Charlie Helman

Left onto 490 West from Union. Cruise at sixty-five, peel off onto exit three: Churchville. After passing through the heart of town, turn left at Park Road, coast past the deserted gazebos and playgrounds to the boat launch on the edge of river. Time: 18:00 hours. Target reached: a silver Jeep with two water-worthy craft strapped on top next to a man with dark sunglasses sitting on a bench reading a novel. He was halfway through. I didn’t think I was that late.

Now, the question you may be asking yourself, what nefarious business was I up to in Churchville, when my research has been concentrated in Chili? The man with the dark shades had anything but a dark demeanor; he is Charlie Helman, an active member and guide for Rochester’s chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, and behind him was the sedulous Black Creek, a waterway that he has paddled too many times to remember. Although we were not paddling in Chili, Charlie is quite familiar with Chili’s portion of the creek, and probably has the most holistic perspective of the Creek’s unique personality.

Pfrengle Property, in Chili

After we set our boats into the choppy water (I was paddling his slender sea kayak), he explained to me that his infatuation with paddling, and therefore his connection with the Black Creek, would not have been possible if it wasn’t for a chance encounter with a boat enthusiast nine years ago. “It’s kinda funny how it started,” Charlie mused. “I used to go up to Durand Beach on Sunday mornings, reading the paper. And this eighty-one year old guy came down, went out into Lake Ontario, and proceeded to dump [his boat into the water]. He had a homemade boat, and I went down to help him. He asked me if I had ever kayaked before, and I said ‘no’. He said that if I came down next week, he would have a boat for me. The following week I came down, he was there with a bunch of friends…I tried a boat out, two days later I bought my first boat, and three weeks later I was at Durand paddling and these other people came down who were members of the Adirondack Mountain Club and wanted to know if I wanted to join the club with them. I joined the club, and about a year later I became the chairperson of the waterway’s group, and I have been the chairperson for seven and a half years now.” Not only is Charlie involved in the waterways committee, he is also steeped in the executive committee, as well as leading an average of thirty to forty trips a year. In a matter of a few years, he picked up a paddle and became one of the region’s leading experts.

We had only been paddling for seven minutes, but I had quickly learned that Charlie Helman was much more than an enthusiastic paddler.

“Predominately, I monitor what trips people are leading, I try to encourage people to lead trips….Overall I try to promote paddling in the area. This will be my third year with working with the local paddle shops…they rent boats and gear to people who do not have it, and then I take them out on one of our adventures.” And adventure is what Charlie thrives for. As a past marathon runner and long-distance biker, he now channels his impressive energy endowment through the paddle, slipping his boat into rivers and lakes across the state. But for Charlie, paddling is not a private pursuit; it is a means to introduce people to an incredible recreational opportunity, right in their back yards. You don’t have to travel to Colorado to find scenic streams and rivers.” It is a volunteer thing. You can go paddling by yourself, paddle around the bend and see a bald eagle and go, ‘oh look, a bald eagle,’ or you can sit there and say ‘hey everybody, look! It’s a bald eagle!’ It’s a lot more fun doing it with people than it is by yourself.” Charlie is dedicated to nourishing local paddling communities, even if he has to plod along in the back, helping less-than-confident paddlers navigate the water. It’s a selfless act – by inspiring people to come out and paddle, the future for the sport is promising, and countless relationships are established with local watersheds and the surrounding environment.

As we paddled, Charlie described how paddling facilitated a greater appreciation for the natural environment in his own life, as he pointed out giant maple trees and sunning turtles. “I find it very peaceful. You get in the water, and forget about your stress from the day…I find it relaxing. There is nothing more impressive than having a bald eagle fly over your head….I have become more of an environmentalist. You’re definitely amazed by what you see as far as wildlife goes. You [can] see a red-tailed hawk fly over you, you [can] see an osprey come down and grab a fish out of the water in front of you.” Paddlers have a greater advantage to observe wildlife since, according to Charlie, “You have more of an ability to sneak up on something in a canoe.” If it weren’t for the fact that we were talking for the entire two-hour paddle, we would have been silent; our paddles making a soft, flowing whisper as we dipped them into the water. Compared to the heavy boot thuds and sharp snapping of leaves and branches that I create during hiking trips, paddling is quite clandestine.

