A paddling Paul Revere. Canoeing the countryside to spread water warning

AT the point where the Connecticut River meets the skyline of Springfield, Mass., Denny Alsop steps out of his homemade white canoe - wet, grinning - and holding up a half empty jug of bottled water. He's a third of the way into his month-long canoe trek across 15 rivers that run through Massachusetts: a lone messenger, spreading the word that we're in danger of losing our drinking water. This particular day is a media stop. As Mr. Alsop pulls his canoe up on the banks of a waste-water treatment facility, he is greeted by local television cameras, politicians' speeches, a folk singer who's written a song about his trip, and a blast from a long green plastic horn that someone dubs the ``canoe mating horn.''

Rivers in Massachusetts run north and south, and Alsop is making his pilgrimage the hard way - west to east. ``When I started,'' he says, ``people said it wasn't possible to cross the state. But I finally figured I could learn to pole myself upstream, so I started training in November. Then people said, well, you can get across, but you'll never be able to carry enough water to last the whole trip. The canoe just won't hold it. So that's how I came upon the jug as a symbol.''

Alsop depends on on the kindness of citizens to provide him with jugs of water along the way. The Massachusetts Audubon Society also helps, with not only water, but with publicity and logistical support.

This self-employed forester and father of three from Stockbridge, Mass., says he first started to think about the need for drinking water last year after he returned from a trip to the Arctic. ``No matter where you are, you can lean over and drink the water,'' he says. When he came back and found that wasn't possible in Massachusetts, ``I started to get that old troubled feeling. In spite of our knowledge, we were continuing to let clean water slip away.''

The once-pristine Massachusetts drinking water is tainted by a variety of things: ``Road salt, oil and gas from leaking underground storage tanks owned by gas stations, pesticides from farmlands and golf courses, and hazardous wastes from landfills, garbage dumps, and industry,'' says Dan Greenbaum, Massachusetts Audubon's director of public policy and education. Because of road salt, private and public wells and water supplies in more than 20 communities have been closed, and 86 other municipalities show signs of contamination, according to Audubon figures.

Effluent from dishwashers is running into Wachusett Reservoir, causing a proliferation of algae that give the water an unpleasant, fishy taste. Mercury has been found in fish in the Quabbin Reservoir, the source of drinking water for nearly 2.5 million people in 46 communities, which was once described as ``having an almost prehistoric taste and clarity.''

Other parts of the United States face similar kinds of pollution: Illinois's major problem is agricultural runoff, New York's is sewage treatment plants and industrial discharge, California's is sewage treatment plants, agricultural, and mine runoff.

Since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, says Dave Ryan, press officer of the Environmental Protection Agency, ``We think there's been significant improvement, but there are still a lot of problems.''

``The irony of it is that Massachusetts is doing a relatively good job compared to other places,'' says Robie Hubley, Audubon's regional environmentalist in the Connecticut Valley. The state has an Aquifer Land Acquisition Program that protects critical water supply areas in the state. And two bills now in the State House would protect watershed lands by prohibiting certain hazardous land uses near water supplies.

The journey is public and private. Massachusetts Audubon is promoting the bills and increased funding for acquisition. Alsop is the consciousness-raiser, speaking along the way to anyone who's interested.

His own consciousness has been raised in the process. ``Several times I've struck shopping carts. I saw a man back his tractor up to the river and dump out a load of garbage from a golf course. I had to paddle right through the middle of all of it.''

This has been no simple jaunt. Alsop, standing up, poles upstream against the current of streams swollen by spring thaws, a maneuver that requires both brute strength and agility. When he started - in 15-degree weather - his paddle iced up. Two days of steady rain soaked him.

Then there are the portages. When asked how many he's done, he stops in the middle of putting on clean, dry socks in a friend's car. ``H'mm. Well, there were three today [it was 10:30 a.m.] ... aside from that, I've lost count.'' Each portage involves two trips: one for the canoe, pole, and paddles; and one for the large orange waterproof sack with his camping gear, provisions, and clothing - and the metal box containing the cellular phone. The phone, he says, ``is a symbol of the technology that can help clean up the country's water.'' It's also a practical device that helps him keep in touch with the Audubon staff, who are coordinating his trip. One time he was out of touch for five days, said Eleanor Robinson, who's handling his publicity. But a friendly reporter who traveled with him for several days relayed the messages.

That's typical of the kind of help his trip has inspired. Two paper mill workers left their jobs to help him carry the canoe and packs over a dam. ``Two kayakers escorted me through some rapids, one fore and one aft, to pick up the pieces,'' he says.

As he meanders eastward, away from the rural Berkshires, through the more industrialized and agricultural central region, toward the densely populated Boston metropolitan area, the children he encounters tell him what he needs to know about the condition of the rivers. When he started his trip near Alford, most of the local kindergartners said they drank from and swam in the tiny Green River. Those children were the first of many along the way to sign their names on the canoe. Farther on, two kids followed him from bridge to bridge over the Housatonic and shouted down to him, ``We can't drink the water in Hinsdale. We got a boil order heah!''

Later, on the Westfield River, he says, ``four 11-year old boys on dirt bikes ordered me to `Pull ovah!' So I did. I asked them if they'd ever fished there. They said yes. Then I asked them if they'd drunk the water. They said no. `Hey, man, this is a Class B river!''' - a river not clean enough for drinking.

``I'd like to see that my children, and the ones who signed my boat, who are our future, don't end up with this as a legacy,'' he says, holding up the jug. -30-{et

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