire ring outside the Kearney house, where in the fall, the girl scouts of Bergen County have Friday night campfires for girls too little to go to sleepaway camp yet, the group of 25 young men and crew toasted marshmallows, made s’mores, and took tours of the historic house in between joking with each other.  After everyone got their fill of smores, Maija, the Clearwater Educator in charge of the program, sat down cross legged on the ground, and asked the program participants to go around the circle, tell where they grew up, what was the most challenging part of the their lives, and where they wanted to go from here, and what they liked most about the experience this week.  It was the most heartening and amazing thing I had heard all week.  Many of these kids were from Beacon, and Newburgh, Yonkers, the Bronx, Manhattan, tough neighborhoods, most of them.  Areas hit hardest by the downturn in the economy.  Many of them recounted how they came from families where encouragement was hard to find.  The best they were told to hope for was to get a job at a store down the street, get married, have kids, and hope that their kids had it better than they did.  I was struck by the maturity of these young men and stunned when many of them said their age was 14 or 15. They seemed much wiser than that already.  They had made a decision that their lives were NOT going to follow the path already apparently laid out for them.  They had plans.  I was happy to hear of a few who wanted to be engineers,  a few still wanted to join the military and others had a love of the natural world instilled in them from the trip and wanted to go do something involved with that.  One young man expressed his love of drawing and wanting to be a cartoonist.

Many stated that the stark difference between the inner city, where things were concrete, gritty, dirty and depressing, and the incredible beauty of the River and the greenness of the Park, really struck them.  It occurred to me then – these children of the city would be the very best ones to understand the value of protecting the environment .  I was looking at and listening to the next generation of environmental conservationists.   Who better to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, than the children who had been raised deprived of it, and understand how precious it is?   I can’t tell you how much the spirit and determination of these young men lifted my spirits.  At a time when people with every advantage are crying that they don’t have enough, and every dip on Wall Street freaks out even the average American, here are young men in a segment of the population that is experiencing record unemployment, in parts of the Tri-state area with crushing poverty, talking about their hopes and dreams, and actually working hard to make them come true.  Two of the boys had explained that they had originally dropped out of school, but both had taken their GED tests and hoped to go on from there and expand their education.  Many of them were still shy and not used to talking so openly about their aspirations in front of a large group, but I saw the spark of a new confidence, a necessary ingredient in our next political leaders.

When Maija, the educator from Clearwater, next spoke as it became her turn around the circle, she explained the reason for the program.  For about ten years there had been a program called “Young Women at the Helm” to empower girls, but it occurred to them that since the 1960’s there had been many women-empowering programs.  The kids really left behind these days in the worst situations, are the teenage boys, many of whom have few male role models in their lives.  Although they are told how to respect and treat women every day, they are never taught how to respect themselves and care for their own aspirations.  That was what was missing.  This program attempts to rectify that imbalance, and from what I observed last night- it is working fabulously.  The hard work on the ship teaches young men that they can learn new skills, do things they never thought they were capable of and support each other.   Seeing that you can raise an incredibly huge sail with a few strong men working together in sync, has an amazing effect.

What almost brought tears to my eyes was the sense of teamwork and camaraderie that existed as one of the young men said that these young men around the circle, weren’t the exception to the rule, they were examples of many many young men with dreams who lived in their neighborhoods.   Sitting there, looking in the  faces of other young men just like them and actually saying it out in the open, they realize, they really are not alone.

After the campfire I spoke to one of the young men who wanted to become a computer engineer.  Currently, he boxes to make enough money to go to school. He told me he has a fight on Saturday and hopes the bruises go down enough for when he starts school on the 6th so he can concentrate on his studies.  This is how determined these young men are.  

The folks who will get us out of the terrible mess our society is in, are young men like these, who even in the midst of poverty, environmental injustice and despair, still have dreams and the clarity of vision to try even when they know the odds are stacked against them. We can learn an awful lot from the strength and character of these young men.  

Instead of cutting even basic education here in NJ, there is a real value in expanding educational opportunities for young adults like these, with programs like this.  Our greatest assets are our children, and educating and inspiring them is our best hope for the future.

Here is a beautiful music video that shows the young men and the ship itself, filmed in 2009:…


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