Have you ever gone to a place so wonderful that you can’t stop thinking about it, even long after you’ve left?

That’s how I felt about the small town of Clayton, New York. My team and I travelled there last June to film for our documentary, Changing Currents and absolutely fell in love. While there, we found the main character of film, a man who embodied the spirit of Clayton and the adjacent St. Lawrence River.

The following are excerpts from my 8-page piece written for my creative nonfiction class about my time in Clayton.

I was 2,844 miles away from home, yet I felt like I had never left. I was standing near the river’s edge, looking out over the water. There was a cool breeze coming off the river, and as a gust of wind came near, I could smell the fresh, clean air. The sun was slowly setting over the horizon, casting a warm yellow glow on everything in the park. It was the golden hour. Down the beach on my right, was a little girl frolicking in the sand. I watched as she ran toward the river, bent down, scooped up some water in her hands, and took it back to her sand castle. Her mother watched with a smile on her face from a nearby park bench. I could hear faint sounds of the girl’s laughter and joy, while occasional seagulls cawed as they passed overhead. Everything was so calm–it felt like I was in a dream.

“BZZZZZZZZZZZZ” The alarming noise snapped me back to reality. It was our Phantom 4 drone, capturing our surroundings in wondrous 4K resolution. I looked down the beach to my left to see one member of my team crouched down low in the sand, taking photos of some trash that had washed up on the shore. Behind me, our director of photography was piloting the drone through the park. I turned back to the camera in front of me, lens pointed toward the water. Its red recording light was blinking to let me know it saw what I was seeing too.

“It’s so beautiful here, isn’t it?” our producer said, as he joined me at the river.

“Yeah,” I responded, “I have a good feeling about this place.”

The atmosphere of the town was magical.

Clayton is a quaint fishing village with a rich heritage dating back to its founding 145 years ago. The main street in town, aptly named Riverside Drive, has always been the hub of the activity. As we drove deeper into the heart of Clayton, local family owned businesses dominated the road with gift shops, cafes, and an ice cream parlor. Tourists and long-time residents strolled down the sidewalk overlooking the river, while two older gentlemen rested on Adirondack chairs by the main docks, watching all the boats cruise in and out of Clayton. They appeared to be telling old sailor stories to anyone who would listen, and seemed to have the pride to keep talking well after the sun goes down.

We originally went to Clayton to talk to the Executive Director of Save the River, an organization working to preserve and protect the ecological integrity of the St. Lawrence, but we were soon introduced to Clayton’s own celebrity: Save the River member Jeff Garnsey.

As we approached the dock, my gaze followed the two Adirondack chair gentlemen who were admiring the largest boat there. The vessel was in tip-top shape with not one speck of dust. Her wood looked freshly varnished, and the gold letters “Fin and Feather” shone brightly on her stern. As the executive director gestured us to climb aboard, I was met with a helping hand, belonging to none other than captain Jeff.

While it was a bright sunny day, Jeff wore no sunglasses. It was clear he’d spent most of his life out on the river, though it had taken a toll, as evident by his serious farmer’s tan, and sun faded sandy hair that seemed permanently windswept. His calm personality matches his attire, with casually worn jeans and a simple blue sweatshirt.

When Jeff gave me a wide smile, I could almost see his life story through the weathered wrinkles on his face. Jeff is a seventh generation resident of Clayton with strong ties to the region. After returning home from his time in the Navy, Jeff took over his father’s tour boat business and has been running it ever since. His son, who was on leave from the Navy at the time of our visit, was Jeff’s skipper for the day. After we piled all our camera equipment on board, Jeff’s son untied the ropes from the dock, and we were on our way.

Jeff had such great things to say out on the boat that day. Unfortunately, we hadn’t scheduled time to have a sit-down on-camera interview with him, and we were severely regretting it when we left Clayton the following day. So three days later, our team split up and half of us drove back to Clayton. It was the first interview that we didn’t need planned notes, or talking points for. We wanted Jeff to take the lead, and he did.

Jeff went into detail about the changes his family has seen on the river over the generations, and explained how crucial it is to protect it for future generations to come. In addition to his tour boat business, and advocating for the health and protection of his river, Jeff also volunteers and teaches children how to fish. He said one of the best parts of his job is getting people out on the river and letting them experience what he gets to see every day. “The river will speak for itself,” he said.

Immediately after the interview ended, we knew Jeff was going to be a strong character in our film. However, Jeff wasn’t done yet. He brought out a special box with the same gold lettering and freshly varnished wood as his boat. We watched in anticipation as he unhooked the latch and opened the lid to reveal an old-style megaphone. While Jeff still has many years ahead of him, the instrument had been gifted by the city to honor him for the legacy he’s left thus far. As long as Jeff is alive, he told us he would work hard and stay dedicated to serving his community. Jeff lifted the megaphone out of the box to reveal the inscription on the side: “The Voice of Clayton.”

If you’d like to read the entire piece and its ending, leave a comment or contact me!

Our team had the awesome pleasure of returning to Clayton in April for a screening of the documentary. You can read more about it here.