Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Great Canoe Race Conspiracy

How the Adirondack Park Agency lead counsel’s legal shenanigans denied the Environmental Conservation Department a canoe racing victory 

The year was 1977. I was 13 years old. It was the summer before I entered my freshman year at Saranac Lake High School.  My Dad, Tom Monroe, had just been appointed in April by Commissioner Berle as DEC’s (then referred to as “Encon”) Region 5 Regional Director, following the long and distinguished career of the legendary William E. Petty.

I had met nearly all of the NY State and regional politicians & players through my 1st thirteen years growing up as Tom’s son. From NY State Senators, to state and local legislative representatives, Encon executive leaders, APA executives, Regional Attorneys, Dad’s close-knit family of Encon Region 5 staff, and of course, his Wanakena classmates & fellow Forest Rangers.

Some I knew well. Many had been guests at our dining room table for one of my mom’s home cooked meals. We routinely camped, fished, hunted or hiked with several. I frequently visited Dad at his office in Ray Brook. On occasion, he took me with him to his office at 50 Wolf Road in Albany as well. Sometimes he even let me sit quietly and observe during his many meetings there on the day’s driving environmental agenda items and issues.

I listened to all of the discussions, disagreements and debates on the environmental issues of the day.  The adults in the room may not have all realized it at the time, but one young boy sitting quietly at the table was listening intently. I soaked everything in. I found it all fascinating. My “Encon uncles” all passionately arguing and debating their stances. That was my upbringing.  They were my family.

I recall that when Dad took over at Ray Brook some tensions existed between Encon and the APA. There were ongoing power struggles and divergent agendas as the new State Land Master Plan was being developed.

Commissioner Berle had been appointed by the Governor just a year earlier. There were many other ambitious agenda items and issues facing the Adirondacks as well. He and my dad had a lot on their plate. They were pretty busy. I heard Dad talk about most all of it.

Then, Dad came home one day from Albany, all excited. As I recall, there had been some extensive, ongoing clean-up efforts occurring on the Hudson River, the headwaters of which I had visited on high peaks hikes with my dad up to Lake Tear of The Clouds and along the Opalescent.

Apparently, those efforts had achieved some very tangible results. I can’t remember the details. PCB abatement and remediation projects may have been involved. I do recall that it involved improved water quality, fishing and recreational opportunities in that watershed, of which my dad, in whatever role he played in those efforts, seemed quite proud.

Dad returned from one of his many Wolf Road meetings sometime that spring. At the dinner table he made an announcement.

“The APA challenged us. Encon against the APA team and a local team from North Creek. We’re going to have a big canoe race on the Hudson.”

Dad seemed pretty excited at the prospect.   

     The original plan was for Dad to lead the Encon team with Mal Coutant, Encon’s Region 5 Regional Attorney, a regular member of the Monroe household. He and his wife Jane were (and to this day are) my favorite Encon/DEC Aunt and Uncle.

“The Great Canoe Race” as it had been dubbed, was to be held on Sunday, May 22, 1977, on a section of the North Hudson somewhere just up above North Creek.

So, Dad and Mal began making preparations. I believe they even went up to North Creek a few days before the big race for a practice run on the involved stretch of river, which apparently included some fairly challenging whitewater.

Mal owned a fancy forest green fiberglass Old Town canoe. Dad owned two nondescript aluminum Grummans.  They chose Mal’s Old Town as their ride for the race. I think my dad even waxed the canoe’s bottom with cross country ski wax. But I would not swear under oath to that.

Then, suddenly, just a day or two before the race, something happened. Dad lost his race partner. Mal had a last-minute conflict and had to pull out.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, or if I was even Dad’s first second choice, but at the very last minute my dad turned to me and asked;

“Son, change of plans, Mal had to bow out. How’d you like to represent Encon as my partner for the big canoe race? There are some challenging sections of whitewater.  You already know a lot of the folks who will be there. It will be a great experience for you. Commissioner Berle will be there with his son Dolf.  There’s a big clam bake afterwards. We’ll have lots of fun.”

My thirteen year old ears heard just two phrases- “Canoe Race” and “Clam Bake”.  I was all in. My Dad and I were going to lead the Encon team to victory. We were gonna win that canoe race.

There was no time left for us to recon or practice together. I was going in cold, but that did not matter.  I had spent my whole life paddling canoes with my Dad. He’d taught me well, nearly everything he knew. My Dad and I working in tandem were one formidable canoe team.

We got ready the night before, started loading Mal’s Old Town onto the cartop racks on top of our old green station wagon.

