Rowing for Smitty: From Vaughn Bay to Canada

Ten years ago six men rowed three boats 165 miles to recreate a teenage adventure, honoring a lost comrade and raising money to defeat the disease that took him.

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In June of 1970, Rick and Smitty were fresh graduates of Peninsula High School. They had grown up on the Key Peninsula — Rick on the family homestead in Vaughn and Smitty in Minter. They both worked trimming trees, bucking hay, painting barns, picking salal and oysters, and running the gas station in Key Center on Sundays. Now they were both facing the draft for Vietnam, and the National Guard had shot dead four peaceful protesters and wounded nine others at Kent State University that May.

They needed to get away from it all, at least for a while. So they rowed to Canada.

“I think we were looking around for something to do because we knew that we were headed out and we might not see each other for a while,” said Richard Clark — Rick — of his trip with his friend Smitty, Mark Smith.

“Of course, the big joke was there were a bunch of people that we knew headed across the border so they wouldn’t get drafted,” Rick said. “A few guys, a guy a year ahead of us, had already come back to the peninsula in coffins. So, we were kind of joking about going over the border and not coming back, and somehow getting the boat back to Ken.”

Rick’s neighbor, Ken Brones, offered them his antique double-oarlock rowboat. Rick said he thought their parents, or at least their dads, were all for it, though they didn’t ask anyone’s permission. “I should say that during high school we were very independent, pretty rebellious. But Dad knew this was kind of a coming of age thing, and I think he was kind of proud of us,” Rick said.

“We had no anxieties that I can think of. We had fishing rods and a little shovel for digging clams. We had a whole lot of Carnation instant dry milk, we had instant oats, potato powder, pipe tobacco and Tang. And we just took off.”

The boys did not know it would take 12 days to row the 165 miles to reach White Rock, British Columbia. “We were going to make like Huckleberry Finn, wear hick hats and row and smoke pipes,” Rick said.

“We camped on beaches, caught fish, gathered oysters and dug clams. When Smitty and I were up on Camano, Oak Harbor was having their Fourth of July fireworks and that night it poured but we had my dad’s big oiled tarp draped over a couple of big logs and watched the show and slept on the gravel and we were dry. That moment stuck with me.”

When they reached White Rock, the boys decided not to row into town because they weren’t sure how they would be received. “We pulled in a little bit to the west, got a ride to a town in the other direction and called Smitty’s girlfriend, Betty. She came with her family’s car, which was the largest station wagon ever built on planet Earth, and we got that boat, 400 pounds probably, up there, and she drove us back. Going over the border, nobody cared.”

Rick enlisted in the Navy and Smitty joined the Coast Guard. The last time they saw each other was in 1975.

“My dad sent me a blurb about Smitty’s death in 2009,” Rick said. “I just started kicking myself because I’d lost touch with him, we’d been such good friends and had really good adventures together.”

“The irony of it was that one of his last wishes was to see Rick and I had been searching for him online,” said Smitty’s younger sister, Tina Smith-Klahn.

Smitty was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS; Lou Gehrig’s disease — in 2007.

Mark Smith tried his hand at many things: dairy farmer, cattle farmer, commercial fisherman in Alaska, where he homesteaded, and later in California and Hawaii, where he said a shark once took a bite out of his boat.

“He had settled down and had a home and property and a beautiful yard, then he got sick and sold it all,” Smith-Klahn said. “It was devastating to me but he didn’t care because those things didn’t matter anyway. His thing was adventure.”

Soon after Smitty’s death, Rick told the story about their row to Canada one day to a group of friends over coffee. “And all of a sudden this guy said ‘You should do it again,’ and then my friend Pete Schroeder said ‘I’ll be the other rower.’ ”

What seemed like a lunatic idea one moment became very serious the next.

“In other words, Pete was going to take Smitty’s place in the boat, in this new adventure,” Rick said. “It was very emotional.”

Someone suggested they do it as fundraiser for ALS research. “So that was it. First it was just me and Pete, scrounging around for a boat.”

But when Rick’s brother, Geoff Clark, heard about it, he insisted on going along. “So then we were looking for two boats.” Rick’s nephew, Kilian Olshewsky, still in high school, would accompany Geoff.

“First we tried to find boats,” Geoff said. “We looked at a few, and they wanted 7 or 8 grand.” The brothers wound up buying stitch-and-glue dory kits from Chesapeake Light Craft for $750 each, then taking a class in Port Townsend on how to build them for another $750.

Then Geoff got a call from their half-brother Dana Clark in California. The three brothers had almost no contact growing up but their dad had died and his estate needed settling. By the time that was over, they needed to build a third boat for Dana and his son, Richie.

The six rowers launched in August 2012 from Vaughn Bay. They received some sponsorship support from Chesapeake Light Craft and more from West Marine in the form of paint and accessories, and managed to raise $8,390 for the Evergreen Chapter of the ALS Association.

“The way this event expanded and grew just astonished us,” Rick said. “So many people wanted to be involved, so many people wanted to give money.”

The rowers reached Blaine in 11 days.

“We redid the same route, but we didn’t camp wherever we thought we could get away with it as with Smitty and I,” Rick said. “That’s why we had a couple of 20 plus mile days. When we camped on Blake Island, we all collapsed on the grass and couldn’t get up.”

When the rowers reached Canada, instead of crossing they lined up between buoys marking the border. “We all said something about Smitty,” Rick said. “We shouldn’t let our good friends slip into the oblivion of our memory. Stay in touch.”

He was carrying a small charm containing some of Smitty’s ashes, to ensure he was there too.


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