Robert F. KennedyAmerican Icon, River-Runner


As many of you have seen…we have been running a series of profiles on prominent paddlers in the Canoe & Kayak magazine. I will be running the series on our web site over the next few months. We’ll start with Robert F. Kennedy, which appeared in our August 2008 issue.


If there’s such a thing as a paddling superhero, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., may very well be his plain-clothes alter ego. Kennedy spent his childhood rafting such western classics as the Colorado, Snake, and Salmon with his father, the former U.S. attorney general and martyred presidential candidate.


He has led first descents in Peru, Columbia, and Venezuela, and recently rowed the Waterkeeper dory through the Grand Canyon for the IMAX film Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk 3D (March, 2008). He paddles Chile’s Futaleufu each March and Quebec’s Magpie each summer. Out of the water, his life has been decidedly, well, Kennedyesque—a Harvard graduate with a law degree from the University of Virginia, Kennedy was nailed for heroin possession in 1983, landing him a stint of community service for the Hudson River Foundation—now Riverkeeper.


Armed with his passion for running rivers, Kennedy enlisted an army of local fishermen and mounted a crusade to reclaim the Hudson from the polluters along its banks. Now the group’s chief prosecuting attorney, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and head of the Environmental Litigation Clinic at the Pace University law school, Kennedy invokes the Magna Carta in court and is known for his ability to frame environmental issues in human terms. From his New York office, he dishes on water policy, human rights, and how to survive in the jungle.


You couldn’t have had a Mark Twain without the Mississippi, a Washington Irving without the Hudson River, a Jack London without the Columbia, or a James Michener without the Chesapeake. Our culture is rooted in the watershed and the river.


Rivers define the context that gives us our sense of community. They link us to our history, to our past, and to the landscapes, which are the source, ultimately, of our values and virtues and characters as people. And they are also just magical places.


Dams kill rivers.


The Colorado River is the poster-child for bad river management.


What was once a dynamic and specialized ecosystem cutting through the greatest monument to America’s national heritage has been transformed into a cold-water plumbing conduit between the two largest reservoirs in the United States—monuments to greed, short-sightedness, and corporate power.


Our parents taught us when we were very young not to be scared of the water, we spent a lot of time on the ocean growing up in gales and storms.


On those family raft trips my father would bring a really great group of his close friends, art Buchwald who was the humorist and Andy Williams, the singer, George Plimpton.


Roman law, our most ancient legal heritage, held that the most fundamental “natural” or God-given law required that the “air, running water, the sea, and consequently the sea shore” could not be owned as private property but were “common to all” Roman citizens. Everyone has a right to the commons, but only in a way that does not diminish its use by others.


The first acts of a tyranny invariably include efforts to privatize the commons.


Paddling teaches you to keep your head when you’re surrounded by chaos and crisis.


On the Apurimac we lost our food supply and a lot of equipment. We ended up eating a lot of caterpillars and heart of palm. Ultimately the Venezuelan air force sent a helicopter out and found us. We had a guy with us who was a cabinet minister from Venezuela. He actually had lived in the jungle and he was able to identify a lot of the food sources.


When we were first doing Latin American rivers, we would scout from the air. We didn’t realize how much that perspective tends to compress the rapids. If you scout from the air you kind of have to double it.


I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where we’ve lost touch with the seasons and the tides and the things that connect us to 10,000 generations of human beings who were here before there were laptops, and that connect us ultimately to God.


I don’t think nature is God. And I don’t think we ought to be worshipping nature. But I think nature is the way that God communicates with us most forcefully.


People tend to have faith that the government is generally taking care of the environment and that the disputes are over incremental fine-tuning at the margins. Very few people understand that fundamental rights and values are in jeopardy.


The struggle over the world’s water resources will be the defining struggle of the 21st century.


This is a fight to save a resource for as many constituencies as possible. Here there is room for everyone.


The law is this: There is no right to pollute.


Five years ago on the Magpie River we had a plane crash. Two of my sons and I had to spend the night in the woods up there. We had half a can of Pringles, which we divided up. For my kids, it’s one of their greatest memories.


Every time you go down the river it’s an adventure.

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