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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Remembering Dick Wheeler and the Great Auk

Air Date: Week of

Portrait of Richard "Dick" Wheeler in 2007 on his kayak in Buzzards Bay. (Photo: Courtesy of Cape Cod Times)

In 1991 Richard Wheeler fulfilled a lifelong dream and paddled his kayak along the migratory route of the now-extinct Great Auk from Newfoundland to Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts. He dedicated much of his later years to supporting local conservation efforts and paddling through new adventures. Living on Earth pays a tribute to the late Wheeler, who died in February 2019, with a reprise of the story of his journey tracing the migration route of the Great Auk. Dick Wheeler teamed up with famed storyteller Jay O'Callahan to help him tell the story, and both men joined host Steve Curwood in the studio to recount the remarkable journey.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

Great auks were the closest creatures the northern hemisphere once had to penguins. Sadly, these flightless birds were plundered out of existence in the 19th century. To tell the story of the Great Auk, conservationist Richard Wheeler once paddled a kayak from the far north of Labrador Canada to Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and storyteller Jay O’Callahan made a dramatic interpretation we’ll hear in just a moment. We originally broadcast our segment with Dick Wheeler and Jay O’Callahan back in 1999. We are bringing it to you again today because Dick Wheeler recently died at 88, and we thought this tale was a most fitting way to honor this man, whom Time Magazine once named a Hero for the Planet. Here’s that original recording of the Story of the Great Auk when Jay O’Callahan and Dick Wheeler joined me in the studio

O'CALLAHAN: Hey, hey! Dick Wheeler here. Dick Wheeler. Want to talk to you. I'm the Great Auk man. I got a call one day from Dick Wheeler, I didn't know Dick, said he'd heard a sea story of mine on the radio, wanted to talk to me about a journey. He wanted to make a 1,500-mile kayak journey, from northern Newfoundland, a place called Funk Island all the way down to Buzzard's Bay. Well, I've grown up by the sea, and I knew that was almost impossible.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: That's Jay O'Callahan telling the story of one man's odyssey, to follow the migratory route of a now extinct sea bird. Dick Wheeler grew up on the sea in Marshfield, Massachusetts. The winter he was ten years old, he built a kayak with his brothers and his father. And though his life would take him in many directions, to college, to the Navy, to a lifelong career as an English teacher, building that kayak planted in him a dream he would never forget: a long paddle at sea.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: A half-century later, at 60 years of age, Dick Wheeler was in his kitchen one night, dinner for his wife simmering on the stove, when he picked up a book he hadn't read in years. It was called The Great Auk, and it was about a bird of the same name.

O'CALLAHAN: Somewhere over five million years a decision was made inside the species of the Great Auk not to have hollow bones. It gave up flight in the air. The decision was for solid, dense bones, so it could be a great plunge diver. With the solid bones it could plunge straight down the sea 100 feet. That's a long way down. But if it needed 200, 300 feet, 400 feet, 1,000 feet, it could soar under the sea with the grace of an eagle and the ease of an eight-year-old girl in a swing. It was a magnificent bird, and smart.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: That dinner never got cooked. Instead, Dick Wheeler had already put in for the adventure of his life: a paddle tracking the Great Auk's migratory journey south. His wife, Sandra, said simply, "Keep the land on your right." That began two years of planning and training for his trip. Along the way, Dick learned of storyteller Jay
O'Callahan. He tracked him down and asked if he would help tell the story.
Recently, Dick Wheeler and Jay O'Callahan joined us in our studio, to tell and perform the story of Dick's remarkable journey. Dick told me more about the bird that inspired him.

WHEELER: Probably, the best diving bird the northern hemisphere has ever seen, perhaps in the world. It stood about two feet tall, mated for life, they laid just one egg a year, an enormous egg.

CURWOOD: The same dense bones that gave the Great Auk its miraculous diving ability also left it unable to fly. Most of the year it was safe in the water, but during the six weeks or so it needed to breed each summer, it was land-bound. And when explorers moved further into uncharted waters of the North Atlantic, the Auk was unable to protect itself.