That Old Town was fancy and sleek. But as we lifted it, I noticed that fiberglass was heavy, a lot heavier than our fourteen foot four man Grumman. I hesitated for a moment. I had my doubts. I glanced at our trusty old aluminum canoe lying nearby.

“Dad, this canoe seems really heavy to me. We’ve never paddled it together before. I think the Grumman’s a lot lighter. Plus, if we bang into a rock on those rapids, I think it will handle that better than this fiberglass. Are you sure you want to use this Old Town? I think the Grumman will be faster. I think we stand a better chance of winning in our own canoe.”

Dad paused and thought, but just for a moment. Last minute decision. We ditched Mal’s fancy forest green fiberglass Old Town. Encon’s Region 5 Regional Director and his son were going to help lead their team to victory in a slightly banged up, scratched, fishy smelling old fourteen foot aluminum Grumman.

Race morning arrived. Dad and I left early for the drive up to the race starting point, on the Hudson, a few miles above North Creek.

There were already lots of people congregating there when we arrived. They were unloading all sorts of fancy canoes; Old Towns, expensive sleek wooden jobs, all sorts of high end makes and models. There were Dad and I, with our old green station wagon, two well worn wooden paddles, a pair of fish baptized yellow zipper life vests, and our aluminum Grumman.

We off-loaded our canoe. Dad introduced me to the rest of Encon’s team, including Commissioner Berle and his son Dolf.  We shook hands all around.

Commisioner Berle I had met before. His son Dolf I had not. The Commissioner was a pretty ruggedly built guy. His son Dolf was a couple of years older than me. He was bigger than me, built a lot like his dad. It looked to me like Encon had a very solid race crew.

Commissioner Berle handed Dad and I paper numbers to affix to our life vests. It was clear from his tone and his voice, Commissioner Berle was there to have fun, but he meant business. He intended to win that canoe race. He and I were like minded in that regard. So did I.

The APA team was there too, assembling, as was North Creek. The North Creek team looked ruggedly competent and competitive. That APA team, however, to me, seemed to have a bunch of lawyers on it. I had met most of them. My assessment was that the North Creek team was going to give us a run for our money, but that APA team was soft. They were ours for the taking. Besides, the Encon team had a couple of ringers. Me and Dolf. We were gonna win that canoe race.

The race was going to be a shotgun start. Canoes and racers entered the water, I’m not sure how many there were all told- a lot, maybe forty something in all.

A bullhorn blared instructions and rules. I’m not sure anyone was listening. There was a lot of banter and smack talk going on all around us. It all seemed more to me like every man for himself. A starting pistol went off. The “Great Canoe Race” commenced.

At that point, the race could have just as easily been dubbed “Mayhem on The Hudson”. Forty canoes in a smack talking whitewater rapids canoe race team event every man for himself shotgun start. I remember seeing a few canoes flip immediately. Heads bobbed down the river, along with jettisoned paddles and several suddenly unmanned canoes careening down through the water.

I didn’t pay much attention though, none of them looked like any of the Econ team’s craft. Dad and I sure weren’t one of them. It was every man for himself. They were all wearing life vests. Dad and I ignored all the floating flotsam & jetsam and just paddled that much harder.

Dad and I jetted downriver. Dad manning the rear, expertly guiding our canoe, with me paddling like a teenage bat out of hell on a mission from God in the front.

About five canoes quickly pulled into the lead, separating themselves from the pack. I could see Commissioner Berle and his son just ahead of us in one of them. I did not recognize the rest, but of the five lead race canoes, I knew Econ teams manned at least two of them. My Dad and I being one.

Dad and I worked well together. We had a good system, lots of practice. My job was to paddle just as hard as I could and not stop. I was also “rock lookout”, yelling “Rock left! Rock right! Rock center!” Dad responding accordingly.

As I recall, the race course was about five miles long, ending down near North Creek. We were about halfway through, with a stretch of rapids just ahead, when a canoe just behind us nudged up close, alongside. I glanced over and recognized the lead paddler as a lawyer from of one of the APA teams.

canoe race

Now, the North Creek News Enterprise news clipping my mom saved for my dad’s career scrapbook lists Lake Placid’s Douglas Ward as the APA attorney present on their team that day. My recollection, however, is that the man in the canoe pulling up next to us was none other than APA legal legend, Peter Paine.

Dad and I redoubled our efforts. We maintained a slim lead over that APA canoe. Commissioner Berle and his son Dolf were pulling further ahead in a small group of three canoes still in front of us. Encon now had at least two of the top four canoes in the race.

But alas! As anyone who ever knew my dad well knows, he had one great weakness. My Dad never met a debate he didn’t like, especially if it involved environmental issues. And the APA.

