Farewell to my river hero

Halfway through what has been an incredibly difficult week I reflect on one of my biggest inspirations and share stories, links and quotes from those he touched.

As you all know by know, Mike Chappell, family man extraordinaire, director of Gonzaga’s Environmental Law Clinic, one of the driving forces behind starting Spokane Rivekeeper, lynchpin in many local environmental and social causes and one of my dearest friends suddenly passed away over the weekend.  He was 44-years-old and leaves behind a legacy that will last for several lifetimes.

As I’ve struggled with words to describe what a loss like Mike’s means, I have kept a folder of emails and telephone call notes from the last few days on my desktop and I’ve gone back to that folder often to remind myself just how large of an impact Mike made on people across North America and clean water and environmental causes worldwide.  Take this quote for instance from a fellow Waterkeeper in Canada, “he made all our victories sweeter, our losses understandable and our plans for the future ingenious.”

That was Mike.

I last saw Mike last Thursday and the circumstances surrounding that couldn’t have been more fitting for what kind of a man Mike was.  He was at an awards ceremony that was being held to honor me and an award I received for the work I do in the community.   He was there to support me.  Whether he ever thought of this or not (I kind of think he did), he was also there to accept the award with me.  Because even though my name was the only name on the plaque, it was very much an award for Mike and Rick Eichstaedt as well.  As Rick has said numerous times, when one of us “wins” all three of us wins.  And so there we were, the three of us together just before everyone sat down for the ceremony. Thankfully my wife urged us to stay standing a few extra seconds so she could snap this picture.  That’s how it’s been this last year, Mike and Rick have always been at my side when I needed or wanted them there most.  And that’s my last memory of Mike – at my side.

After the ceremony I walked around to find Mike to chat over a beer but he was gone.  And this too was very much Mike.  He was no doubt off to pick up his kids from soccer, then to attend a meeting or function of some sort and then home to pour over and absorb current events, legal strategies or possibly very boring and wonky figures for a TMDL or something of that sort.

Mike was able to juggle more things than anyone I knew, but the thing about Mike is he was able to maintain an admirable balance in his life between work, family and fun and he never let one of those three suffer because of the others.  He was 100% committed to what he was doing at the time.  I’ve never known anyone to live in the moment as fully as Mike lived in every moment he was in.  He gave the utmost level of attention, care and passion to whatever he was doing at that time.  If you saw Mike he was always totally genuinely excited to see you and chat with you.

“Mike was the kind of person you were always happy to see, but he was even happier to see you,” Breean Beggs

If you emailed Mike he responded with substance and thoughtfulness.  If you went out to play with Mike he was engaged and appreciative of the opportunity.  Being on the water with Mike was a thing of beauty.  He relished every second of every river trip we took, always acting like it was the first time he’d seen the Spokane River or the beauty of nature.

And then there was going out for drinks with Mike.  That is something I’m going to miss dearly.  By the end of this summer we had a pretty good routine down for buying drinks.  It got to a point that last Thursday when I finished my beer I looked at Mike’s hand  right after glancing at my empty glass to see if he was ready for a drink, only to find he hadn’t ordered one yet.  That’s how it was over the summer with us though.  If I was enjoying a beer among friends I assumed Mike was too.   At that moment the ceremony was starting and Sara quickly snapped that pic.   I never did get to toast one with Mike that night, but I’ll always toast in his honor now.

A lot of people have asked me recently how I think Mike’s loss will effect the Spokane Riverkeeper program and the larger collective fight for clean water in the Inland Northwest.  For a day or so I couldn’t answer that question.  Then yesterday I went on my weekly radio show with a guest – a guest that was planned weeks in advance.  The guest I had was Derek Leuzzi, one of Mike’s law students at Gonzaga.  Derek and I had planned on talking about a public event he was planning to show a movie about the tar sands, but given the circumstances we ended up talking more about Mike’s passing than the event.  Derek was on a short timeline as he had to get back to campus, so we spoke for 20 minutes then he left.   He walked out the door and I continued the show.  That’s when it hit me.  Hearing Derek talk so intelligently and passionately about an environmental concern gave me goosebumps, part of what Derek was saying was Mike’s passion and intelligence manifested.  So yes, the void of Mike in the work I’m doing and the work happening in this area for clean water will be felt immensely.   But Mike’s legacy will continue through that work.  He touched so many people and impacted so many people’s lives that that spider web of influence and motivation will live on and on and on.  I know personally I will work harder than ever to sustain Mike’s vision which in turn will only enhance the Riverkeeper program. I can’t think of a a better way to honor him.

For as long as I’m a voice for clean water Mike will be my conscience.

I want to direct your attention to a few pieces written about Mike recently, by those that knew him well.

Tim Connor wrote a wonderful memorial on the Center for Justice website.  Read it HERE, it’s titled “Gone in a Heartbeat”  Why you’re at it, please read Tim’s profile of Mike when he first arrived in Spokane HERE.

Paul Dillon at Down To Earth honored Mike with a beautiful piece.  I knew both sides of this mutual admiration very well.  This is truly a remarkable piece of writing by a dear friend for a dear friend.  Read it HERE.

The Spokesman-Review reported on Mike’s passing as did the Inlander.  Thank you local media for highlighting what a great man Mike was.

In closing I want to use a poem that my friend Paul Haeder left in the comments section of one of the news stories.  Like Paul Dillon and Mike, there was a great mutual admiration between Paul Haeder and Mike.

“Here’s a W.S Merwin poem that Mike I am sure would have appreciated —” – Paul Haeder


For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what




2 responses on “Farewell to my river hero

  1. Travis N

    Bart, this was the most touching & stiring story of your published work I’ve had the privelage to share. I’m humbled by Mike’s work in our community and appreceate your unique relationship to him. Bravo

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