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We are Reconcilers
June 24, 2011

Tim Dion, a professional surfboard shaper here in Malibu stopped by the shop today to check out what we were doing. Within minutes we had forgotten about the cups of epoxy curing in our hands as surfer wisdom poured out of his mouth. As it turns out, what we do in Camden and what we are doing here in Malibu are much more similar than ever realized. The area Camden now resides in began as prime waterfowl hunting and fishing grounds for the lenape people who would earn their keep on birch bark canoes. European immigrants (dutch, most likely) fell for the land for the same reasons and began imitating and re-imagining these double ended vessels to include sails, rowing and poling stations, birthing boats like the ducker, tuckup and railbird skiffs. As industry began to run our cities, Camden became a workingman’s mecca.. but not for railroads or automobiles... for boats (and phonographs and soup, of course). Ships would roll off of the New York Shipbuilding Corp. lines in south Camden to discover the unknown, map the uncharted, and devastate the non-compliant (sadly indeed).

All of these make me think that Camden has something to it... something greater than mere water access that causes people to build boats and fall for the rivers... as if the land itself yearns for it. Perhaps now it simply longs for a return to a home it once new.. the kind that was felt at the most recent boat launch on the Cooper River as 15 kids bounced toothy smiles off the most subtle wind swells. Malibu shares in Camden’s longing. Rumor has it that Malibu created surfing as we know it by being the first wave where someone turned down the face as opposed to simply riding towards shore. I believe it.. and if you were here, you would too. Surfrider beach (or Malibu Point as it was called during Malibu’s golden age of surfing beginning in the mid 20′s) has been credited with being the wave that has had the most effect on surfing’s popular image... that long, perfect, glistening tube... visible from miles up Malibu Canyon Road. Tom Blake’s legendary board (especially SUP) designs were built in driveways and garages all around this area through the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties until Malibu shifted gears. Once a wilderness for the redwood paddling adventurer, Malibu became a retreat community for those lucky few who could afford it. Though surfing is still huge here, we can feel that what we are doing here is something greater, something more important. It’s pulsing through the group of builders, growing in both numbers and excitement daily, and keeps us feeling as if we stumbled onto a goldmine. It seems that we Urban BoatWorkers, apprentices of the very boat that chooses us to build it, are once again in over our heads trying to reconcile a culture and a people to it’s land and it’s history... and I think it’s working.

This weekend we will sign our name on the board’s deck, not for vanity but for bookkeeping. These kids are making history in their city and 75 years from now when most of us are long gone these old school paddleboards may well live on adorning the wall of a themed local eatery or small gallery to forever tell the story of a bunch of wild locals who decided to go against the grain of their culture and honor, commemorate, their home. these boards may well outlive us... the most important boards I have are the ones that were made long before my time.

- Tim Dion

From Camden to Malibu
June 22, 2011

24 Hour Solo
June 15, 2011

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I’ve always loved small boats and paddling, it’s the wild and natural places along with a quest for adventure that I long to share with my UrbanTrekkers.  Whether paddling on a North Country wilderness lake in a canoe alongside a common loon or in a kayak off the coast of Maine and only a paddle length away from breaching bottlenose dolphins and hearing their slurping inhale for precious air. 
 
This past year students at UrbanPromise built five beautiful wooden canoes and a cedar strip kayak, yearlong projects, that required commitment and a perseverance that was tested over and over again from both students and the volunteers in the shop.  Key partnerships with the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum, the home of Urban BoatWorks and the Cooper River Yacht Club has allowed us to build an amazing program of learning and discovery.     
 
This year had us on the water more than ever.  Beginning with the Maine trip and ocean kayaking we also had three paddle trips in the fall; kayaking the Barnegat Bay, Assateague Island, and the Batsto River in the New Jersey Pines.  In the spring we went white water rafting on the Nolichucky River in North Carolina and Tennessee, another Barnegat Bay paddle with diamond back terrapins and horseshoe crabs and finished our school year with the Senior Rites of Passage on the Saranac Lakes.
 
Each year the senior class of the UrbanPromise Academy has the opportunity to participate in a yearlong preparation of commitment and leadership training that ends with the 24 Hour Solo on a small island on Lower Saranac Lake.  Students spend four days paddling, portaging and hiking very challenging terrain moving from Upper, to Middle and finally to Lower Saranac Lake for their Solo.   The night they come off the island they share their journal entries and reflections from the trip.  Shanice, the class Valedictorian, summed up best when she shared from her journal…
 
 “I had just been left on my own island and I was putting up my tent, the black flies and Mosquitoes were all over me.  I was anxious, tired and hot, feeling lousy; it was then…when I saw two beautiful butterflies that I somehow knew I was ready…ready for my journey.”  She said she thought of her classmates back at school who chose not to be part of the Rites of Passage, and said respectfully of them, “they’re not ready yet for the journey; they are still being swarmed by the pesky black flies and mosquitoes”. She went on to say to her classmates around the fire, “we’ve been prepared for our journey”.
 