Peter Paine knew my dad’s weakness all too well too. He did what lawyers get paid to do. He began trying to distract my dad with some environmental debate conversation. Peter Paine started talking.

“Hey Tom!” I heard Peter bellow, his voice carrying over rushing water.

     “What are your thoughts about the recent ruling on…”

     That was it. That was all it took. My Dad swallowed the bait hook line and sinker. I wasn’t paying any further attention to the conversation after that. We had more important matters at hand. I knew EXACTLY what the illustrious Mr. Paine was up to.

 

“Dad! Never mind him! He’s just trying to distract you! Pay attention! Steer!”   

“Rock left!” Rock Right!” “Rock Center!” Rock Center!”

“Dad! Quit arguing and Pay attention!”

“Dad! Dad! Dad!”

“Rock! Rock!”

 

“ROCK!”

 

It was too late. That was it. There we were. In the middle of “The Great Canoe Race” on the Hudson, canoes whizzing past us, high centered on a big flat rock in our canoe.

Peter Paine and his partner laughed and waved as they raced by.

It took my Dad and I several minutes to extricate ourselves from the legal mess we’d just found ourselves in. We paddled like hell afterwards, but the damage was done.

By the time we pulled into the finish area, Commissioner Berle was there waiting for us. So were Peter Paine and his partner. I swear I heard Commissioner Berle ask my Dad;

“What the HELL happened to YOU, Tom?”

     I also swear I heard Peter Paine chuckling. I‘m pretty sure Commissioner Berle was not.  Neither was I.  We’d just finished 12th!  All because Dad couldn’t resist and took the bait from some APA lawyer.

Dolf and I left the fallout from that incident to our respective fathers to sort out. Two teenage boys went for a well-deserved swim in the Hudson.

I’m not sure, in the end, which team claimed “The Great Canoe Race” paddle that year. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the Econ team.  I think my dad & I finishing 12th cost our Encon team that title.  At least, I don’t recall standing on any podium and being awarded “The Paddle.”  If my memory serves me correctly, it was North Creek that ended up winning.  Where ever that paddle is now, someone could check and verify my memory. In any event, I’m pretty sure that our team still beat the APA team that year.

Regardless, I drowned most of the sting from that loss in a clam bake. But not all of it.  One important lesson I learned that day. Beware of APA Attorneys.  They are a sneaky lot. Never above a little legal conspiracy. Especially in the midst of a whitewater canoe race, if by doing so, they can thwart an Encon/DEC victory.

To this day, I believe, that if not for some last-minute legal shenanigans by the APA’s legal counsel, the Encon team, led by my Dad and I, Commissioner Berle and his son Dolf, would have won that canoe race.  In fact, for the past forty some years, I’ve remained quite sure of it.  If my dad were still around, I would demand a rematch.

 

           

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Richard Monroe

Lifelong NYS resident. Raised in Saranac Lake. Cornell graduate(ROTC). Army veteran, Airborne/Ranger qualified, 10th Mtn Div, stints in Honduras and with JTF VI. 3rd degree Black Belt; 3x cancer survivor; published writer with several featured stories in Adirondack Life Magazine. Residing in Watertown NY with wife Robin & our 3 adult children. Loving Life. Living in the Day I am in.




25 Responses

  1. Shawn Dudley says:

    Richard, thank you for sharing this story. It was a fun read. Former commissioner Peter Berle was a colleague, a mentor, and a good friend to me. We worked together for several years, at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, to where Peter hosted a nationally distributed weekly program called the Environment Show. Peter passed away in 2008, but your story made me think of him today (as I often do) and it made me smile. Your description of his flinty determination, and competitive spirit is right on target. Well done.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Shawn, thank you for reading, commenting, & sharing your own memory of & experience with Commissioner Berle. I was aware of his passing. I think my dad told me. While I met him & experienced a canoe race with him, most of what I knew of and about him was through my father’s experiences & lens. I would not even try to pretend to have known him know him anywhere near as well as you did. I’m sincerely glad I got it right, and brought your memories a smile.

  2. Jim Fox says:

    Fun!
    Teen recollections still sound stodgy when they’re recounted by a geezer.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you for reading & commenting Jim. As to the rest…just be careful, lest a stodgy sounding geezer someday embarrasses you in a canoe race.

  3. Steve B. says:

    Great story.

