Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The RV John H. Volk

John Volk, who for years was the head of the aquaculture division of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, was a terrific source for the oystering sections of This Fine Piece of Water, and read, commented on and improved the book's last chapter.

I hadn't realized that he died in 2007, a relatively young man. But I'm happy to see, here, that the state has decided to name its shellfish research vessel the John H. Volk. The man knew his shellfish, and he returned phone calls -- two things that were invaluable to me.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bob Gabrielson

Bob Gabrielson, one of the few remaining Hudson rivermen, died on Monday. Wednesday night, 10:30: here's a video of Gabrielson that John Cronin put on his site:

I met Gabrielson a couple of times and liked him. He was skeptical of the press, skeptical of environmentalists, skeptical of the government, but not even slightly hostile. Others will have great stories about him on the river, setting drift nets to catch shad and striped bass, or pulling pots for crabs. I once asked him if he had ever eat shad gonads and he paused for a second or two, smiled a little smile, and said, "I didn't know they had 'em."

Here's what I wrote about him a few years ago:

Back in 1999 I wanted to write a newspaper story about the status of shad fishing, and of shad themselves, in the Hudson River, so I drove across the Tappan Zee Bridge to visit Bob Gabrielson, one of the few remaining rivermen, at his house, in Nyack. It was early April and I found him in a tiny office, preparing other people’s tax returns, which he did as a sideline (and which told me all I needed to know about the viability of commercial fishing on the Hudson).

My guess is that he was probably 70; he was clear-eyed and good-humored, and although he didn’t particularly respect the press (he had been interviewed a lot in his life), once we established that he was of Norwegian stock and had been raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and that I was of Norwegian stock and had relatives from Bay Ridge, he warmed up and we had a good interview. He mentioned that people buy shad roe directly from him and so as I was about to leave I told him that when the run starts, I’d like to buy some. He took out a little book and wrote down my name and number

Good to his word, he called, on the morning of April 14. I asked if he could spare two, and when he said he could, I drove back to Nyack. A cold front must have moved through overnight, because the sky was clear, the air looked washed. The wind whipped from the north and stirred up white caps on the waters of the Tappan Zee. I parked in front of his house and walked down the driveway to the back door. Gabrielson waved me in through the aluminum storm door before I could knock.

He was in the kitchen eating cinnamon toast with I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Butter. A small TV on the kitchen counter was tuned to Rosie O’Donnell interviewing Cher. We chatted for a few minutes in the kitchen. He told me there were so few shad around that Christopher Letts, who organizes shad festivals for the Hudson River Foundation, was on his way to Bridgeton, N.J., on Delaware Bay, to buy shad for an upcoming festival. He said John Cronin was buying shad from the Connecticut River for his Riverkeeper shad fest. He said these things in a tone that indicated that Letts and Cronin would be embarrassed at the disclosures. (Thinking back, I can’t imagine why I didn’t call up Chris and John, confirm what Gabrielson told me, and write a story about how the fishing has gotten so bad on the Hudson that Hudson River shad festivals were using fish imported from the Delaware and the Connecticut.)

As we were talking, he found a knife and a Ziploc bag. We went down to the cellar and out a door to the backyard. He opened a cooler to show me a 30-pound striped bass (or stripe-id bass, as he pronounced it) his son had caught the night before. He said he was going to smoke it and, one Norwegian-American to another, he grinned and said almost in a whisper, “I make a real good Squarehead smoked fish.”

He found a plank and laid it across the top of another cooler. Then he walked to a third cooler and picked out two shad lying among a bunch of alewives that he had caught for bait. He put the shad on the plank and slit open their bellies. The knife made a ripping sound. “I knew I should have put an edge on this,” he said.

He extracted the roe from each fish and put them in the plastic bag. They were plump and clean, and their weight felt good in my hand. He looked at me.

“You’re getting the best stuff, right here,” Bob Gabrielson said.

“I know,” I said. “That’s why I came right over.”

He grinned again.

“It didn’t take you long, did it?”

Roe extracted from shad by the fisherman who caught them – I paid him and smiled the smile of someone who knew he was getting the best stuff.

The Journal News ran an obit of him, here, but there's a better one waiting to be written.

The Way We Used to Do Things, Via John Cronin

If you want to see how they used to dispose of hazardous waste, viddy this:

John Cronin emailed me the link. He says a U.S. Attorney took it and then used it as evidence in the lawsuit that led to the closing and capping of the Croton Point landfill, on the Hudson River. When the case was over, the attorney gave John the film. You can read more about it on John's website, here.

By the way, I'm referring to John Cronin the former Hudson Riverkeeper, not John Cronin the Fish, which you may have read about here. I wonder if Terry Backer has a fish named after him?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Secrets of the Deep, The Bottom of the Harbor

Read "Secrets of the Deep," a terrific piece in New York Magazine by Christopher Bonanos, that combines beautiful maps of the lower Hudson and the upper and lower bays with a lot of additional reporting. Bonanos writes:

This first GPS-era picture comes from the team at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who have methodically swept the lower Hudson with state-of-the-art sonar. LDEO’s Dr. Frank Nitsche stitched together their data, along with several other researchers’ work, into this elegant color-keyed map, which we’ve supplemented by talking with sea captains, historians, and the divers pictured above. There’s a whole other city down there.

It's fascinating and it drove me to the bookshelf to take out Joseph Mitchell's "The Bottom of the Harbor," a great piece published in The New Yorker in 1951 (you can find it online if you subscribe to The New Yorker or it's in Mitchell's book Up in the Old Hotel). Both pieces talk abviously about the bad stuff -- there was a lot of it in 1951 and there's still a lot, although porbably less, in 2009 -- but they also talk about the good, the weird and the fascinating.
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