This is a archetypal adventure of greed, nature, fear, change, ample dogs, and agitated golfing, but I didn’t apperceive that aback it began. Nor did I apperceive that I’d get sucked into the affair myself. All I knew was John Harreld walking to the water’s angle on a summer morning in 2015 in Guerneville, California.
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For neighbors in Harreld’s quiet river community, 90 account northwest of San Francisco, the angel of the afresh 43-year-old starting his day in the bank had become a regular, if provocative, sight. Several times a week, he’d bulb himself in a folding armchair overlooking a affable angle in the aged Russian River. Sometimes a associate abutting him; added times he sat alone. The job was simple: Adore the beach. Sip coffee. Maybe atom an otter slithering up the apathetic current. Best of all, do these things in bright appearance of the camera hidden in the trees.
The man who’d afraid the camera believed that Harreld was trespassing. Harreld believed he was accomplishment acreage that belonged to the people. On a authentic level, that’s all the two were angry about: aloof 20 anxiety of abrasive beach.
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But at the affection of the activity swirled bigger and fundamentally adverse ideas. Remarkably basal questions about America itself were alloyed through their dispute. There would be no bloodshed—the aforementioned could not be said elsewhere—but the akin of acerbity would about become abominable for the already affable neighbors.
Harreld and his wife, Judith, alive in a one-story home a abbreviate airing from the river, with sunflowers and a amazon garden out front. He’s abbreviate and youthful, with coiled Paul Rudd eyes and a jovial, aloft air. Aback he’s not alive as a medical accessory analyst, he tends to be diving, bedrock climbing, investigating shipwrecks, or assuming busy Lego creations he fabricated in his home’s committed Lego studio. He’s a detail guy. One of these creations is a calibration archetypal of Chichén Itzá so anxiously authentic that aback you flash a flashlight on the balustrade, it mimics the equinox aftereffect at the absolute temple.
John Harreld (Justin Kaneps)
On this June day, as he absolved bottomward the clay aisle to the bank for morning bouncer duty, he was advancing his newest hobby: actuality the Rosa Parks of abstruse riparian law.
Fifty yards or so aloft this quiet amplitude of the river is a vacation home endemic by Mark O’Flynn, a advocate from San Francisco. Nearly four years ago, O’Flynn acquaint his aboriginal NO TRESPASSING sign. Like abounding acreage owners, he had appear to agree accessible admission with burst glass, account in the bushes, and bad music arrant from bashed strangers’ speakers.
The problem, as Harreld saw it: the assurance stood in arrant abuse of federal law. As he would explain to anyone who’d listen, the bank was accountable to a accessible alleviation beneath a band declared the accustomed high-water mark—a adding almost akin to the boilerplate aerial tide. In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Cloister accepted in Montana v. United States that this alleviation trumps clandestine buying in accessible rivers.
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Navigability, in turn, is accustomed by proving that the river has able as a “highway of commerce,” acclimated by ferries accustomed tourists, say, or loggers amphibian felled copse downstream, both of which happened on the Russian River.
In added words, Harreld believed, that abrasive bank was everyone’s to enjoy, behindhand of what signs were posted.
Harreld had accepted O’Flynn socially. His abode is a minute’s airing away, and Harreld and his wife had been over for dinner. Aback he saw the sign, he e-mailed Mark to ask if it was his. Indeed, Mark replied.
There would be no added amiable meals. Over the years that followed, a full-on algid war blossomed. Addition would run a shin-high band of wire beyond the path. One of Harreld’s allies would abolish it. O’Flynn would adhere cameras in the trees. Addition would acrylic over the latest NO TRESPASSING sign.
And now, on this Thursday morning in 2015, Harreld and some accompany approached the bank alone to acquisition the aisle blocked by “cut bamboo, timberline branches and matts of algae,” according to the June 18 admission in a abundant account he’s been befitting aback the battle started. The abutting day, the accumulation began removing the makeshift barricade, and O’Flynn ran out of his house.
What ensued borders on slapstick, with O’Flynn, according to Harreld, “pulling the bamboo out of my hands, afresh adventurous over to cull some out of my friend’s hands, afresh adventurous aback to me.” (I don’t acquire O’Flynn’s account; he won’t altercate the altercation in detail.) Anon two sheriff’s assembly arrived, but they beneath to booty action.
Perhaps at this point you’re account at the bulk of chargeless time that middle-aged white men have. I marveled, too. But as I got added into the dispute, I came to see that this picayune altercation wasn’t all that it seemed. Abaft the absurdity of accommodation wars and the arcana of river law, a beyond battle was arena out, one abiding in a abstruse altercation over how we anticipate about attributes and how we bisect it.
All over the country, that altercation has become a affection of the landscape. I capital to see it up close—and to see what happens aback addition tries alive the cachet quo in a baby way. Like abounding rivers about the country, the Russian is abounding of vacation homes and resorts claiming clandestine beaches, accustomed high-water mark be damned. It seemed some civilian defiance was in order—or, rather, civilian obedience, if John Harreld was correct. So I aggregate calm three accompany and some boats.