WHEELER: They existed in such numbers that the earliest ship's captains, who were used to an abundance that we've never seen, became very emotional in their logs. There were so many of these birds, they'd say, "No matter how many we kill, there will always be more." And they filled boats with them, and then they filled boats with their eggs, and then they put their flesh into barrels, and then New England fishermen went up and took them and cut their breasts out for bait for codfish. And the final blow, or close to the final blow, came when the mattress industries that were developing in the United States, in Nova Scotia, needed feathers. And having depleted the eider duck populations, someone said let's go out to Funk Island and get those Great Auks. And so they did. And they got them all.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: The first leg of Dick Wheeler's journey was a treacherous 40-mile paddle across the open ocean in from Funk Island, one of the Great Auk's summer breeding colonies. Then he headed south down the coast of Newfoundland in his 17-foot kayak, nicknamed "Aukie." Upon her bow he'd mounted a figurehead of the Great Auk he'd carved and painted himself. Storyteller Jay O'Callahan.

O'CALLAHAN: Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right, paddle up a wave and down the other side. Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right, paddle up a wave and down the other side. We're doing the dream, Aukie, we're doing the dream! Look at that, guillemots all around us. Beep beep beep beep beep! Well, Aukie, I'm tired. I'm going to put in right here. Look at that fisherman. Chin looks like a doorknob, looks like he's waiting for us.
"Hey boy, you're the one that come in from the Funks, boy?"
"How'd you know that?"
"Everyone in Newfoundland knows about you, boy. We heard about you on the fishing radio. You come all the way in from the Funk for nothing. I wouldn't go across the harbor in that thing, boy. How about some tea?"
Hey, when you're 60 and someone calls you "boy," makes you feel good. We went up to his house and aah, kitchen smelled good, children gathered round as if I was a Great Auk, and I sat down, had my tea, and then the woman of the house opened the oven. Took out a fresh loaf of bread. Gave me a knife. I sliced it. Steam came out and (laughs) I put potted berry jam. I love potted berry jam. (Laughs) Well, they kept looking at me, so I ate the whole loaf. An the woman of the house set down a whole plate of cod cheeks, big treat up there.
I ate that and said, "I can't move."
She said, "I would hope not, not before the caribou steaks."
"Two steaks! I said, "I can't set the tent up now."
"Of course you won't. You'll be sleeping in the bedroom."
"I can't do that; it's your bedroom."
"My husband and I love to sleep on the kitchen floor, good enough."
I call this aggressive hospitality. So the next morning, getting up she said, "Hey, boy, how far are you going today?"
"I'm still tired. Maybe ten, fifteen miles."
"Give me the chart, give me the chart, box, and I'm going to make a little "X" on the tickle. A tickle is a narrow opening in the rocks. You put in a tickle you'll smash up on the surf. Here you go. Now, boy, tell them, we shouldn't be catching the babies."
"Tell them we shouldn't be catching the babies. They're going to listen to you."
"Who's catching babies?"
"We're catching the baby codfish is what I'm talking about."
"Why are you catching the baby fish?"
"Because the government lets us. These are cold waters up here. It takes six or seven years for a cod to grow up or they don't grow up any more. Don't tell me to stop fishing; I've got the family right here. If I stop fishing everyone's going to say I'm crazy, and they'll keep fishing. But we shouldn't be catching the babies. Now tell them, please; they'll listen to you."

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Dick, this is a recurring theme through your trip: don't catch the babies?

WHEELER: The best illustration of that is a blackboard that I saw in one of the ports on the way down, where they had painted over a blackboard, "We will accept no cod shorter than 24 inches." The "24 inches" had been crossed out,"23 inches" written in. Twenty-three had been crossed out. Then they had written in 22 and crossed that out. And when I got to the port they were down to 19 inches. And a 19-inch cod is a very small fish. A third of the fish is head. And in fact, that's the reason they stopped the offshore fishery. The mechanical filleting machines couldn't handle the small cod. So they stopped the fishery.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Dick Wheeler's trip had started out with a straightforward goal, to use the kayak as a symbol for the Great Auk and bring recognition to other sea birds. But it was quickly turning into a very literal, very immediate story about an entirely different species: fish that were not extinct but in trouble. As Dick moved south and crossed the border into Maine, he found that not everyone saw the problem in the same way.

