A historical look at why face-to-face is vital to online communities

This one is from the archives. Enjoy:

” Following is the article that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer last
Sunday about the Cape Cod conclave. Many thanks again to David Churbuck,
and it was a pleasure meeting all those who attended.

Cheers,

Fen Montaigne

The Outdoors/ By Fen Montaigne

CHATHAM, Mass. — We had gathered, techno geeks and fish freaks all, for a
night of “extreme” striped bass fishing here on Cape Cod. But by midnight,
the only extremes our band of a dozen had experienced were those of
exhaustion and utter befuddlement: Where were the fish?
Our commander-in-chief for the expedition was David Churbuck, a
writer and on-line editor at Forbes magazine, over-the-top fisherman and
Internet wonk. Churbuck and Devon, Pa., native Thorne Sparkman had recently
launched their World Wide Web saltwater fly-fishing home page, and to honor
the publication Churbuck thought it might be nice to hold a fishing
conclave not far from his home on the Cape.
So Churbuck put the word out to the farthest, fishiest reaches of
cyberspace about a night of “extreme” striper fishing near Chatham
lighthouse. “Extreme” as in standing all night long in the pounding surf in
the dark, casting with a fly rod for phantom fish. “Extreme” as in
extremely challenging.
“Extreme” as in extremely dumb.
At 6 p.m. on an early fall evening, the gang showed up in the
Chatham light parking lot as the sun set tranquilly in the west and a big
blow lumbered in from the east. It was a jovial crowd, and one that took
its fishing seriously. Churbuck, a strapping, handsome fellow with
shoulder-length brown hair, had warned me about them earlier.
“It’s totally twisted, one of the most Fellini-esque experiences
you’ll ever have,” he said. “It’s geeks on the beach. I thought I (ital);
had a fishing problem! You should see some of these guys! They’re more into
fishing than they are into computers. In fact, they got into computers so
they could get more information on fishing. They’re deranged.’
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. After all, it was
Churbuck who had told me earlier in the day, “We’ll fish most of the night,
sleep on the beach a few hours, grab a couple of Jolt colas and head out
again before dawn.”
With the conclave, Churbuck explained, we were making the
transition from cyber space to “meat space”. As in rubbing flesh.
“Everyone said the Internet and World Wide Web would turn people into
vidiots, that they’d get lost in cyberspace,” Churbuck, 37, said as we
talked in his rambling home in Cotuit. “But the ‘Net has really increased
the value of meat space. Like this conclave. It’s a great chance to meet
people I’d never have met otherwise.”
Our group — software engineers, international business
consultants, hospital workers, etc. — walked down the steep steps and onto
Chatham beach. Fishermen were filing off the sand — fishless, biteless,
glum-faced. Clouds had covered the entire sky and the wind was whipping
into our faces at about 15 miles per hour — not friendly conditions for
saltwater fly-fishing.
For the next five hours we endured what has come to be known in
fish-head realms of the Internet as the Chatham Death March. We fished a
little — with stunning lack of success — but mainly we trudged in bulky
waders over endless miles of Cape Cod sand looking for greener fishing
grounds. At one point, six of us got separated for a few hours, and cries
of “Dave! Dave! Is that you, Dave?” were swallowed up by the black night
and howling wind.
Returning to Chatham light utterly dehydrated, soaked with sweat
and chafed like babes with terminal diaper rash, we cursed Churbuck. Then,
around 1 a.m., we fell dead asleep in our cars.
Stretched out in the front seat of Churbuck’s battered Volkswagen
Fox, I drifted off to the sound of Dave snoring like a train wreck. The
next thing I knew, Churbuck was muttering, “Hey, it’s 4:15,” and we were
rousing ourselves for the dawn fishing patrol. We breakfasted heartily —
Coke, strawberry Twizzlers, extra crunchy Reese’s peanut butter cups,
Oreos, Cheeze-Its and jalapeno-laced Monterey Jack cheese cut with a rusty
fish filet knife. Well fortifed, we donned our waders and hit the beach
once again.
* * *
Churbuck and Thorne Sparkman are on the cutting edge of something
that may either become the publishing phenomenon of the future or that
might, as Sparkman quipped, “go the way of the CB radio.” The World Wide
Web — a massive, amorphous, chaotic and fascinating conglomeration of
interlinked computers — is still in its infancy, and Churbuck and Sparkman
are groping to figure out where this beast is headed. Things are changing
so fast, said Churbuck, “you’ve got to burn your hut as soon as you build it.”
What the two men are building is something called “Reel Time”,
which they describe as the “Internet Journal of Saltwater Fly Fishing.”
(For those who can find their way around the Web, Reel Time’s address is
http://www.reel-time.com). At this point, Reel Time concentrates on
saltwater fly-fishing in New England, and mainly on Cape Cod, Martha’s
Vineyard and Nantucket.
It provides the latest information on fishing conditions, news on
fishing derbies and other events, articles and essays, on-line videos,
photos of the fish readers have caught, archival material and Internet
links to fishing guides and tackle shops. Reel Time is, at the moment, a
hobby for the two men, what Churbuck describes as a “completely non-profit
ordeal.” Neither is contemplating quitting his day job — Churbuck at
Forbes and Sparkman at business school at the University of California-Berkeley.
Eventually, they may make money from advertisers, but for now they
want to make a name for themselves as the best location on the Internet to
read about saltwater fly-fishing, a rapidly-growing sport. Already, they
are getting 6,000 “hits” — visits from readers — a week on Reel Time.
“There are few times in your life when you feel you’re in the right
place at the right time,” said Sparkman, 29, who grew up in Devon, attended
the Shipley School and St. Pauls and graduated from Harvard. “I feel this
is right. The Web is touted as everyone becoming their own publisher, and
that’s one of the problems. There’s so much junk. But there are people who
will survive by estalishing a brand name, establishing a community that
lasts, a place that is really worth going to.
“You have to understand that to capitalize on the net you have to
enrich it.”
Sparkman, whose father practices internal medicine at the
University of Pennsylvania, has fished hard his whole life. But he moved
into the fish junkie category in college when, after a serious car
accident, he took a year off and fished his way around the world —
Iceland, Equador, New Zealand, the Florida Keys. Before heading to Berkeley
this fall, Sparkman was working as a consultant to Time Warner for their
on-line publications.
Churbuck, a Yale graduate, covered technology for Forbes magazine
before taking over their on-line publications. He works out of a sprawling,
shingle home near here that has been in his family for six generations. He
and Sparkman had known each other for several years before deciding to
launch Reel Time, which first appeared in July.
“It’s gone beyond a labor of love,” said Churbuck. “Reel Time is
kind of on-the-job training for my Forbes on-line job. It’s a stalking
horse. I don’t want to learn the lessons of electronic publishing with the
Forbes name on the line. It’s too high stakes. But hey, if this screws up
+- the Internet Journal of Salwater Fly Fishing — who cares?”
* * *
The wind had not died down. If anything, it was worse. Churbuck and
a handful of conclavers trudged in the darkness to the semi-circle of beach
below the lighthouse and cast gamely — and futilely — into the wind.
Seaweed clung to our flies on every cast. At one point, a monster roller
broke at my feet on the steeply-sloping beach, soaking me.
Dawn broke gray and nasty, and we walked a few hundred yards out
onto the spit of Chatham Beach. It should have been perfect striped bass
fishing, for we were at the peak of the fall migration in one of the
hottest striper spots on the East Coast. But once again, we got skunked.
We repaired to Larry’s PX for some cholestoral and post-game analysis. A
dozen people who had known one another only on a computer screen took
pleasure in finally meeting.
“I really like it — putting names and faces together,” said Scott
A. Sminkey, a software engineer from Littleton, Massachusetts. “I was
getting to know some of these people as if they were my good and close
friends and I had never met them.”
For several days afterwards, discussion of the no-fish conclave
hummed over the Internet. Juro Mukai of Seattle, who did not attend, sent
his congratulations.
“I say three cheers’ for Dave and the attendees,” he wrote on one
discussion forum. “As every wise fisherman knowns, not catching is as much
a part of fishing as catching, and comradery more than either . . . I know
that it doesn’t require fishing to have a great outing. Kudos to Dave and
the gang!”
Hope springs eternal in the bosom of the fisherman. Even computers
can’t change that.”