“How do acreage owners feel about boaters landing on the beaches in advanced of their land?” I asked the woman at the canoe-rental abode in Forestville, the abutting boondocks over from Guerneville. It was June 2017, the alpha of the division for her operation.
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She apish her arch kindly, the way you do aback talking to an idiot.
“There’s abounding accessible beaches to enjoy,” she said. “I brainstorm canoeists wouldn’t appetite to go up on anyone’s clandestine beach, would they?”
Au contraire. Remember “The Swimmer,” that John Cheever abbreviate adventure breadth the abundant decides to bathe his way beyond all the pools in his county? That was my plan, except that instead of pond pools, I would hit as abounding putatively clandestine beaches forth the Russian River as possible—first on a ten-mile amplitude with my buddies, afresh on addition four afar or so during a drop of abate excursions. Instead of whiskey, we’d be fueled by a cocktail of appropriateness and aureate legalese.
“Public buying of physically accessible rivers, including the acreage up to the accustomed high-water mark, pre-dates acreage deeds. What the acreage accomplishment says or doesn’t say about the river is irrelevant.” So reads a river-law album on the Civic Organization for Rivers website. And as the Supreme Cloister ruled, clandestine buying of the beds and banks of accessible rivers is “always accountable to the accessible appropriate of navigation.”
My accompany and I paddled into the affable accepted to see if that acquainted true.
The bashful little towns of the Russian River Valley—Forestville, Rio Nido, Guerneville, Monte Rio—are admirable and circuitous places, tight-knit blue-collar communities that mix anyhow with Bay Breadth weekenders. There’s an apish arena and a gay arena and an ex-hippie arena and a abandoned scene.
On the water, meanwhile, it’s authentic Platonic river. From the apathetic amplitude of the bay account copse to the disco blinking of the agitation aspens to the Dude-like calmness of the redwoods, a ambiguous drugginess wafts over the place. The baptize beckons all types. One minute you’re chatting with a binocular-toting naturalist, the abutting with occupants of a 12-person bulk congenital to attending like a behemothic pizza. It’s a accepted vibe, which makes the abstraction of an absolute bank all the added jarring.
My accompany and I spent the aboriginal hour affairs up on every no-trespassing bank we could find, admitting alive we were aural our rights didn’t accomplish it beneath awkward. Brainstorm acquirements that punching addition in the face was absolutely legal—it would still be array of boxy to feel OK about it. But not a body came active out to scowl at us. “Maybe cipher will say annihilation to you. It’d be absolutely altered if you were atramentous or amber and sidled up on someone’s property,” an African American acquaintance had acicular out afore the trip.
But by hour two, aggregate began to change. A ample alluvium bar opened out into the river, cordoned off abaft a breadth of braiding and some buoys. PRIVATE BEACH NO CANOES, a assurance read. Yes canoes, we decided. Three account afterwards we were adequate a accomplished bold of bocce. Ten account afterwards that came the aboriginal bellow.
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A shirtless man in his sixties or seventies was continuing on his accouter 100 yards or so up from the river. He had a brace of binoculars accomplished on us and was babble article I couldn’t absolutely hear.
“What?” I called.
“I said apprehend the fucking assurance in advanced of you!”
He was acutely tanned, with a coriaceous chest and long, abrasion hair. He proceeded to unload. He was ailing of bodies from God-knows-where boot all over his clandestine oasis. As he yelled—now on the backyard in advanced of me—I did my best to affably represent the law. It bounced off. “How would you feel if I afraid out in your fucking backyard?” he asked.
“There isn’t an alleviation on my backyard.”
He coiled his hand. “If addition break their leg on this beach, I’m liable,” he said. I told him this wasn’t so—the accompaniment is liable, per the accessible easement.
“You don’t get it,” he replied. “I pay taxes on this beach.”
“Everyone does,” I said gently.
It went on like this. I anticipation that if we could aloof accumulate talking, we’d acquisition some accepted ground, alike if we never agreed that his arena was common. He anticipation contrarily and told me to fuck off afresh afore ultimately walking away.
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Over the abutting few hours, at a dozen evidently clandestine beaches, my accompany and I would appointment bigger and worse. At one beach, a affable adolescent brace lolled on a brace of abutting tubes a few anxiety from shore. They were renters in a baby affiliation that claimed this accurate bank as its own, but as far as they were concerned, anyone could use it if they bankrupt up their mess. Bisected a mile away, we ran into a accumulation at addition bank that had been claimed by a affiliation association, the Odd Fellows Recreation Club. “Your law is wrong,” one woman said aback I explained my position. At addition clandestine club, a woman befuddled her arch and told me, “It’s consistently been this way and consistently will be.”
Throughout my journey, I heard a accepted burden from homeowners: that they weren’t aggravating to accumulate neighbors
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