Pola Yolles died on Monday.
As I recall, she was short, pleasingly plump, cheerful and white-haired even when I met her more than 30 years ago. Pola was probably not well known beyond her wide circle of family and friends in Albany, New York, but then what do I know? I had seen her only once since I decamped for the Big Apple in 1987 and before then we were only friendly acquaintances. Even so, I remember her fondly as someone who played a small, but important role in shaping the environmentalist I am today.
In 1979, I was an idealistic 17-year old with a love of folk music. I met Pola at a North River Friends of Clearwater festival at Snow Dock in Albany. In those days, there was no waterfront park in the capital city; just a concrete parking lot alongside a U-Haul building (complete with a real U-Haul truck on its roof). But it did have a dock where local schoolchildren and curious residents could board the Sloop Clearwater during the boat’s periodic visits to Albany. After speaking with Pola and exploring the boat on deck and below, I was smitten.
The Clearwater Sloop is the flagship of the environmental organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. , (www.clearwater.org) whose mission is to protect and preserve the Hudson River and its related waterways. The brainchild of folksinger Pete Seeger, Clearwater was launched in 1969 after a grassroots fundraising effort that included residents from up and down the Hudson River… and beyond. Since then, more than 400,000 children have learned about the river through hands-on lessons about water chemistry; Hudson Valley history; navigation; and river critters, all while under sail. When, on that August day in 1979, a crew member told me that Clearwater members have the opportunity to crew onboard the boat for a week at a time, only one word came to mind “Cool.”
I became a Clearwater member by the end of that year, and on May 17, 1980, after finishing my freshman year of college, boarded the boat at Fulton Ferry in Brooklyn for my first day as a volunteer crew member. I was nervous and excited—I had never been in New York City on my own before, never spent a week on a boat full of strangers. But by the end of the first day, tired and probably sunburned, I knew that I had found home. The hard physical work of sailing, the hearty vegetarian food, the guitar music and river songs, the camaraderie and the sense of purpose touched something deep inside.
At the end of my week, I begged the captains to let me stay another week. In August I crewed again; I could not stay away. Back at college in western New York, I dreamed of the majestic Hudson Highlands and the graceful wooden sloop whose massive sail turned heads along the shoreline. I returned again and again, living for the times I could crew one week at a time, until, eventually, my vacations were given over to travels with a new boyfriend and other interests. By 1994, I had crewed perhaps 13 or 14 times and had spent several winter weekends in Saugerties, New York, helping with boat maintenance in the bitter cold. After that, I served on Clearwater’s board of directors and volunteered at the Great Hudson River Revival, Clearwater’s festival of music and environmental advocacy.
My early days with Clearwater came flooding back when I heard the news of Pola’s death. I hope that my daughter will be interested in crewing when she turns 16, and that I am fit enough to join her. The funny thing is, Pola once told me that she had no interest in sailing; she just believed in the mission of the organization. Thank you Pola, for your commitment and for inspiring a teenaged girl. Rest in peace.