Breaking Radio Silence

by Vermont Rice

It’s been a long time since my last post on this blog.  I also noted that this is about the four-year mark since I first started writing and working towards creating Vermont Sail Freight Project.  Seems like a long time.  My boys Julien and Robin were six and four respectively when I began.

We’ve all grown up and learned a lot since then.  Looking back, this project was an insane burden for someone in my situation to have taken on, with many farm and business details that were not all working so fantastically in 2012 that I really had lots of extra time for a second full time job, plus a family that did not benefit from my level of distraction.  There has also been a lot of fretting about finances, team coordination and sometimes conflict, complex logistic arrangements, last-ditch repairs sometimes, none of which I really fully appreciated going into this.

But, part of what draws me back to this work is I guess the kid in me who is as eager as ever to pack a canoe full of food, tents, lanterns, and sleeping bags and set off down the river.  That kid, who spent a lot of time messing about in boats in the Susquehana and Chenango valleys kind of made me do it in the first place, after all.

On our 2013 trip, Jordan Finkelstein, who had helped me complete the build of Ceres, donned the title First Mate as we set off from the Champlain Valley through the Champlain Canal and down the Hudson.  Jordan took a series of shots of the underside of bridges, noting which each one was as we passed.  This struck me as a little funny at the time because the bridges were about the least interesting aspect of the trip to me (except for maybe the Brooklyn Bridge and the G.W.).  But then it occurred to me, as a Hudson Valley native, Jordan had been over the top of each of these bridges countless times but had never seen them from this angle before…there’s this sense of discovery, of inhabiting a special world known only to you and those right there with you.

There’s also something intellectually interesting about coming into an unknown town and exploring the town just on foot, starting from the water and working your way up and in.  While many towns have gone out of their way to diminish the waterfront aspects they once had, in favor of rail corridors, condos, what have you, as we traveled on Ceres we nevertheless had to mentally construct water-oriented maps of each place.  Even as we dealt with our 21st century concerns of finding nearby ice, charging electronics and so on, we had a sense that we were maybe seeing these places from the same starting point that gave rise to these towns in the first place, where so many had walked before us, and where so many intriguing vestiges of history remain despite numerous efforts to pave them all over.

I was reminded of this contrast of ways of seeing a place just a few weeks ago when I met with Paul Fusco-Gessick, who’s joining Vermont Sail Freight as a partner and general manager, in Troy.  Troy is not an insanely complicated city, and the meeting place we had established was one that I had been before….but only when visiting by boat.  I had no idea how the street layout really worked for cars, and it took me an awfully long time, driving around in circles, looking for the visual anchor of the river and wondering whether I was upriver or downriver of the spot I was aiming for.  Which was Brown’s Brewing Co, by the way.  I had an excellent fish and chips, and a beer with lunch, which I almost never do…

But back to that kid for a minute, out there with his dad and little brother, exploring river islands rife with Japanese bamboo, dodging nettles, and looking for something really special like an old foundation or a rusted model A.  I really felt that I was close to home — a mere few miles from my neighborhood in many cases, yet a world away, in a realm of running water and towering silver maples and uninhabited islands that none of my friends knew anything about.  The river world was a special place that felt new each time, no matter how many times you went there.  And the idea that just around the next bend was something new, a colony of herons or a broad, deep calm spot perfect for swimming, was often enough to want to go just a little further down that river.

Our collective efforts to bridge over, tunnel under and generally turn our backs to water have led us to make some lamentable changes to some of the most beautiful spots on this earth in the name of speed.  Now, when I’m in a car, I’m the same as anyone else.  How long until I get there?  I tend to view my time driving as largely wasted time.  Driving around the state highways and interstates of the regions, far from making me feel more connected to my surroundings and fellow inhabitants, generally makes me passive and irritable and I’m interested in stops along the way only as far as how many minutes it will cost me to obtain gas, restroom, coffee.  Probably everyone reading this post (except for Dave Zeiger) will know what I’m talking about.

Not wanting to rehash all the many ways taking on Vermont Sail Freight has put me personally through the wringer in the past, what keeps me coming back to it is this idea that the water itself, the original highway of our region long before Henry Hudson arrived on-scene, suggests a way to live here more meaningfully and enduringly.  That, and the fact that we now have several capable new people actively working to craft a new program to take place fall of this year, and some old friends back as well.

I received several responses to my appeal for new partners, and I’m glad to say that although waiting for them to present themselves meant some waiting, I believe the new energy will be well worth it.  We’re smarter and wiser too than when we tore off downriver in a semi-complete boat in 2013 with a full load of cargo, and I think that we have a real shot of making Ceres a showcase of efficiency and skill as well as romance.

One of the guys I was corresponding with, when I finally prompted him to propose some terms of mutual work, declined to offer to go into business with me, with a sort of manifesto of rationale explaining this response.  One of his lines really struck me, though,   “we were not really talking about establishing a company.  We were talking about establishing an entire industry for a pilot company to be part of.”  This was intended as a critique, a reason why the task shouldn’t be attempted.  I take it the opposite way.  Reinventing the industry, which also entails reinventing our relationship with water, is the entire reason to do this.

If there were an existing industry of small-scale transporters using sail and simple machines to move goods around the region by water, probably I wouldn’t be very interested in participating.   And you reading this probably wouldn’t be interested in reading about it, in following our adventures, coming to workshops or events as we travel, or in making the choice to stock some of your pantry via waterway, because you too would be surrounded by it everyday and it would be ho-hum.

So there it is.  I’m still here because the vision resonates with me and provokes me.  Combine that with the astonishing power of a diverse and talented group of thinkers and workers and you get something potentially so much greater than the sum of its parts.  You’re maybe here for the same reason, or perhaps it’s the sheer audacity, or coolness, or craziness, or whatever that brought you to VSF.  But maybe also VSF and Ceres helped you see the region in a different way, like seeing your native river valley from a slow moving canoe instead of out of the window of a speeding car, and maybe that made you feel optimistic or hopeful, or else just in love with this place in a way you hadn’t before.  Whatever the case, I’m happy to announce that there will be a next chapter.

Please stay tuned as we are soon to release new details!  I look forward to sharing this all with you.