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Jim LaBate's latest novel, "Things I Threw in the River: The Story of One Man's Life", brings us back to LaBate's hometown, Amsterdam, New York, and to his.
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Once I started looking, it was surprisingly easy to find out quite a bit about his early life in London and his crime. Old Bailey trials were taken down in shorthand, and transcripts are online now.

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It was an astonishing feeling to hear my ancestor's very words as he tried to defend himself at his trial. From apprenticeship, baptismal and other records, I was able to reconstruct his London life and walk the very streets and wharves where he'd been. The picture of his life in Australia was much sketchier. I could find plenty of information about his business wheelings and dealings, but not much else. It was all interesting enough, but my imagination wasn't stirred by any of it - until the day of the Reconciliation Walk across the Harbour Bridge.

I was there for the same reason I suppose most people were - we were sorry about what had happened in the past, and wanted to acknowledge it. The Walk was only a gesture, a piece of symbolism, but it was better than silence. Near the end of the walk I met the eye of an Aboriginal woman watching the march, and we exchanged smiles. It was a warm moment. But that moment opened a door I'd never known was there. They might even have met. Would they have smiled at each other, the way we just did? I thought that wasn't very likely, and suddenly that bland phrase in the family story - "he took up land" - started to split open.

He didn't just "take up" land, he actually "took" land, from people who'd been living on it for forty thousand years. What had happened when he did that? It was all very well to know about my ancestor's business dealings, but what had gone on, exactly, up on that hundred acres on the Hawkesbury? In those days about the river was the very limit of settlement - the frontier. Perhaps he'd been granted the land, or perhaps he'd just selected it and worried about the paperwork later. He'd sailed up the river, he'd pushed the boat in among the mangroves, he'd struggled through them to dry land - and then what?

How had the local Aboriginal people taken the entry of this man and his family onto their traditional land? What had it been like, that very first day - what had happened when the Aboriginal people came out of the bush towards the Europeans? What had they done, and what did my great-great-great grandfather do?

Had it been friendly as of course I hoped or distrustful, even violent? I was afire to know - but my search was a frustrating one. There was no information - none that I could find, anyway - about his relationship with the Darug people around him: nothing, not even a passing reference. This could mean that nothing happened: either that the Darug had gone from that part of the river by the time he "took up" land there, or that he found a way to co-exist with them.

As I scoured the records, it became clear that I would never know. The real man, my ancestor, faded from view and was replaced by another man. He was a fictional construction called William Thornhill, and telling his story became an obsession for the next few years. History to Fiction Like my ancestor, William Thornhill began his life beside the Thames, was sent here as a convict, and prospered. Beyond that any resemblance ends. Thornhill became a living, breathing, feeling creature for me in a way the figure in the family stories had never been.

Thornhill was a man of strong feelings, quick to anger, a hard man, but one with a fierce love for his wife and children. I'd met men just like him. A fat teenager lies sobbing in a mesquite thicket; the group left him behind. They had been lost for days, surviving on filthy water from cattle tanks. She is six months pregnant. And Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is. Robbing migrants of water in degree Sonoran heat to save them sounds like exquisitely tortured rationalizing.

So whose logic governs? Far worse, it also deforms birds or did, in the s , taints taps, steals jobs, causes the ground to sink irreversibly, kills fish, destroys wetlands -- and harbors shady people with semi-automatic weapons. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, rivers don't catch fire from industrial pollution like they used to.

Many rivers could vie for that title. Earlier this year, the Colorado River flowed to the sea for the first time in decades -- and that took an international agreement.

The Rio Grande, which forms the U. Depending on what happens soon, it could become a river reborn, or a drainage ditch. I think this notion of being disconnected from the natural world is especially pronounced when it comes to rivers. We see them when we zip by on highways, maybe. Or when we fly over them.

Whitewater kayakers know rivers better than perhaps anyone, and Darin is one of the only people alive who has seen some of the upper sections of the endangered river -- a part that, to my surprise, remains remarkably wild and deadly. Which path? Clearly these are not waters for a first-time river kayaker, or even for most experts. I could only hike to the headwaters. Kayaking and more walking would come later. True to its name, the River Trail follows the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin there are three branches of it up here through a fir-covered valley at the bottom of stunning granite peaks.

I noted the Oompa-Loompa-colored tree trunks, roots the size of thighs. It was my first glimpse at what a river-first mindset can do for a person. If you ask him where something is, he answers by the watershed rather than by the road or county. Or: Near the Kaweah. Or: Upriver of that. After his comment, I started listening harder: I heard the rattle of timpani drums as the river dove into canyons, the gentle high-hats as it wandered through meadows.

About p. This is Thousand Island Lake. Official headwaters of the endangeredriver. And not named for the salad dressing.. This is the kind of landscape that screams with the force of a thousand gospel choirs. The lake is gemstone blue -- and pocked with tiny, moss-covered islands, each a Seurat painting of red and orange and green, set on a charcoal backdrop. I walked up to the shore to make sure -- dipped my hand in the frigid water. It was that numbing sort of cold that makes your arm feel like a phantom limb. I thought about jumping in the lake -- baptizing myself in the water that would carry me toward San Francisco.