Musings on the beach

The cold snap that swept the eastern seaboard last week finally finished off the flowerbeds. A few brave nasturiums and snapdragons succumbed to the low temperatures, so yesterday I pulled them up put the stalks in the compost heap, replacing them with a few dozen tulips and hyacinths for some April color.

This morning, feeling a little creaky in the lower back, I decided to follow some good advice received here, and go for a walk by myself. Being low tide, the harbor beach seemed like a good route, so I walked down to the town dock and down the beach, ducking under piers with some difficulty but reveling in the strong breeze from the southwest that seemed more full of oxygen than usual.

I realized that it was the first time I had walked that stretch of beach in perhaps 35 years, having spent hours there as a boy, exploring and catching minnows with total freedom. What kept me away for so many years?

One day, while walking along the shore, a shrill voice from the bluff made itself known.

“You! You! Get off that beach! This is private property! I am calling the police right now!”

It was a terrible experience. A new family had bought one of the lots on the shore and built an ugly house on it. They didn’t understand that beach had been walked across by generations of villagers, so they eventually erected an ugly green chainlink fence across the dry part of the sand, making the entire route impassable at high water.

Beach rights and the question of where property rights end on the shore makes for an interesting legal debate. I don’t question that it is wrong for someone to camp out with a beach blanket and cooler in front of someone’s private property, but the laws governing passage — and the precise definition of where a property begins and ends on the interface between land and water varies from one state to the next.

In Massachusetts, passage along the shore is guaranteed to fishermen, hunters, shellfishermen and people engaged in the act of “navigation” below the mean low water mark. Does that mean you can only wade in front of private property? That you can only cross on wet sand and must stay off of the dry sand?

