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Houck’s rivers romance enriches students’ experience

November 05, 2014

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Professor Oliver Houck’s canoe trips with Tulane Law students over the years have broadened their appreciation for rivers and left indelible memories.

Photos courtesy of Oliver Houck 

Generations of Tulane Law students have known of Oliver Houck’s love for rivers. For decades, the leader of Tulane’s environmental law program has spread that love by taking groups of students paddling through the Louisiana bayous. For many students, the hours spent navigating the brackish byways with the pioneering environmentalist remain one of the most affecting experiences of their law school experience.

Now, Houck is sharing his romance with rivers more widely, though the newly published Downstream Toward Home. It tells 32 stories, chronicling Houck’s river adventures dating to the 1950s — from rowing the Charles as an undergrad in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to walking his dog on the banks of the Mississippi.

“Every place I go, the first thing I look for is a river to be on,” Houck said. 

A former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., then National Wildlife Federation general counsel, Houck started teaching environmental law at Tulane in 1981. And he has incorporated canoe trips as an integral educational tool for decades.

“One of my fondest memories from the Tulane experience was canoeing Bayou Sorrell with Professor Houck and several classmates during the fall of my first year,” said Mike Brady (L ’89), who has his own land use litigation firm in Sacramento, California, Brady & Vining.

“Though I was a Louisiana native and Ollie was not, he opened my eyes to the state’s beauty on this and the other trips during my time at Tulane. After graduating and while still finding my way in the world, I was fortunate enough to canoe the Green River in Utah before it becomes the Colorado River with Ollie and others. Even though it was August in the intermountain West, I remember it raining at least once every day as we canoed down through red rock canyons. I would not be where and what I am now if it were not for the time I spent with Oliver Houck.”

Another former Houck student, Jason Barbeau (L ’01), has found success as a senior trial attorney with the U.S. Justice Department’s Environmental Enforcement Section. He was instrumental in securing the just-announced largest civil penalty ever under the Clean Air Act: a $100 million settlement from Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. 

He not only recalls Tulane canoe trips fondly but has paid them forward.

“The thought of canoeing with Oliver brings a rush of good memories: the vast stillness among the tall cypress in the Atchafalaya; his infectious enthusiasm for adventure and exploration; the occasional thrill of short runs of swift water on the Bogue Chitto and Wolf Creek; great blue herons and alligators up close; lounging in the sun on timeless, placeless sand bars; the inevitable human pyramid and the splash of tumbling bodies at the end; falling asleep beside the river tired, dirty, full and happy; friendships formed through shared effort and discovery; and a plausible reason to talk for the first time to my future wife,” Barbeau wrote.

“These memories live on in stories with family and lasting friends and still spring to mind when I walk through the woods with my boys, paddles over our shoulders, to our own canoe tied to a tree at a nearby lake.”

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Professor Oliver Houck tends the campfire during a canoeing trip with Tulane Law students.

Houck said he set out to write one story, not an entire book, but then the stories just started flowing. And the book “seems to be striking a chord” with readers who can relate.

“You never knew what was going to happen out on the river: a lost shoe, a tipped canoe or a run-in with swarming wasps,” said Allison Shipp (L ’11), an associate at Kanner & Whiteley in New Orleans. “But no matter what happened, being on the river was always a chance to escape the stresses and complications of the moment and be refreshed by the calming water and the open sky.”  

Members of the newest crop of Tulane 1Ls already have witnessed what impressed their predecessors.

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Samantha Pfotenhauer bonds with Professor Oliver Houck’s dog, Arturo, during a 2014 canoe/camping trip.

Samantha Pfotenhauer (L ’17), who joined an October 2014 canoeing/camping trip to the Wolf River, said Houck “seems to derive a lot of energy from interacting with nature. What is different with Professor Houck is that he seems to get so much joy out of encouraging other people, his students in this case, to connect with nature and enjoy it.”

“On this trip, there were some students who were camping for their first time and had never done anything like this, and others who had been canoeing for decades,” she said. “Professor Houck’s enthusiasm for being on the water and encouragement to really soak up the opportunity we had to spend two days on a beautiful river made for a wonderful atmosphere and a very fun trip.”

After seeing photos of the 2014 trip posted on Facebook, Richard Exnicios (L ’98) wrote, “I may have learned just as much on those canoe trips with Professor Houck as I did in classes.”

Note: This story incorporates information that first appeared in Tulane University’s New Wave.


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