O'CALLAHAN: Deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle dee. Aukie, we're in Maine, Maine, I love Maine, Aukie, smell that seaweed! My second home, Aukie, ho ho! Paddle on the left side, Auk you're going to go right up there. Bar Harbor. Going to go up and have a cup of coffee at that diner. When I went up, and this is late October but there are tourists all over, I could tell, they're dressed right out of the catalogues. Went into a diner and I felt uncomfortable, too big for the place. The place was jammed. Sat down to the counter.
"A cup of coffee, please."
And there's a prosperous looking couple in their late 50s beside me. The man had the half-glasses. He was reading the Times. His wife had the New Yorker. I couldn't resist. I tapped half-glasses on the shoulder and I said, "I notice the headline on the Times says Storm Wreaks Havoc With Environment. I always thought storms were part of the environment."
Half-glasses looked over his glasses;" I thought it was funny." Then the three of us looked up at CNN, the television, there was an economics professor. "We have to make choices, economic choices. For instance, if you're the whaling industry and you take a 15 percent profit for three years, the whales are gone. If you take a ten percent profit for three years, there's a sustainable yield. What do you take?"
And I said to half-glasses, "Well, of course, you take ten percent."
He said, "No, you take fifteen percent for three years. Then you reinvest the capital elsewhere."
"Then the whales are gone!" I hit the coffee cup. It smashed so I got out of there.

(Music up and under)

O'CALLAHAN: I paddle along, said Aukie, look, look at that house, that's our savior. All the lights going on in that big house, it's a family come for the weekend in Maine. Maybe they'll let us tent out in the front yard. (Laughs) So I knocked on the door. A great big red-headed fellow opened up.
I said, "I'm sorry to bother you. I'm Dick Wheeler. Can I tent out in the front yard? I'm doing 1,500 miles in a kayak."
He said, "Come on in, Rick. Come on in, Rick. Step on the newspaper, will you?"
His friend is watching the game. "I'll be right in. I've got a fellow Rick, he's doing 15 miles in a kayak."
"Fifteen hundred."
"Whatever, Rick, whatever. Listen, Rick, we've got to take care of one another. I'd be worried about you with a hard frost, so use the phone."
"The phone?"
"Yeah, call the motel, Rick."

The Great Auk went extinct in 1844 and was once affectionately known as “Buzzards Bay’s Penguins.” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Jim the Photographer, CC BY 2.0)

(Music up and under)

WHEELER: I guess one of the things the trip taught me was that we have a different meaning for hospitality in America. You could just drift ashore in a log in Newfoundland and live in that place forever. They will truly give you the shirt off their back if it is the last shirt they have. America is quite different, and I always thought of us as a hospitable culture, but we fail if we compare ourselves to Newfoundland.

CURWOOD: And our sense of natural capital? This fellow said to you: well, if we use it up, we'll invest the profits elsewhere. What does it matter?

WHEELER: Oh, I think that's very true. You see that all the time. In our own fishing industry, when we deplete one resource we look around for something that is abundant. You'll hear people say well, we've fished out the cod, there are more mackerel out there than we'll ever be able to catch. Let's go get them. And you hear people say, well, when we've fished out the sea, we'll just learn to farm them. We did it on the land and we'll learn to do it with fish. We need to realize that the National Marine Fisheries Service has a lot of wonderful scientists in it, good, good people. But the fact is that it comes under the Department of Commerce. So the overall responsibility is to catch more fish, create more jobs, and find more markets for more.

CURWOOD: When the government brings out all the numbers about the catches and this and that, how does that resonate with you once you've been out on the water for this period of time? Do all those statistics mean anything when you ride the waves in a 17-foot-long boat?