But as soon as I pulled my hand out, it started to throb in the cold. I looked up to the mountains, saw the snow on Banner Peak, and realized my dip would have to wait. But I also was offended for the water. I had some sense of what would happen to it in the scorching valley below. That's DarinMcQuoid at our camp last night.

He's one of the few who has kayaked the upper rapids of endangeredriver pic. He arrived a shaken-up soda can of a person -- just literally bursting with stories. As we flipped on our headlamps and started cooking dinner, stars lighting up the sky, Peter talked about his previous experiences hiking in this part of the Sierra.

Most people would take that as a lesson never to trust nature again, or never to camp without a tent, at least. Not Peter. Peter has devoted his life to studying this watershed -- has been doing that essentially since he graduated from Berkeley in the hippie years. He helped me see this journey in a new way that was both exciting and frightening. Love how Peter explains watersheds: pee over there, it goes to LA. Pee behind us - fertilize the Central Valley. State and federal governments built a dizzying network of dams, pumps, canals and aqueducts in the wake of the Great Depression.

And since the state allocates eight times the amount of water that typically flows through the system, the river runs completely dry in its midsection all the time. And, in , the U. The San Joaquin has federal protection. But, talking to Peter, I realized my journey could be seen as a symbolic plea to make the river whole.

The next morning, Peter, Darin and I hiked down the mountain, across a snowfield, past glacial lakes and, at one point, through the river, the water rushing around my calves, stealing my footing and nearly yanking me in. I'm usually not so obsessed with temperatures Just pulled into Fresno. Saw two people out walking. The dam was completed in , designed, in part, to hold back water for farms. Friant dam, the nerve center of the endangeredriver. You get misted standing here. I toured Friant Dam the day before I set off -- stood on top of it and watched a rainbow materialize from the mist.

I could see the river below -- my intended path -- and also could see that the dam shuttles water in three directions. That'd the endangeredriver from the top of foot Friant Dam. Note the rainbow. Friant Kern canal sends water mi south of here to Bakersfield Cali. Mostly to farms. I started to see what Peter was talking about. I imagined my urine trying to figure out which path goes to the ocean.

Nationally, there has been a concerted push to remove dams like those that block the San Joaquin. Land is disappearing from the Mississippi Delta, for example, at a rate of one football field per hour because that river has been so dammed and constrained. The dams also kill fish. The San Joaquin used to be home to the southernmost Chinook salmon run in the world, with an estimated , to , spring-run salmon, according to Gerald Hatler, from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. More than 1, U. But here, new dams are being proposed -- one just upstream of Friant, called Temperance Flat.

I took a boat out to the proposed site with representatives from the U. So eerie. All of this would flood to the hilltops if a proposed dam were built. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in a speech. It looked like dough shooting out of a pasta maker as it flew into the riverbed. Me this morning trying to make all the damn gear fit. Boat basically is the equivalent weight of an elephant. It was only a matter of yards, but we had to stop at least five times to rest. I invited five new friends to join me for Day 1 on the river, thinking there would be safety in numbers.

They included a public radio reporter, an irrigation district manager and three river advocates. Here is our San Joaquin gang for the day! River advocates, a journalist and irrigation district. I bounced through them, not realizing until later that my paddle was actually upside down, and therefore not pulling much water. The day zipped by, and was so perfect I wondered aloud whether a PR person with connections in the natural world had set all this up.

One day on the water, however, had shown me a river that was very much alive -- physically and spiritually.

Things I Threw In The River: The Story Of One Man's Life: A Novel By Jim Labate Paperback

The water was blue and crisp and cold -- I could tell it was the same water that came from the snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada, up at Thousand Island Lake. It still felt alive. I dipped my arms back behind me to cool off, and the scorching sun vanished. Ezra David Romero, the radio reporter, was baptized in the River Jordan. They grow from muddy water. They rise above their surroundings to achieve enlightenment. Man on shore: "Where are you going? I camped alone on an island, technically still in the city of Fresno but feeling a world apart. Ezra told me there was a bar just above the bluff with 50 beers on tap.

Is it in the tree? Does it see me? I hear the rustle of leaves. I woke up the next morning to find the intruder had eaten about a third of my food, including a treasured loaf of sourdough and a bunch of oatmeal. I laughed it off, pulled down the tent, boiled some water for coffee, and packed up the boat, ready to start a new day, fresh again.

What ELSE is out there, unseen and hiding in the night? I was joined by Tom Biglione, a naturalist-plus-insurance-company-owner who heard about my trip through a nonprofit and wanted to come along for part of it. He knows monarch butterfly larvae feed only on that plant. The name of his insurance and financial services company is River View. Tom, 66, provided a generous amount of logistical help -- and a great deal of river know-how. I told him about how much fun I had the day before, flying down small rapids. You're wearing it" endangeredriver pic. Tom taught me to distinguish plain blackbirds from red-winged blackbirds their call sounds like AOL dial-up Internet ; great blue herons modern pterodactyls with grumpy-old-man attitudes ; and great egrets elegant white birds.

