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Memories of a downriver adventurer

Many years ago, I had a young friend who was an absolute paddling fanatic. He had a hand-me-down homemade kayak that was patched up with duct tape, glue and construction adhesive.

It was an ugly ship to look at, but it was seaworthy enough to paddle, and that was all that mattered. In his eyes, the kayak was a means of escape, and when he was on the water, he had no other earthly concerns.

While other kids of his age owned bikes, and eventually a car or a truck, his sole tool of discovery remained that battered old, red and white downriver kayak.

It was an unwieldy craft that took him everywhere – from pond-hopping excursions to the larger lakes – but his favorite trips were always the ones that took him downstream.

And whenever we got together, which was not too often in later years, he was always headed downstream.

He explained the downstream journeys were, “Kinda like my life. I like to go on winding rivers because around every bend there’s always a whole new scene. I like that sense of adventure and the anticipation of what’s to be found, although it really sucks when it’s just a tangle of trees and you’ve got to climb a big bank to drag your boat around them.

“But you can’t escape the feelings of excitement that the downriver trips offer. It’s kind of like my life ’cause I really don’t know where I’m going, but like the water that’s always pulling me along, I know I’m on my way.”

I liked his philosophy and his approach, and I had a feeling he would go places in life.

Jim was still in junior high when I graduated from high school, but whenever I was back in the area I’d make a point to stop to visit with him. It was a habit that continued whenever we ran into each other, which unfortunately wasn’t very often.

In later years, I’d meet up with him on the river while slinging a flyrod, and he’d still be paddling that silly, old downriver kayak.

We’d always stop whatever we were doing to get together and chat for a bit, just to catch up. I admired his sense of adventure and his solitary resolve.

He had never allowed the opinions of others to influence his outlook on life, and although he often appeared shy and unsure, he was a confident adventurer.

It may be that he was born that way, or maybe his adventures molded him in such fashion. Whatever the case, he proved to be both confident and collected, and his river adventures provided a perfect venue for solitary exploration.

In hindsight, his solitary explorations were likely as much about character and confidence building as they were about physical discovery.

Jim was never an athlete. He was what would later have been labeled a “nerd” or a “geek,” but he came along well before such terms were coined.

In high school, he took secretarial science rather than shop class. The closest he got to earning a varsity letter was when he served as the manager for his older brother’s soccer team.

He was one of “those kids,” the one’s that always got picked on, pushed around and largely ignored. I got to know him pretty well because I hung out with his older brother.

We called him “Tin Grin,” in reference to his rather oversized smile that was covered with braces for almost his entire school career. He took it all in good fun, but I expect he had to as there was no other choice.

Following my high school graduation, we stayed in touch. On occasion, we’d run into each other while I was fishing with guests along the Boquet River and he was out paddling downriver.

Looking back through the eyes of age, it becomes obvious that his battered old boat was likely his only means of escape. His journeys were nearly always solitary affairs, except for the few times his brother and I managed to wrangle a flat-bottomed jon boat to go downriver.

We would float along in that big old tub, and he would buzz around us in his kayak like a deerfly on a muggy day.

We all learned how to drive while practicing with an old Dodge Valiant in the farm fields behind the family home. The vehicle, which was a wreck to begin with, was in far worse shape after we were done. I suppose there are many Adirondack kids who came of age under similar circumstances, bouncing around in a car in a farm field.

Although we shared many great adventures, Jim was forever referred to as the “kid brother,” and he never managed to escape that status, even as an adult.

Eventually, he took off for college and like so many Adirondack kids, he never looked back. His siblings all did the same. Eventually the family home was put up for sale and new neighbors took over the old neighborhood.

It is a story that has been repeated over and over in small towns across the park, the state and the entire country, I expect. Small town kids, leaving town with a pack and never looking back.

Sadly, I lost touch with old Tin Grin. The last time we spoke was shortly after his brother Bobby passed away from cancer, more than a decade ago.

At the time, he was ensconced in the Tech Valley area of California. I heard through the grapevine that he had eventually retired from a successful career in the computer industry to settle in the Seattle region. After that move, he dropped off the radar.

However, I’ve never forgotten his keen sense of adventure, and the many places that battered, old kayak took him.

About a month ago, I received an unsolicited email from a company in Seattle with an advertisement touting the health benefits of sea salts.

The solicitation was out of the blue, and it was quickly deleted. However, in hindsight, I pulled it out of the trash box and replied with a query of my own.

“Please take me off your mailing list, unless this company is affiliated with James Latham, Adirondack adventurer. Please don’t tell me he is now pounding salt.”

I realized it was a longshot, and I honestly didn’t expect to receive an answer. But to my surprise, two days later, came a reply.

The company is owned by his daughter, and Jim had included my name on her mailing list. He sold his software company and retired to pursue other ventures, but he’s still the same old kid I once knew.

A lot of time and many friends have since passed, but the bonds that we share of time spent on the river will never be lost.

We’ve since re-established relations. He’s still paddling a kayak, but mostly on the ocean. I expect the big waves of the Pacific present a much greater challenge than the small streams of the Adirondacks. And despite his many accomplishments in industry, he’ll always remain Bobby’s kid brother to me.