WHEELER: The trip has convinced me that the problem is not an economic problem, as most people see it, but that it is a spiritual problem, in the sense that the relationship we have with the ocean is tragically flawed. The fact that we think it was put here for us, which links into the feeling that the best of us will get the most of what was put here for us. So there are some deep-seated spiritual values that are contributing to this, that need to change over time. And it will take time. It's going to take a dramatic change, and it will not come probably until there has been a collapse.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Dick Wheeler says a spiritual awakening is one part of his trip he had a hard time expressing himself. It's one of the parts he most needed a storyteller for.

O'CALLAHAN: It's a cold November day, but all we have to do is finish up. No more excitement. Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right. Be done in ten days, Aukie, beep beep beep beep beep beep. Aukie, did you hear some guillemots? Thought I heard guillemots. Guess not. Paddle on the left side, paddle on the right. Beep beep beep beep beep beep. Where are they, Aukie? (Makes pursing sound with lips) Sounds like a razor belt . There's nothing here, Aukie. (Makes engine sound) My dear child, we caught the spawning fish. Tell them they're not coming back! Aukie, oh no, oh no, come on, let's finish it up, Aukie. Work up a sweat, Aukie, so you could tear me apart. Come on, Aukie, paddle on the left side. Listen, Dick. No! Listen, my honey. No. Listen Dick. No. Listen. All right, all right, all right! (Make shushing sounds) Tell them. Tell them I cannot do it any more. (Shushing) Tell them I cannot cleanse myself as quickly as they foul me. (Shushing) Tell them I cannot replenish all they rip from my womb. Tell them. (Shushing) Tell them. Tell them. Tell them. Tell them. (Shushing) Aukie, did you hear? What a beautiful voice. A tired voice.

O'CALLAHAN: (Makes shushing sounds; sounds of wind) Beep beep beep beep beep beep. (Makes pursing sound through lips, more shushing)

CURWOOD: Portland, Maine, to Cape Cod was another 120 miles, and when Dick Wheeler finally paddled through the Cape Cod Canal, there were more than 100 people awaiting his landing.

O'CALLAHAN: November 16th, Aukie. Cape Cod Canal. That sand, look at all these people. (Laughs) Look at all these people! All you people came to (laughs) see me come in, thanks. You don't know what it meant to me. You gave me the courage to tell you what happened. Now I'm tired; I'm headed home. Dick Wheeler turned and eight of us without thinking picked up Aukie, put Aukie in the back of the pickup truck. Sandra was driving, so we watched Dick, and he was going to the passenger side, and he walked with that wonderful rhythm of the Great Auk. He got in, slammed the door. They drove off, and Dick rolled down the window. He was looking towards the sea. Deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle dee, sshhhhhh! Ssshhhh! (Wind sounds) Beep beep beep beep beep beep Ssshhhhh!

(Music up and under)

WHEELER: I really did see it as if I was being tested by the ocean itself, you know, is this guy for real or is he a faker? And the way the wind went up, you could almost hear a click as the wind went up each notch. And once I got through that barrier, it was almost as if I was visiting another world each day and then coming ashore into the world that I'd grown up in. So I was getting different understandings that really changed me forever.

[MUSIC: Vanhaa valssia, “Troka” on Troka, Olarin Musiikki]

CURWOOD: Once he completed his trip in November of 1991, Dick Wheeler took his message to hundreds of classrooms throughout the U.S. and Canada. Dick taught about the ocean and reminded people that even things that seem abundant can be very fragile, a fine legacy for a man who is now gone but thanks to his life of commitment is not forgotten. Jay O'Callahan's story "The Spirit of the Great Auk" is available from Artana productions in Marshfield, Massachusetts.



PBS NOVA’s The Haunted Cry of a Long Gone Bird

More About the Great Auk

TIME | “Richard Wheeler: What a Long-Gone Bird Tells Us About Today”

Wareham Week | “Remembering Richard Wheeler: A look at the Onset icon’s life”

More about Jay O’Callahan


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