Environmentalist, geomorphologist, outdoorsman, waterman – longtime Arcata resident Bill Lydgate died on Nov. 21, 2019, cut down in his prime by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 53.
With his surfer’s physique, infectious enthusiasm and grin, he was a beloved figure in the local community; known for advocating on behalf of the North Coast’s rivers, forests and coastal waters, biking local forest trails and chasing waves at the North Jetty.
William Edward Lydgate was born on Sept. 2,1966 in Cornwall, United Kingdom to British mother Jennifer Ruth Lydgate (née Grunberg) and American father John Everett Lydgate.
Bill’s early years were shaped by travel and adventure. In 1970, the family began a 3-year journey in a VW camper van, traveling overland from Europe to India. Perhaps because of their unusual early years, Bill and his older brother Chris were very close.
Back in Cornwall, he went to Truro School where he showed a knack for sports and a penchant for mischief. Bill was a natural water-boy and thanks to his Dad, he became a strong swimmer and surfer. Fascinated by nature, the phases of the moon and changing weather, he was always outdoors. At the age of 16, he moved from Cornwall to the USA and finished high school at Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut.
Bill earned his Bachelor of Science degree in natural resources planning at Humboldt State University. During his undergrad years, Bill became involved with HSU’s Campus Center for Appropriate Technology (CCAT) and was a student director there during his senior year. At CCAT he acquired his lifelong fascination with repurposing stuff that was otherwise destined for the landfill – he fashioned political lawn signs into bike fenders and old bike inner tubes into truck straps. He continued his studies at HSU, entering the master’s program in watershed management. It was during his student years that he met the love of his life, Pamela Bell.
Bill pursued a career as a fluvial geomorphologist, surveying the streams and rivers of California and the Pacific Northwest, often paddling his kayak through fearsome rapids to access remote study sites.
He worked on several dam removal projects to aid in the upstream passage of imperiled salmon and steelhead. His proudest professional accomplishment was his work with longtime friend and cohort Smokey Pittman on the Elwha River in Washington. This work culminated in the removal of two dams that released 21 million cubic meters of sediment– the biggest dam removal and the largest intentional sediment release in history.
In celebration of this environmental victory, the two friends kayaked the length of the lower Elwha all the way to the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, awestruck by towering, expansive logjams and huge gravel bars naturally formed by the liberated Elwha. Bill held this experience as most profound and it completed his connection with a river he held close to his heart.
His true passion, however, was surfing. Catching waves was more than a sport for him – it was a spiritual practice. Spending countless joyful mornings at the North Jetty, he earned a prominent place in Humboldt County’s close-knit surfing community and was known as “The Referee” for his distinctive surfing style of raising his arms above his head when he was feeling the stoke. He also loved to surf on Kauai where he had deep family roots; his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all lived on the island.
In 2016, Bill noticed a peculiar loss of strength in his right arm. This was the first symptom of ALS, a neurological disorder that progressively robbed him of the ability to move or speak.
Remarkably, while the disease made his body weaker, it made his spirit stronger. Refusing to dwell on his misfortune, he focused his attention on interests including environmental advocacy and natural history studies.
Through the entire course of this devastating illness, Pam took care of him at home, surrounding him with love and support. Thanks to her and an amazing team of caregivers, family, friends, and medical professionals, Bill was able to stay in their beloved home in peace and comfort.
No tribute to Bill would be complete without honoring the extraordinary love, care and support provided by Pam, his mother Jenny, caregiver Claire Esselstrom, neighbor, friend and spiritual guide Allison Rader, Quaker Chaplain Carl Magruder, niece Raechel Koepke, sister-in-law and companion in natural history studies Lisa Bell, Melanie Bell, Kate Martin, Erica Grey, Stacy Kett, Sean McCann, Melissa Meiris, Phoebe Smith, Jeanine Saia, Miranda DeSilva and many others too numerous to mention.
Bill is preceded in death by his father John Lydgate. He is survived by Pam; his loving mother Jenny Dearlove; brothers Chris Lydgate (Audrey Van Buskirk) and Kai Lydgate, mother-in-law Patricia Bell, sisters-in-law Melanie Bell and Lisa Bell (Paul Vossen); niece Raechel Koepke (Ben Meaudine); and nephews Luke Van Buskirk, Theo Lydgate, and Alex Lydgate.
Family and friends escorted Bill to the North Jetty one last time the day after he died to say their goodbyes and shine love onto him as he rode his final wave into Divine Oneness. A funeral ceremony was held at the ocean’s edge officiated by Lama Choyang (Allison Rader). There will be a paddle-out, bonfire barbeque, and celebration of a life well-lived at a future date. Memorial gifts can be made to Surfrider Foundation (surfrider.org), Redwood Coast Mountain Bike Association (redwoodcoastmtb.org), or Kore Kauai (korekauai.com).
Bill retained his buoyancy, humor and sense of wonder to the very end. One of his final messages, typed out on his eyegaze-activated computer just days before he died, was this: “Share the stoke.”