Denny Alsop’s clean water river trek at Great Barrington – and beyond

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By Wednesday, Mar 23 Environment
Isaac Scribner
Denny Alsop sets off from the river bank next to the Searles School in Great Barrington, heading upstream.

Great Barrington – We’ve been following Denny Alsop’s voyage up the Housatonic River from Bartholomew’s Cobble, now in its third day, a one-man mission to Boston to convince the Massachusetts leadership, in the Statehouse and in the governor’s mansion, that the Housatonic River needs to be detoxified – and the rest of the state’s water resources need to be protected as well. And he intends to stress that remote as Western Massachusetts may seem from the state capital, it is the region where Boston derives its water supply – so they had best pay attention.

At noon on his third day he swung around a bend in the river down by the fairgrounds and approached the Bridge Street bridge. He had begun his journey on a windy, bitter morning, but on Wednesday (March 23) temperatures were mild, more than a hint of real spring in the air. Here and there, daffodils are poking up through the leaf cover on the river bank.

Alsop had emailed us that he’d be at the bridge about mid-day, so Isaac – my 10-year-old and I — went down to the river to join Edge managing editor Heather Bellow. We all were ready, standing on the bridge with cameras poised. We cheered him on as he slid under the bridge, and then put up his canoe just upstream, right by the Searles School building where, in 1929, W.E.B.Du Bois had delivered a brilliant commencement address about how the Housatonic was the heart and soul of the community, and what an obligation it is that we all devote ourselves to the river’s health.

When Du Bois was growing up in Great Barrington, the river was often fouled and discolored with dyes from the paper and fabric mills upstream. Now, the river – and its banks – are infused with an invisible contaminant – the chlorinated organic compound polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, substances that are long-lasting probable carcinogens and disruptors of the health and development of young creatures, including humans.

Alsop had undertaken this pilgrimage 28 years ago, but with the General Electric Company opposing the cleanup of the rest of the river south of Pittsfield polluted with PCBs spilled into the Housatonic for four decades, and proposing to stash the toxic sludge in dumps along the river, Alsop felt it was time to repeat his clean-water campaign.

And here’s how he looked from the bridge as he made his way up river:



Just north of the bridge, he put in for a few minutes, tying his canoe to a tree. He said he would be at Muddy Brook Elementary School tomorrow (Thursday, March 24) afternoon to explain to the third graders about the purpose of his expedition — the protection of rivers and water resources everywhere in Massachusetts. He’ll get to Muddy Brook school with the help of Dan Tawczynski of Taft Farms, who’ll help him get his canoe over the mountain. From there, he’ll paddle along Muddy Brook itself, until he reaches the Housatonic again.

In a month, he’ll be on the Charles River in Boston. And then, make his case before the governor and legislators.

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