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35 years of Riverkeeping…

My father-in-law used to joke that the most expensive piece of artwork he owned was the wooden blue heron that sat on the fireplace mantel of the little cottage. “That heron cost me $10,000,” he mentioned more than once.

The highly-prized heron reads “clean water award.” The quest to obtain it started with a failed Save The River septic system voluntary inspection. The septic system was fine. The problem was in the laundry room. Situated in the back of the boathouse, the washing machine dumped directly into the river. My mother-in-law explained that she used special, non-phosphate laundry detergent, but the STR volunteer said no. In order to get a heron, we’d have to put in a new leach field.

Keeping up with the Jones in 1988 meant getting a heron. And getting a heron meant paying $10,000 to put in a new gray water system for the laundry room.

Extraordinary, considering just a decade before it was “acceptable” to pump not just gray water, but raw sewage into the river. Nightly, people went out for evening boat rides not to enjoy the sunset, but to dump the day’s garbage. Old refrigerators, stoves, iron pipes...routinely went over the side in the middle of the channel. People just did it. They didn’t really think about it. It’s what they always did. But in the past few decades there has been a dramatic, perceptional shift.

That shift started in 1978. Citizens concerned over proposed year-around navigation of the St. Lawrence Seaway met to see what could be done. The Slick of ‘76 was fresh in everyone’s memory. On June 23, 1976, a barge ran aground in the American Narrows spilling 300,000 gallons of crude oil into the St. Lawrence. Clean up cost millions of dollars and damaged the River ecosystem. What if a spill happened in the winter? Got under the ice? Besides spills, what sort of environmental and property damage would icebreaking cause?

Steve Taylor was in his boat passing out information about the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to winter navigation and approached a guy who was repairing his dock that had been damaged by winter ice. The guy—Barry Freed—took the flyer and soon joined the grass roots struggle to limit winter navigation on the St. Lawrence. That organization became Save the River.

When I asked about Barry, Steve told me it was clear Barry knew what he was doing when it came to political activism. Of course we know now that Barry Freed was really Abby Hoffman, the 1960s poster child for counter-culture and “stick it to the man” ideology.

Barry and other members of STR testified before Congress and defeated plans to run ships through winter ice. It’s hard to say whether the fledgling group would have been so impactful without the insight from such a practiced activist. Barry (Abby) died in 1989, but other founding members like Steve Taylor and Ann Ward are still around—still fighting the good fight.

But Save the River is more than a watchdog group of political activists. What started as a group to stop winter navigation grew into so much more. Slowly, gently—like the river lapping on our rocky shore—Save the River brought positive change. They have influenced not just legislators, bi-national organizations, but more importantly, us—the people who live along the shore, boat and fish the waters of the St. Lawrence. Through education they have taught us that keeping our river clean is not just the responsibility of legislators or big companies, but also our responsibility.

I’ve spent thirty-six consecutive summers on the river. Save the River has been around for 35 of those years. I can’t image a time before that. I’m grateful that I have someone—a group of someones—looking after the waters 24/7—Riverkeepers making sure the water is safe and clean and teaming with life year after year, not just for me but for my children and grandchildren. That $10,000 blue heron was a fine investment for the future of the great St. Lawrence.

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A message from Save The River!

During the coming year we will be remembering Save The River – the history, the people, the stories. Because we have all done this together, we will also be asking for your stories – what do you remember? What people? What programs? What stories or accomplishments? Even what tee shirts?! Do you have an old photo or memory? If so, please share them on our Facebook page.

By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island

Lynn McElfresh presents two articles this month. This is the fourth of several articles she will present this winter in partnership with Save the River. Click here To see all of Lynn’s contributions to TI Life.

  • August 1978 500 people expressed outrage over winter navigation.  Photo STR

    August 1978 500 people expressed outrage over winter navigation. Photo STR

  • Coverage in the Watertown Daily Times. Photo STR

    Coverage in the Watertown Daily Times. Photo STR

  • Aby2


  • A fund raiser for STR

    A fund raiser for STR

  • The Slick of ’76 was created by John Burt, a fifth generation Chippewa Bay summer  resident.

    The Slick of ’76 was created by John Burt, a fifth generation Chippewa Bay summer resident.


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Bryan Gedbaw Jr
Comment by: Bryan Gedbaw Jr ( )
Left at: 11:12 AM Tuesday, May 27, 2014
My father was a member of Save the River in the 70s and having grown up on the river myself, now an adult, it is really interesting to look back and see what save the river has done for future generations to enjoy the river just as it was intended. As I now raise my own children I am extremely grateful that my father taught me to love and respect the river just as he has, so that I can pass that on to my children.