River of Dreams: The Voyage of the First Cork Boat

Imagine taking your most fantastic childhood dream and chasing it down, investing money, time, sweat and tears in search of your personal bliss.

While many people hope to do such things, most never get close enough to see their dreams come true. But John Pollack is not most people. Pollack's childhood fantasy was to build his very own boat and sail off on a magical adventure, and he made that dream a reality.

"I always loved boats," Pollack said. "I built a boat when I was 6 years old, and it had very short maiden voyage — straight down."

That first nautical adventure sparked Pollack's 6-year-old imagination.


"I decided, OK, the next boat I build has to float," he recalled. "And I thought, well, why not build a cork boat? Because you can't sink [a] cork, how could you sink a lot of corks?"

With that thought and his family behind him, he started to save wine corks.

Pollack, now 41-years-old, was raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., by parents Henry, a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan, and Lana, a political activist and dance instructor.

"In our family there was a premium on imagination," Pollack explained. "My sister Sara and I had a big cabinet full of crayons and markers and odds and ends, and we were always coming up with great projects. Nothing was too impossible in our family."

'The End of Childhood'

Whether they were building a spaceship in their basement or climbing the steps of the Taj Mahal, Pollack and his sister were always together. She even helped him drag his first boat down to the neighborhood pond.

When Pollack was 12, his father took their family on a trip to the Himalayas that changed their lives forever.

"We were on a trek into the mountains … we were fording a river, and it was a bad river, and [Sara's] pony slipped, and she was swept away. One of our guides tried to rescue her, he was swept away, and we never found them," Pollack said, pain from the moment still fresh in his eyes.

"It's the end of childhood," Pollack said. "I mean, I think I'm probably a lot more serious a person because of it, just because I recognized the fragility of life."

"I don't know that, you know, anybody ever fully gets over a loss like that," said Pollack. "But you can decide to fold your tent, or you can decide to keep going. And you know, in our family we keep going."

Pollack and his parents did keep going, but Pollack says he lost his sense of adventure and shifted his focus to more serious pursuits. However, he also kept saving those corks, a reminder of "happier times."

Pollack graduated from Stanford University in 1988 and became a freelance foreign correspondent in Spain. He became something of a wordsmith, winning the World Pun Championship in 1995.

'Every Cork Has a Story'

Pollack was working as a speechwriter in Washington, D.C., when an old dream resurfaced.

"I'm getting burnt out on the Hill … and I just thought, I'd like to just take a break and do something fun. Why not build the boat?" recalled Pollack.

Suddenly those corks saved to hold onto good memories became the building blocks for Pollack's adventure.

"I'm quitting a good job to go build a cork boat," he recalled. "I mean, how do you explain that to your boss without insulting him?"

Pollock knew he'd need a lot more corks to build his boat, so he began visiting bars and restaurants around Washington in search of supplies.

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