When I was a child, I loved watching the Olympics, and I was extremely fascinated with rowing. I was mesmerized by the teamwork, synchronization and almost silent gliding of the rowers. I was never the strongest or fastest in any sport, but I always had a high degree of competitiveness. Rowing looked like an elite sport, and I wanted to try it.
My high school didn’t have a rowing team, and as a freshman in college I arrived late in the season. I decided to coxswain for the men’s team the first year, getting a good taste of the racing life. My second year I began rowing for the women’s team and a great love was started at 5:30 am, six days a week.
Almost ten years after I left collegiate rowing, I was in Alaska looking to get my hands on some oars. I was checking out a local bulletin board full of apartment ads, cars for sale, and furniture to buy when I saw a small piece of scrap paper with the words Kenai Crewsers Rowing printed on it. A small group of women who were avid scullers started Kenai Rowing Club in 1997 to encourage more localized state competition. That summer, the rowers were all at different levels. Some of the women had only the previous summer rowing experience. One of the Die-Hards (as I like to call the experienced rowers) had built a small boathouse to accommodate her and her husband’s sculls as well as two eights in the back of their house on Bear Lake.
There was a dock to load the boats in, but only when the float planes were out touring the area, otherwise we had to walk the boat into the frigid Alaskan water through the reeds. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about gators (can you tell I’m from Florida?) in these Alaskan waters. The water became deep quickly, so the coxswain (volunteer rower for the day) got in first, then stroke and 7 seat. The rest of the crew would push it out deeper to mid-thigh, and get in when they could. The last person to get in, bow person, had to maneuver the boat towards open water and then make quite a leap into the bow seat.
As we started with our practice drills, four people rowing, the other four setting the boat, that familiar feeling of belonging to a team flooded over me. The creak of the oarlocks, the sliding of the seats, the rowers moving as one, it felt right.
Then all eight rowed together. I was definitely in a novice boat. The boat rocked or would sit on one side making it difficult to pull the oar out of the water or even get the oar in the water on the other side. The coach reminded us to raise or lower our hands, push with the legs, swing with the back, quick hands away. For a few strokes we would get it, then rock to one side again, hitting knuckles against the gunnels, over and over. Ouch. All I could do was smile. I was in a boat rowing with a team again. Ouch. That was all that mattered.
Two or three times a week we would practice together while the floatplanes buzzed in and out of the lake on sightseeing tours. If we had too many people, the Die-Hards, would forego the boat and practice in their sculls. The coach sped away one day to check on some scullers circling the edge of the lake and came back all excited. The scullers had seen a bear playing and splashing along the shoreline. The coach asked us if we wanted to go over and take a look. Uh, yeah! The boat spun like a top in the opposite direction and we took off towards the other shore. We were all so excited about seeing the bear that something just clicked. Hands were level, slides were controlled, and the oars cut through the water leaving huge puddles behind the coxswain. The boat began to sing.
It only happens when the boat is in perfect sync, when all eight individual rowers move as one. It’s a beautiful, energizing and uplifting hum sound. It didn’t last long, but it was a glorious feeling. As we neared the shore, we turned the boat 90 degrees so we could all scan the shoreline. There he was, a huge, but young grizzly bear frolicking at the waters edge. This huge creature was fascinated by his own splashing. And then he was gone, back in the woods.
We all rowed distractedly back into our practice power pieces daydreaming about the grizzly. As we neared the docks, I counted three bald eagles in the trees that day, two adults and one juvenile.
A float plane was getting ready to take off as it taxied across the water, then lifted up as it reached the side of our boat. The juvenile eagle took off from his high tree perch and glided low and silently over the lake.
I volunteered to hold the boat in the deep end of the water while most of the other women took the oars up to the land. I kept replaying the events of our practice session over and over again in my head. What a perfect day of rowing.