  4. Ann Brewer says:

    Thanks. Enjoyed very much

  5. Todd Miller says:

    Thanks for the fun story–maybe it just shows that it’ll be naive to think that you can separate sports from politics.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you Todd. Yes, I suppose maybe it’s that. For me though it was more a life lesson I learned early on: “Beware of slick talking lawyers & rocks, lest one finds oneself high centered in whitewater rapids during the middle of a canoe race in a fish baptized aluminum Grumman canoe.” Either way, I’m glad you enjoyed reading the story. Enjoy what’s left of the summer- hard to believe, but come Wednesday- we’re in September!

  6. louis curth says:

    Thanks, Richard, for your remembrance of “the great canoe race” which took place at North Creek in 1977. You even made me look up that day in my old ranger time diary to see if I was there (we were on a search up near the “blue ledges”).

    As you know, relations between DEC and APA were always fraught. My boss, Region #5 ranger captain Don Perryman said it best; “There’s too much grass growing between the DEC and the APA”.

    You have a wonderful ability as a story teller, Richard, and you have applied your writing gift in positive ways that we need more of in today’s world of hatred and division. Your narratives help us to see ourselves as people who are part of one Adirondack – north country community – in spirit, if not in actual fact. You show us how our region’s unique natural environment binds us together as people who choose to live close to nature no matter what our other differences may be. Please keep on writing and reminding us about who we are.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Your comments leave me beyond words Mr. Curth, except: “Thank You.” And on behalf of my father, thank you for your service.

      • louis curth says:

        I have many, many memories of your dad over the years, and also of your frequent houseguest, our region #5 attorney, Mal Coutant.

        You may not know that Mal, while working at DEC in Albany, applied his considerable legal skills to a much needed overhaul of forest ranger law enforcement practices which are still in use today.

        Since you know Mal and Jane so well, perhaps you could get Mal to share the details of this seminal achievement with you. I think It has all the elements to be a good story – if he would let you tell it. Should you be in contact with him, please tell him hello from me. LC

        • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

          To both the suggestion & the “Hello” request – I haven’t seen Mal & Jane in a year or so(?), at any rate, pre-COVID I think. Now I’ve got an extra good reason/motivation to give them a call! When I do, on both counts: I will.

        • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

          Mr. Curth, I just wanted to follow up to let you know I was true to my word. I contacted Mal. I told him you said “Hello”, & broached the subject as a potential Almanack article, per your suggestion. As I’m sure you well know & understand- it was a sensitive issue at the time w/much controversy involved. Mal will mull it over & get back to me. I have no idea what he may decide. I just wanted you to know that I was true to my word & did follow through. However I will only write an article if he decides he is comfortable with that and is absolutely certain that he wants me to.

  7. Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Race organized by Tim Garrity, local North Creek pharmacist and then President of the North Creek Chamber of Commerce. At the time ENCON wasn’t talking to APA and visa versa. Hurt our efforts to help get the region moving forward. Tim thought getting everyone on the river, with a shotgun start, followed by a picnic catered by the Chamber will get everyone talking again and working together. It worked!

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you for that background, Glenn. I You are absolutely right! I hereby cast my vote for more Great Canoe Races & Clambakes!

  8. Phyllis Klein says:

    As your “old” English/French teacher at SLCS, I could imagine your 13 year old face telling me the story while I read your words. Since I’ve been living in Willsboro for the past forty years, I particularly related to Peter Paine’s successful diversionary tactics with your dad. He’s still a force of nature riding his horse in the annual 4th of July Parade. Nonetheless, I would petition for another race; if nothing else changed, you’d have a second article!

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Mon Dieu! Madame Klein! Bonjour!. Comment ca va? Je suis heureux que vous avez lu mon histoire. Merci beacoup pour tous votre commentaires et suggestions.
      Meilleurs voeux.
      Sincerement,
      Richard
      ( I was always Madame Klein’s favorite SLHS French student)

  9. What a great read. Your Dad, Mal, Doug Ward were all colleagues of mine. In later years, I took several rafts of DEC Executive Staff down the Upper Hudson each Spring. It puts you in touch with the essence of the Adirondacks. I later had a DEC Commissioner talk me into doing the 90 miler. That’s a different story.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you Keith, for reading & taking the time to comment & share some of your own Upper Hudson perspective & experiences. Your “90 mile adventure” with a DEC Commissioner sure sounds interesting!

      • Keith Silliman says:

        Never put two lawyers in a canoe together. They both want to steer.

        • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

          Keith I thought you might appreciate this admittedly belated but heretofore unknown (by me) follow-up post script to the story: I spoke with Mal by phone this past weekend regarding other matters commented on above by others. During the conversation I learned that apparently this race was run in at least one subsequent year. Mal reassumed his role as my Dad’s DEC race partner. Apparently one lawyer per canoe will more than suffice. During the race they dumped their canoe.

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