© 2024 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Old Rowboat

When I was about 10 years old, I bought an old wooden rowboat with $20 I saved up mowing the lawn.

Its white paint was curling off in big flakes. It had no seat or oarlocks, and its ribs were beginning to rot.

But my father helped me fix it up. Over several weekends in a warm June long ago, together we slathered strips of fiberglass and epoxy along the bottom to shore it up. I can still feel the feathery shards of glass prickling the undersides of my arms. We painted the hull gray, fashioned new ribs and seats, and bought brand-new oars.

Together we dragged the reborn boat to the river behind our house. And the next morning, with a mist on the water, I set off alone, rowing through a field of lily pads into a vast maze of swamplands and wooded islands.

I got lost. The streams twisted back on themselves so often – I couldn’t tell which way was home. When I rounded a bend and came across a pond fringed by willows trees, I imagined that it was a secret lake – probably seen by no explorer before me.

Then I was startled to see something dark lurking just under the surface. My mind rushed to conclude that it was a lost Nazi submarine. During the war, it probably got turned around – just like I did -- and never found its way out of these marshlands, with its German crew now skeletons.

It was a log.

Eventually, I found my way back home, battling a rising wind as the afternoon sun sloped toward evening. I dragged the heavy oars up the hill and told my father about getting lost. He was listening to the baseball game on his AM radio, never concerned for a moment about me.

Over the years, I used that rowboat to catch my first fish. I took my first girlfriend out in that creaky boat.

But most importantly, I developed a lifelong love of nature as I explored that winding river.

Before I went off to college, I sensed that my life would be changing forever. So, one evening in late August, I hauled the boat up onto the beach with some friends and set it on fire. It blazed in a conflagration meant to cauterize our childhoods – turning a final page on all that foolishness.

But the truth was, over the years and then decades, I kept being drawn back to that river. Even from the shore, I could see how the magical landscape of my childhood changed. In the 1990’s, developers built hundreds of condos and docks on top of what were supposed to be protected wetlands. Then, they cut down acres of trees encircled and protected the swamp, so we could never escape from the sights of the highway and the clatter of tractor trailers downshifting.

I still go back to see my family and my father. He was diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live. But he beat it with aggressive chemotherapy and is still healthy today – 10 years later.

But the landscape that he introduced me to is dying. Every year, a new section of the wooded maze that I explored has been clearcut – and a new McMansion stands along the shore.

This past summer, when I paddled past one of these giant new houses in my kayak, I told myself: Maybe this is what America has always been about, from the beginning. Exploiting natural resources. Converting nature into cash. But then I thought: But America was also the birthplace of the whole idea of protecting wilderness areas for the public and the global environmental movement.

It’s a conflict that burns at the heart of our national identity – and that burns in my memory, as I think back on my life and my old boat.


The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at [email protected].