Thursday, June 5, 2008

Twitch, row, twitch, row, twitch…

Now, don’t tell my husband, who’s been rowing since he was 12, or the Nereid masters women, who are gunning for the top 10 at the Head of the Charles this year, but I’m really in it for the birds.

Yeah, yeah, I know rowing gives me an incomparable, low-stress, total body workout, and sure I love to hang out with other rowers and eat Briant’s (internationally known) pancakes by day and picanha, Brazilian-style steak, by night.

(BTW, Here’s Briant, the famous chef, drinking OJ, I think:)

But my most cherished moments on the Passaic River are those of bird sightings: a belted kingfisher, dive-bombing for a meal; a black crowned night heron, bursting out from a low-hanging branch; or an osprey, atop a tree on the riverbank.

Osprey? Did I say Osprey? On the Passaic River, home of Agent Orange – the avian kingdom’s worst enemy? Yes. Twice last year, I saw an Osprey in the trees near our club.

My specific joy on the Passaic relates to the persistence and diversity of birds on a body of water often clogged with floating islands of empty bottles, tires, and nail-studded construction materials, never mind enough logs and branches for all the beaver dams in North America. Did you know that washing machines and filing cabinets can float? (That's what I learned last summer when the river flooded – talk about surprise sightings!)

I often think of that Keep America Beautiful ad from the 1970s, with the Native American brave crying about pollution. I’m sure he was paddling across the Passaic.

In case you never saw it, it's a must-see:

The Passaic is an aquatic border between our past and our future. It’s a tidal legacy of our country’s industrial roots, including its history of environmental abuse. Yet it’s a sign of nature’s stubborn insistence on living – a flicker of hope that ecology just might win out over man’s foolery. That’s what I love about it.

The Passaic is an idyllic place to row, because the water is very flat, and there is almost no boat traffic (except for an occasional training maneuver by the Rutherford fire department). Typically, the only disturbances on the water are jumping fish and gaggles of Canada geese, who seem to think the river is theirs. (They do perform the occasional public service: rowing one day when the tide was unexpectedly low, they squawked aggressively to warn me that I was about to go onto a mud flat.)

I connect to the birds when I row because, on a very good day, I get the sensation of flying. When a boat is moving well, and you feel it glide underneath you as your slide creeps forward, there is a fleeting moment of weightlessness. It’s a delicious feeling. I imagine it’s what a bird experiences when it stops flapping its wings and cruises on its own momentum.

Perhaps this is a bit romantic of me. In truth, the closest parallel to a rower in the animal kingdom is probably the water strider.

See the similarities?

But birds are much more fun.

Thankfully, trash on the Passaic is a problem sporadically – the birds are there all the time.

Next installment: The commonality of a boat house rat (have you met my husband?) and the muskrats who have built a home near Nereid.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"The sport that doesn't turn away anyone"

With National Learn To Row day coming up, the sentiment expressed by the U.S. National rower interviewed in this local news article is something worth remembering.

[Micah] Boyd, 26, grew up in St. Anthony Park and graduated from Central High School. "I was athletic, but not good enough to do any other sports," he said. He's 6-foot-3.

His twin brother, Anders, was rowing and coaxed him into the boat as a sophomore at the Minnesota Boat Club in St. Paul. "I found the sport that doesn't turn away anyone," Micah Boyd joked.

The U.S. system is different to the U.K. set up that I know, but nearly everyone I have ever rowed with has come to the sport late in life, after either abandoning other sports, or having never really been into sports (my case). Something about the water draws non-sporty people, while the perfectionist requirements of the rowing movement appeals to those that have realised they don't have the talent to compete at a high level in a throwing (or, in the U.K., kicking) sport.

I started rowing because I grew up near the sea, and went to university inland. I thought I'd miss the sea, so I chose to do an activity that would at least keep me near the water. I never dreamed that it could turn me into a healthy, fit and active person - before arriving at university, I chose to take extra classes for the express purpose of missing PE or mandatory Wednesday afternoon sports...

So how did you get into rowing? We'd love to hear your stories.