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A symbolic paddle, a literal test of mettle

| 30 Aug 2013 | 12:43

It was a rainy morning, not the weather one hopes for on the launch day of a two week journey down the Hudson. But spiritual leader Tadohado Sidney Hill was thankful for the rain, which he said his people, the Onondaga – a sovereign Native American nation just south of Syracuse – ask for every year.

That’s the kind of thing this journey is meant to help us remember: that rain is a gift, not an inconvenience. The trip from Rensselaer to Pier 96 in New York City, and then by foot to the United Nations, is in remembrance of the Two Row Wampum treaty, the first agreement between the white man and the Native Americans. It’s been 400 years since the agreement between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of Six Nations, which outlines a commitment to friendship, peace between peoples, and living in parallel forever.

“Not only the treaties, but also the environment is what this whole trip is about,” said Tadodaho. “You talk about traveling down this river of life, so we have to look at the river itself and what condition the Hudson is in. We all know environmentally it needs a lot of fixing up. I think part of this would be to look at what we’re doing to our waters and how we’re gonna treat them in the future.”

Symbolic it may be, but the physical stamina it takes to paddle up to 15 miles a day is not to be taken for granted. We caught up with one of the 200 paddlers making the week before the launch.

“When I first expressed interest in doing this, I had to fill out an application,” said Patricia DeBruhl, of Warwick. “I hadn’t really been in a canoe for like 35 years, and I’m a woman in her 60s. They didn’t immediately accept me. They wanted to know what I was going to do as far as a training program to get into adequate shape.”

DeBruhl, a retired teacher, got interested in Native American affairs about 15 years ago in South Dakota, where her husband, an electrician, wired the grounds for traditional powwows. Then she attended a talk at SUNY New Paltz by Onandaga faithkeeper Oren Lyons. “It was very moving,” said DeBruhl. “He held a replica of this original wampum belt, a white wampum belt with the two dark roads.”

She wanted to be a part of the mission, including its opposition to hydraulic fracking. “Just being in a whole body of canoes with that same shared wish for humanity and for the planet, I think it’ll be really an incredible experience,” she said.

She teamed up with her friend Alice McMeacham, a more experienced paddler who’s part of a small contingency of Quakers that’s supporting the event. The pair – whom DeBruhl describes as “two short little ladies with gray-ish hair” – went into training. The first time they went down to Plum Point for what was supposed to be an easy paddle, the Hudson River was really choppy. “Oh!” thought DeBruhl. “I’m going to die.”

After many early morning practice paddles around Lake Wawayanda, she insists, “we’re quite confident.”

“Part of it has been building up the level of energy required to keep going.” There are some periods when the paddlers will be going against the tide, which is unavoidable given the nature of the Hudson and the distance of the journey. “And part of it is just staying out on the water for a certain length of time. And a big part of it is learning how to steer. I’ve been learning how to line up my partner’s head with a distant point and steering straight toward it so you’re not wasting energy going side to side.”

DeBruhl is going to be in the back of the canoe, so it’s her job to steer. And since the canoes are supposed to go down the river in two rows – one of Native American and one of allies – keeping the boat straight and traveling at a steady pace is important.

There’s also the matter of getting the heavy aluminum canoe onto the water. “We’re both almost 5 feet, so for us to lift it up onto the car, it takes some doing,” said DeBruhl. “Quite often, when we’ve been at Wawayanda, just as we’re getting ready to lift it up some big guy runs up to help us.”

McMeacham, the slighter of the pair, enrolled in a boot camp in Greenwood Lake, while DeBruhl studied the Two Row Wampum website’s training videos, which showed how to hold the paddle, rotate the body, keep the arms as straight as possible and move from the torso rather than the arms. “If you paddle from the arms it’s just really exhausting, you tend to get very sore,” she said.

“I’ve started sitting in front of the computer on a stool with a broom, pretending to hold the paddle. My husband of course was there, criticizing my positions: you’re not doing it like the video.”

“I have all this information up on my wall,” said DeBruhl. “I keep looking at it and saying: Okay, I can do this.”