                However, there are many challenges that our local paddling communities face. “I think all of our waterways are underappreciated,” Charlie asserted. “Look at the Genesee River – it flows right through down town Rochester, and most people do not even pay attention to it. One of the coolest paddles you can do is put in Charlotte and go up the Genesee River to the lower falls… you show pictures of that to somebody and they think you are in Colorado. You tell them, ‘no, that’s down town Rochester,’ and they look at you like you’re nuts. It’s the same thing with [the Black Creek]. This is such an underappreciated [resource].” As with many local watersheds, a dearth of appreciation is one of the strongest threats, for the true value is often replaced by ignorance, which can facilitate abuse. Without an understanding of ecological function, recreational potential and cultural significance, the Black Creek is just there; it’s just a mosquito infested stream that floods people’s backyards every spring. It’s more than apathy too. “The problem…is as a paddler, there are only so many places where you can physically take out, because a lot of it is private land.” He pointed out that throughout the entire length of our trip, we had been beset by ominous ‘POSTED’ signs, threatening prosecution of every kind. “If you go into the Bergen Swamp… you can pull out, get out, get poison ivy all over yourself, and be fine!” Thankfully, we decided to turn around when we reached the swamp instead of exercising our freedom to alight, saving my ankles and calves from the malicious plant. However, Charlie’s sarcasm underscored the larger issue: Even if people wanted to paddle, lack of access may deter them. If a waterway is hemmed in on either side by private property, how can the public access the resource to pursue the activity that interests them? Without the local community using the resource, there will be no incentive to preserve.

                Thankfully, interest is growing, and local municipalities are striving to meet the needs of paddlers by increasing access to local waterways. In Chili alone, there are several places that one can easily drag a boat down to the water: the fishing access site off of Ballantyne Road, Black Creek Park, the Greenway, Union Station Park, and a few more. And, to top that off, Bob and Sue Freeman have written a paddlers guide for local waterways, which includes a few sections of the Black Creek. All the resources are available; now local interest must be stoked, and Charlie Helman can be considered the crusader. Hopefully, the paddlers that he and the Adirondack Mountain Club have inspired will, in turn, create a strong network of community members vested in the health and protection of the Black Creek and other nearby watersheds. It’s incredible how far a person’s volition will take them, and Charlie is certainly a model.

I paid more attention to my surroundings as we embarked on our return. Pileated woodpeckers darted between trees in the forest beside us, cackling like a madman. The sweet melodies of unidentified song birds blended dreamily with the whispering trees, sweetening the warm summer air that gently wrinkled the dark water. We kept disturbing the same blue heron; he would flap his giant wings with a squawk and coast to solitude further up the bend, only to be disturbed again.  We caught up to two young teenagers in a beaten, aluminum canoe, complaining about their kayaking father who was going too fast. Then, around the corner, the houses appeared again, surprising me. I had grown accustomed to the feeling that I was lost in the wilderness, separated by man for many miles. I hope many other people will have a chance to share this feeling as well.

  1. I am proud to be Charlie’s mom. He is real pioneer and has helped many people learn to appreciate kayaking and the natural resources around them. Beauty is here for the using in your own back yard or down stream. His dad and I used to canoe on Long Island in Belmont and near Shirley and Yaphank. Also on an island in Montauk,STAR?, where the Coast Guard station is.We saw them (unload a boat of bales of marijuana) through a mesh metal fence. WE felt far away from houses and traffic. Peaceful and reenergizing experiences. Join and enjoy the ride. Lucille Helman

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