I believe there is something very special about a boat…”it can take you someplace you have never been before”,  but more than any place in nature, it’s what’s revealed in ourselves, that we often discover when we are so far from home and all that is familiar.  Nature’s wild places force us to adapt, to face fear, and call on courage; in the end we often find a new confidence and belief in ourselves that is truly authentic…we’ve earned a stripe and we know it. 
 
If you decide to come down to the boat shop this summer and check us out…you better call first, because you’ll see a sign hanging on the door that reads, “Gone Paddling!”
 
Pedal for Promise May 7, 2011 - Why We Ride
May 7, 2011
It’s Friday night and I get a text message from one of the kids who signed up to become a team member in the newly formed UrbanPromise Academy Elite Cycling Team. A group of fourteen students have committed to this twelve week long training regimen and conditioning program that will prepare them to ride in the 50 mile Pedal for Promise on May 7th. The students have made a huge commitment, as for many the disciplines of training, sacrifice, and team work will stretch them well beyond their comfort zone.

This student is obviously distraught; a close friend he’s grown up with was killed after being shot multiple times last night on Mt. Ephraim Avenue.   He tells me he’s not available to make Sunday’s practice and he won’t be able to be part of the team anymore. I text him back that I am very sorry for his loss, but the practice is not scheduled to start until the following Sunday.

Afterwards, I begin thinking about some of the events that happen in the lives of my kids. Later that weekend, I pick up one of my students from his home in South Camden and, as he gets into the car shaking his head like only a seventeen year old can do, he grumbles, “My mom, she always says the same three things to me when I leave the house - ‘I love you, be safe and don’t get shot’. 

‘Don’t get shot!?’ I know that, as parents, we have a long list of worries as our teenagers walk out the door on a Saturday night, but for most of us, having them get shot down in the street is not one of our concerns.

Back at school the next week, I spoke to the young man who texted me about not being able to be part of the team any longer…I told him I thought the team was part of the solution for him. I told him he couldn’t let the bullets that left his friend to “bleed out” on the street also take him down.   He needed to ride for his friend and, even more, for himself; otherwise those bullets would just go on killing more and more young people.

So, if you ask me why we ride, I’ll tell you stories about some of the most amazing and resilient young people I’ve ever met. I look forward to sharing the road with you on May 7th and thank you to everyone, riders and supporters alike…you keep us trekking and, most of all, believing!

God Bless,
Jim
Walt Whitman spoke to me...
March 28, 2011

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Walt Whitman spoke to me the other day; now before you go and call me crazy let me explain.  I was canoeing on the CooperRiver as it flows through Camden, exploring for a future UrbanTrekkers adventure.  This urban river which in mostly hidden and out of sight is thought by many to be severely polluted and unsafe to navigate but I’m not so sure that’s the case and wanted to investigate.  The river reveals an amazing contrast of natural beauty and crumbling manmade monuments of an industrial era long since gone.  On this day the cherry blossoms had popped, fish were jumping and the Cormorants were diving and I was glad to be there.
 
As we paddled along the banks of the river we passed along side HarleighCemetery where Walt Whitman has rested since 1892.  Whitman, the great poet and essayist, who was a voice for the American experience over one hundred years ago might be sitting up in his self-designed tomb today as I half-smile thinking how ironic the words that he first penned in the 1860’s were for today and my Camden youth….
 
There was a child went forth everyday; and the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; and that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day or for many year, or stretching cycles of years”

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Literary reviewers agree in this poem Whitman expresses his identification of his consciousness with his environment. The continual process of becoming is at the heart of the poem, I couldn’t agree more. I often think of what our students see everyday as they open their doors to an impoverished city and walk their streets of abandonment on their way to our schools and programs.  There seems to be a terrible injustice in it all. 
 
Next week the UrbanPromiseAcademy and UrbanTrekkers head out on spring break for the mountains of Appalachia and Tennessee.  We’ll be hiking along the Appalachian Trail and rafting the white waters of the NolichuckyRiver. It should be especially beautiful this time of year with Rhododendrons and Azaleas in bloom as we trek through the southern range of Appalachia.  Much more in the image of what Whitman was speaking to in his verse referenced above.
 
Trips like this help us to reframe the pictures our students see and imagine for their lives and are only made possible through your support…Thanks for being there for us, you keep us believing!
 
Keep on Trekking!
Jim      
 
 

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