This article originally appeared in the Dec. 18 edition of the Wareham Courier.
Thin sheets of ice coated some of the stiller bays and inlets on the cold December mornings. Frosty winds whipped across Buzzards Bay, and rafts of sea ducks huddled together in search of tiny fish to eat.
In the winter months, the weather almost conspires to make kayaking difficult, but it couldn’t stop Richard Wheeler. The 78-year-old kayaker and activist paddled his last mile on the cold morning of Saturday, Dec. 13, followed closely by an escort from the Harbormaster.
“If you’re crafty about it, you can find a lee even when it’s blowing too hard to go out,” Wheeler said. “I’ve done that a number of times.
“Some days I’ve just gone in and found a cove that is relatively paddle-able and just gone back and forth and back and forth. Some of those days have actually been my best days for mileage.”
With more than 50 days out on the water out of the past 70, Wheeler has added a lot to his knowledge of the ins and outs of the water around Wareham. He rattled off several different areas and inlets, and the winds they were sheltered from, in quick succession as he clutched his hands behind his back.
Wheeler has put his oars into the water a few times before to raise awareness and money for various environmental issues, but he felt a very personal connection with the Wareham Free Library and its struggle to continue to provide service in a period of cutbacks and empty coffers. At the urging of fellow library supporters, Wheeler took to the seas again.
For the next 70 days, Wheeler was often spotted in his bright yellow kayak, named for the late Library Director Mary Jane Pillsbury. Slowly its surface filled up with signatures and good will from supporters wherever Wheeler went as he racked up the miles.
Wheeler’s dedication was enough to inspire a string of articles and a lot of attention toward what was happening at the Wareham Free Library. The effort was also matched by a proliferation of signs urging residents to “save the library.”
“The history of these is that they always work as awareness raisers,” he said.
The former Navy frog man said the fundraising was a separate issue from his efforts on the water, since his aim was primarily at educating the community about the importance of the library.
There was never any particular goal for the fundraising portion; it was simply an effort to raise as much money as possible to support the library and maybe change some minds and some votes come time for the Fall Town Meeting, when residents would consider the revised budget Acting Town Administrator John Sanguinet put together after the town found itself having to cover more than $1 million in debts and offsets.
Thanks in part to a generous anonymous donation, the fundraising portion had raised almost $50,000 by Dec. 13, and there were no plans to stop.
“I got $50 for every mile I paddled, and that’s really going to help the library,” he said.
Wheeler said they would probably put the kayak in the library to remind people, and to serve as a 17-and-a-half foot piggy bank.
When it came time to vote for the budget at Town Meeting, there were impassioned arguments on both sides, but no money was returned to the library. There were a lot of reasons, but Wheeler and others didn’t take it as a failure of their efforts and they decided to carry on with their attempts to help the library.
After a while, though, it wasn’t simply just about the library.
During the course of his thousand-mile journey, there was a lot of time to reflect on the sights and life around him.
“One of the interesting insights, it was one of the early days I was out there and I saw monarch butterflies headed south.
“One sort of stayed with me all the way along Stony Point Dike; we were going at about the same speed. We got to the end of Stony Point Dike, and I stopped and turned around. That monarch butterfly just headed right out to Buzzards Bay, and he was just bound for Mexico,” Wheeler said. “When you think about it, he’s getting close. It just goes to show you what 25 miles a day can do.”
There was also plenty of time to marvel at the town’s coastal resources, as well as the beautiful scenery along the water. Thanks in part to the efforts of many conservation groups and homeowners, there were long stretches that looked almost untouched, and in the winter the water was cool and clear. Wheeler thinks that Wareham could become a great destination for kayaking if it keeps encouraging conservation, since the waters are both beautiful and relatively safe to paddle.
“The next time, though, I think I will go in a straight line to the south like a smart goose,” Wheeler said.