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Riding the Wild Charles

David Gessner jumps into a canoe with the man who cleaned up Boston's much-abused river

We are paddling our rock-battered canoe down a particularly stunning section of the river, a twisting stretch called Rocky Narrows, named for its steep granite walls and overhanging trees, as we travel toward the hidden city at river's end. Over the past hours we have heard coyotes howl and watched deer wade, observed a beautiful sharp-shinned hawk swooping up into the canopy, delighted in swallows cutting above the water in front of us and kingfishers ratcheting past, and toasted with beers to congratulate ourselves after an exhilarating ride through the rapids. If I squint I can imagine myself on a great and wild river, the Amazon or Congo or at least the Colorado, and can imagine the man behind me, who steers the canoe, as an epic adventurer -- Teddy Roosevelt, say -- hurtling down the River of Doubt.

The truth is slightly less glamorous. This isn't the Amazon but the Charles -- a name that conjures up images less adventurous and wild than fancy and effete, not to mention domesticated and decidedly English -- and the hidden city that lies in front of us is known, in the native tongue, as Bah-ston. What's more, the dwellings we will soon pass will be not primitive huts but Super Stop & Shops, and the Homo sapiens we'll encounter downriver will be not headhunters but Harvard students, and, if I am perfectly honest, the fearless leader in the stern isn't Teddy R. but a state worker named Dan Driscoll, with whom I once played some Ultimate Frisbee and to whom we referred, in those days, as Danimal.

We like to strip down myths, we modern folk, and it's easy enough, I suppose, to quickly strip our journey of all its mythic qualities: to see it as a pretty modest trip on a small river with a modest enough guy. But if our adventure has not exactly been a life-or-death journey into a vast, untamed wilderness, the truth is I have been consistently surprised over the last few days, not just by the wildness of the river but by Driscoll himself. The man's considerable energy, which I had previously witnessed only when he chased down Frisbees like a border collie, is equally apparent when he talks about his efforts to revitalize the river.

"I started back around 1990 when I was working as a planner for the state [of Massachusetts]," he tells me as we paddle. "Someone in the office said, 'Why don't you take a look at the Upper Charles?' I think they were just trying to give the new kid something to do. Little did they know. I looked over the maps and saw possibilities. I began to plan and scheme. When I first started talking about connecting the river paths, everyone looked at me like I was crazy. I said, 'Let's have these green paths that run through the urban areas. Let's reconnect people to nature.' Pretty soon I was known as this raging ecological planner. But the funny thing is, lo and behold, they eventually listened. Next thing I knew, I was the River Man."

What Dan Driscoll did over the next 17 years was this: he threw himself into reclaiming the junkyards and car parks and industrial wastelands that had sprung up along the Charles, shepherding in a green resurgence on the riverbanks by taking back land that belonged to the state but that had gradually been illegally encroached upon by businesses and residents. His improbable goal was to sell the idea of the Charles--so famously polluted that it had been the inspiration for the Standells' 1966 hit song, "Dirty Water"--as a nature preserve, while wrangling, talking, and negotiating land away from factory owners and homeowners, even arguing with a local godfather at one meeting. Dan's attempt to restore native plants and trees to the riverbanks and to create a green corridor through the heart of Boston and its suburbs has been a quixotic quest, no doubt about it. But in this age of environmental losses and hand-wringing, perhaps the oddest thing about it is this:
it has been successful.

My own trip down the Charles began when I went searching for its source. When Captain John Smith spied the Charles from Boston Harbor in 1614, he took one look at its great gaping mouth and assumed it was a raging river that cut deep into the continent. He was spectacularly wrong in this assumption: not only doesn't the river reach halfway to California; it doesn't even make it halfway to Worcester. In fact the Charles, like many people, has a mouth too big for its body, and if you were to travel as the crow flies from source to mouth you would cover almost exactly the same distance as the Boston Marathon. This makes sense since the Charles, like the marathon, begins in the town of Hopkinton. The difference is that the river rarely travels in a straight line, and by the time it wends its way to the harbor it has covered something close to 80 miles, which some say explains its Indian name of Quinobequin, or "meander."

image of David Gessner
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at ... READ MORE >

Thanks, Dan!

I am very happy you managed to improve the land granted to the MDC (now DCR) along the river.

I grew up on the river near Natick, and am pleased to find more riverside paths near me in Watertown. Especially the dirt footpaths.

The black-crowned night herons still gather for the herring run. I hope that continues long after I'm gone.

I enjoy reading and re-reading this article from time to time. I was only familiar with the wide Boston section of the Charles growing up. In recent years I've discovered the upstream sections of the river and now regularly kayak or canoe the waters around the millennium park launch. I had been thinking about planning a multiday camping trip along the river and this article is a good example of that type of trip.

Wow! I grew up in the Boston area (East Boston, Somerville, Belmont) and lived there until the age of fifteen. My knowledge of the Charles was, as the article says, only of the Basin section, a smelly, polluted stretch on which crews from Harvard and other Ivy League colleges could be seen from the nearby el, sculling. Riding the el from Cambridge into and out of Boston, I often felt a then-not-understood sadness for what had been lost, and I'd quietly rage against the unthinking, unfeeling residents who daily damaged their environment. I believed at the time, that the river could never be reclaimed. Dan Driscoll is living proof that committment to nature coupled with intelligent effort, can accomplish miracles, when combined with the power and resources of an enlightened State government.