“Hey!” I looked up toward Route 22 and saw C.G. Stephens climbing over the guardrail. “Need a hand?”
It was the first time since our boathouse and waterfront had been submerged that anyone had offered assistance.
“Thanks. I really appreciate it,” I answered. I wanted to run up the hill and hug him, tell him how good it felt to be asked. But I didn’t. I was waist deep in thirty eight degree lake water, propping a portable dock up on the stone terrace to keep it from floating away. “Actually, I’m pretty good now. But thanks.”
Two sections of aluminum docking had gotten twisted and battered by waves and floating logs, and this morning the larger of the two had been knocked over the lowest stone retaining wall and lay upended on the submerged beach. Because the water’s now over my head on the beach and my waders only reach up to my chest, I had to work carefully from the terrace above the beach, slowly hauling the dock back up, waves and gravity working against me.
Before recovering the docks I waded through the boathouse. We’re no longer able to shut the main door because the water has swollen the bottom half too much to fit in the doorjamb. The water’s now thirteen inches deep inside, covering the first step and part of the second step leading up to the second floor. The two louvered doors leading out to the pier on the lake side had been battered all night by the waves, and the hinges were ripping. The temporary fastener we’d used to secure the doors was gauging the waterlogged wood. I released the doors and opened them wide, holding one side back with a rope and the other side back with a large stone. Now the water is surging through the inside of the boathouse, still tugging the doors against their restraints, but hopefully the damage will be less severe with them open.
C.G. and I stood on the bank for a few minutes, talking about the water level, the flooding and the beautiful morning. He said goodbye and headed back up to his big pickup truck idling on the shoulder of the road.
“Thanks for stopping,” I said as he left.
I took a few photos and headed back up to the house to find my bride.
“I’ve just had one of those Ah-ha! moments,” I explained. I told her about C.G. stopping and offering to help. “I finally realize what’s been bugging me; nobody’s offered a hand.”
I’ve been practically morose for the last few days as Lake Champlain water levels climbed and climbed and climbed. I assumed it was just an emotional reaction to watching our dreams and hard work getting swallowed up by floodwaters. An investment under water. After all, it was the boathouse that had pulled my imagination ever since I was a boy. It was the boathouse that had seduced us and won our hearts each time we visited the house with our realtor. It was the boathouse which had provoked a disproportionate amount of anxiety during renovation, which had posed three years of permitting and engineering and construction challenges, which had drained our coffers and strained relationships with contractors. It was the boathouse that most represented the lifestyle choice which compelled us to leave Manhattan and begin a new life in Essex. It was the boathouse which starred in recent memories of swimming and waterskiing and windsurfing and kayaking with our nieces, nephews, family and friends. It is the boathouse that is celebrated by local artists in exhibition after exhibition. It is the boathouse that adorns postcards and book covers and brochures and newspaper articles over the last hundred years. It is the historic boathouse that was resuscitated by the inspiration and perspiration of so many people over the last few years. Obviously watching the water swallow it up is unnerving. And waking up in the middle of the night, hearing the wind, worrying that the waves will unleash a floating log like a battering ram against the walls or the columns or the railings…
But three words, “Need a hand?”, illuminated the lightbulb for me. Literally hundreds of friends and strangers have stopped to photograph the submerged waterfront and boathouse. Emails, Facebook messages, Twitter tweets and photographs have flooded in. Sincere condolences and flip observations have lightened the mood. Even a few aesthetic and philosophical reflections have attempted to reframe the scenario. “But until C.G. stopped, nobody’s offered assistance. Is that strange to you?”
My bride listened. She agreed. She’d noticed the same thing.
“And, CG, though I’ve known him for at least twenty years, maybe more, isn’t even a particularly close friend. He’s more of an acquaintance, not somebody I would’ve bothered with a request for help.”
Susan told me that on Friday night over pizza at Dogwood, one of her closest friends had dismissed the flooded boathouse with a cavalier, “Oh, you can always rebuild it.”
Right. We can always rebuild it.