Whatever the definition, some waterfront owners are charitable and post signs that encourage beach walkers, while others erect intimidating no-trespassing signs. I have been in confrontations while clamming or fly fishing when a property owner has belligerently demanded I move own, and I calmly explain the laws guaranteeing my rights to perform those acts. A good conversation has followed. I empathize with someone who pays over $25,000 a year in property taxes for a water view, only to see their beach fouled by beer cans and bait boxes left behind by inconsiderate surfcasters, or pitted with deep holes dug and left unfilled by clammers.

It is a terrible experience to have a simple nature walk interrupted by a confrontation, and I think the situation will worsen as the old timers on Cape Cod move own and are replaced by “wash ashores” who don’t care for the traditions of the past. As the population expands and pressure increases on a very fixed, very valuable resource, the situation is going to get worst, not better.

A number of years ago a very powerful state politician, William Bulger, president of the Massachusetts State Senate, was walking on a beach when he endured one of those contributions I described above. He made it a personal vendetta to change the laws — which are ancient and date back to colonial times — but I don’t think any meaningful reform ever occurred.

As property owners continue to try to improve their lots with piers (which pose a problem for walkers because they are a difficult barrier to duck under), and conservation groups try to keep those piers from being built, the mood is worsening. This is an issue I’d like to get involved with. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Chatfield, was instrumental at the turn of the last century in getting the town to reserve paths and lanes — known as Town Ways to Water — so the public could get to the shore to make their living. Those ways to water are threatened, obscured by property owners who don’t want people walking past their homes, sometimes planted with bushes or covered with utility sheds and swingsets. Identifying them and getting them cleared in the priority of the local shellfishing groups.
At my other online home — Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing, the topic of beach access is a perennial topic.

Here are some background links on the issue:

Stalking the wily quahog

Looks like fried clams are on the menu this weekend. The boat has been out of the water for the past two weekends following the gale of late October, but today I relaunch to catch the best part of the clamming season.

In the low sixties here on the Cape, unseasonably warm, so it would be a shame to spend the day cleaning out the attic or putting the gardens to bed.

Gunkholing

“Gunkholing” is the act of exploring the heads of harbors and bays in a small boat, poking one’s bow into the nether regions of an estuary, following channels and streams through salt marshes and shallow water into the “gunk.”

Saturday was the perfect day for such explorations, so with Cousin Pete at the helm, my wife, son and I shot out from Cotuit over glassy waters across Vineyard Sound to Menemsha, a little fishing village on the southwestern corner of Martha’s Vineyard. We ran down the Tisbury coast, running along the glacial scree-strewn shoreline of sand cliffs and slight hills, dotted with cottages and summer homes that must enjoy one of the best views in all of New England.

At Menemsha we were greeted by a crowd of anglers standing on the breakwaters. The annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby opened last week and the competition brings out the maniacal side in all Vineyard fishermen. We motored inside, past the red-roofed Coast Guard station and over the bar into Menemsha Pond, crossing over Carribbean-clear water and fields of submerged eel grass. We gunkholed up inside of Nashaquitsa Pond until we ran out of water at the highway bridge.

Ashore we ate a lobster roll and stuffed quahog at Larson’s Fish Market, close by where Steven Spielberg built Quint’s boathouse for Jaws. The hulk of Quint’s boat, the Orca, allegedly lies rotting on the Lobsterville Beach shore.

After poking around the village we reboarded and headed back north along the Tisbury coast, stopping to explore Lake Tashmoo on the northshore of the Vineyard. At the very head of the Lake we found a beautiful abandoned factory overlooking a millpond and I’m still trying to figure out what it was for. We netted some bait (baby menhaden) and tried our luck for fluke (summer flounder) on the rips at Middle Ground, Hedge Fence, and finally, with success, at Succonnesset.

All in all a perfect day.

Thirty Miles East Of Nantucket: Station 44018

NDBC – Station 44018

Here I was at dawn on Saturday morning, three hours after departing Popponesset Bay aboard the Champagne, a 23′ SeaHunter. It was flat calm under a full moon and the air got colder and colder as we left the shallow waters of Nantucket Sound for the deep blue briny of the Atlantic.

As false dawn pinked up the eastern horizon we passed this buoy, a weather station maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — known as the “BB” buoy. It was foggy, but I saw the flukes of a whale’s tail break the surface before we were utterly socked in.

We trolled five lines across the thermoclines (differences in water temperature), hoping to lure a pelagic out of the emptiness and into the boat. I had eagle-eyes and saw bluefin tuna break the surface twice, sightings which gave us hours of false hope. The VHF radio was alive with cryptic chatter between fishing boats: “What temperature is the water where you are?” “Are you fishing where you fished yesterday? If so, I am two miles northwest of you.”

We didn’t see another boat for six hours, yet the radar showed they were all around us. It was like being in a vast sensory deprivation tank. A quarter mile of visibility, grey ocean, grey fog, and the diluted disc of the sun overhead.

We came home at 4:30 in the afternoon. I was exhausted, but it was cool to have been so far out in the ocean. Somewhat frightening when I thought of the possibilities of what could go wrong, but delightful given the calm conditions.