The same goes for trees. But a whole new world starts to open up when you learn this stuff. Each birdcall added a layer of complexity and excitement. I started to see reality TV show plots in their interactions -- the way the red-winged blackbird will swarm a much-larger hawk to keep it away from its young. And the brown-headed cowbird.

It actually abandons its young in the nests of other birds, which are either too dumb or too loving to notice and so raise the cowbirds as their own. It sounded like nonsense at first, but he assured me it would save me energy, so I listened. My shoulders were already getting sore. Strainers: Any object that is stuck in the middle of the river: a tree branch, a rock, a car I saw lots of those, actually.

When the river splits into two channels, which happens often, you look on the surface for bubbles or leaves and see which side is moving faster, or which direction more of the water is choosing to take. There are finer points to it, but the moral is to go where the water wants you to go rather than creating your own agenda. You have to work with the river, Tom said.

After lunch, I came upon several tests of these theories. The first was a bridge -- a roaring highway bridge, which technically was closed to boats. Tom followed the water between two bridge posts on the far left side of the river, anyway. Nets and wood planks partially blocked the path, and he had to duck down in his boat to slip beneath construction equipment on the underside of the bridge.

I tried to follow, ran into a cement pillar, spun at degrees, ducked, and somehow made it to the other side unharmed. I was glad to have a life jacket. The river forked, and I told Tom I thought the dominant flow went left. He disagreed and went right, which should have been a sign of things to come. Wrong turn This is why you're supposed to "read" the water The kayak got stuck on top of a log.

So Tom came to the rescue, climbing through a thicket, with a saw who has a saw? I fidgeted around for about 15 minutes, trying to get off the log, and eventually set myself free. I shot through the thicket there literally was no channel , ducking to protect my head. Maybe that sounds like nothing compared to tainted drinking water, choking air quality and extreme poverty. But when I heard that stat, the valley started to make more sense to me.

This is a place where people are thirsty for life. The river, meanwhile, is almost completely cut off from people who don't own land. Tom and I paddled up on one park where hundreds of people were cooking, laughing and swimming along the banks of the river on a weekend evening.

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Rosa Alcaraz, 23, is out here with 14 family members celebrating the weekend. She works in an almond packing plant pic. It was almost impossible for me to find places to camp because so much of the river is privatized. And, at times, I had to stop for lunch on riverbanks that likely were owned by farmers. Man I've lived out here my whole life and I've never heard of that. I met people along the San Joaquin who would like to see river tours, fishing contests, festivals and community gatherings. But the best way to really get the feel for it is to talk to Walt Shubin, an year-old with a cauliflower nose and a Hemingway hardness about him.

Walt lives on a small, organic grape farm just off the river, and he let me stay the night with him because -- surprise -- there was no public place for me to camp in the area. At age 12, he built his first canoe. Salmon, I learned, require a connected river to survive. The salmon only have two goals for this journey, as fish biologist Jon Rosenfield explained it to me: have sex and die.

They lay eggs back up in the cool, mountain waters, carefully flip their tails to make a suitable nest in the rocks for them, and then they join the great circle of life by calling it quits. If you drink wine from California, know that salmon likely had something to do with fertilizing it. Scientists have identified marine isotopes of nitrogen and carbon that salmon have carried up into the fields.

When the dams went up, and when the government gave all the water away to farms, the salmon here died, or went elsewhere. Incredibly, they can jump 10 feet above a high-dive! The restoration program calls for a number of improvements to the river, including fish passages around dams, possible payments to farmers who own land that would be flooded if the river returns, and, importantly, increased flows to the San Joaquin to support salmon. Environmentalists are optimistic, but the effort is in political jeopardy, and critics say it may not be funded to completion.

Consequently, there are doubts salmon again will be able to thrive in the San Joaquin. Not all his memories of the valley are so dreamy. He writes letters to the editor, makes occasional speeches, and will tell anyone who asks about the river. All from cancer. Their pictures memorialize them in the living room, above the sofa.

Walt has to escape to the mountains because his asthma is so bad from the smog. Up in the Sierra, he can walk for miles, he told me. Down here, a walk to the yard gets him winded. When I first called him about it he just about leapt through the receiver he was so excited. Told me he wanted to do the whole thing with me if he could.

Nor is his body. We talked maybe a half-dozen times before I arrived in California. His health, his heart. Walt promised to call to see if I made it to the Pacific -- and not to go to Oregon before that. The next morning, as I set off on the water, Walt was there to wave. I spotted him again two miles downriver, peeking through the trees on the bank. I spent so much time trying to correct it leftward that a knot beside my right shoulder blade started screaming bloody murder with each stroke. That, as Dino made clear, is incredibly ironic. I found that infuriating. Life is hard in Mendota Ca.

But I really do like it here. Dino Perez is trying to help families in Mendota thrive.

Crossing the River - Wikipedia

Need is great. Food lines this year have gone dn the block pic. Eighty-two percent of California is in extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U. Drought Monitor, but no one here needs to look at the forecast to know that.