Only, we can’t. Rosslyn’s boathouse is historic, built most likely in the late 1800s. It is a part of the historic architectural heritage of Essex, NY. History can not be rebuilt. It can be replaced with a facsimile.
Only, in the case of Rosslyn’s boathouse, it probably could not. Having been through the complex, multi-authority permitting needed for our original rehabilitation of the boathouse, I can say that if it were dismantled beyond repair, it is very likely that we would not be granted permission to rebuild it. New structures of this sort in the Adirondack Park have been disallowed for many years, and depending on the degree of damage to the structure, rebuilding is not a foregone conclusion.
And even if it were, the time, labor and material resources alone would be prohibitive. Flood insurance has not been an option. It is a boathouse after all. And even though there is absolutely no historic precedent for Lake Champlain to flood this high, insurance does not offer the safety net that it might for our house or carriage barn.
And then there is the human capital that it took to rehabilitate this structure. Mine. My bride’s. Several engineers. Between three and four dozen contractors, carpenters, laborers, painters and landscapers. Literally thousands and thousands of hours. Sweat and patience and dreams. People working in some of the most challenging conditions — forming and pouring concrete in freezing water; steel construction in snowy, windy winter; roof shingling and copper flashing in scorching summer — to save and restore a building that has greeted Essex residents and visitors for well over a century.
In other words, we can’t “just rebuild it.” And the notion that a close friend who witnessed Rosslyn’s rehabilitation from beginning to end wouldn’t see that surprised us both.
Why the self-pitying post?
Actually, it’s not self-pitying. Or, hopefully it’s not. I realize I’ve flown pretty close to the woe-is-me frontier, but I’ve tried to stay out of the No Fly Zone. I’m not asking for pity. Frankly, I’m not asking for a hand. Not yet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and my psychic energy focused like a laser beam on dry, windless days until Lake Champlain’s water level drops two feet.
We’re resilient. A boathouse is a luxury, a folly, a non-essential, but we’re confident and optimistic that our funny little building on a pier in Essex will endure the flood, take on a handsome weathered patina and slip soon into the realm of “Remember when…”
So, if this isn’t a self-pitying post, what’s the take-away? If you’re a corporate speak aficionado, the take-away is empathy trumps apathy. Every time. And consider offering a hand when your friends might need it, even if you think they’ll decline, even if you’re not sure how you can help. Intention needs no translation.
On that note, if you’re anywhere near Essex, NY or Westport, NY consider offering a hand to the Old Dock Restaurant, Essex Shipyard & Rudder Club, Essex Marina, Normandie Beach Resort, Westport Marina and Camp Dudley. All of them are coping with Lake Champlain flooding, and even if they decline your offer of assistance, I suspect they will be genuinely flattered that you offered.
And, to close on a less preachy note, here are some of the more unique messages that I’ve received over the last few days:
- “Global warming.” ~ Charlie Davis
- “People pay a lot of money to have an indoor pool… I hope it’s heated.” ~ Michelle Rummel
- “I got some great photos with the ducks swimming by, though. It’s all in the name of art…” ~ Catherine Seidenberg
- “So sorry about your boathouse! Those pictures were so beautiful and so sad!” ~ Elena Borstein
- “Maybe you can start your own ferry service – is it time to ski to Charlotte?” ~ Bobbi Degnan
- “I suppose the bright side is that you can fish inside it…” ~ Paul Rossi
- “I am all for starting a nice water taxi service, the Venice of the Adirondacks…” ~ Linda Coffin
- “Still a beautiful boathouse even underwater.” ~ Matilde Busana
- “Let’s all move to Flagstaff!” ~ Chris Casquilho
- “I always thought it would be cool to live in that boat house with the lake and all… never quite meant it so literally though…” ~ Kevin Cooper
- “Sad. But maybe there’s a children’s book there?” ~ Amy Guglielmo
- “George is using him mind control on the lake. Watch it recede as he uses his awesome powers.” ~ Kathryn Cramer
- “Heck, Catherine and I canoed through your boathouse today… We were very careful!” ~ Tom Duca