Love for the Home Waters

Earlier this week I learned of a movement afoot to turn the stretch of the Mississippi River that runs through Minneapolis into whitewater—swirling eddies, cascading falls, and frothing gorgeousness that will revitalize the native plant and animal life. It will turn back the clock on what is now a docile river, restoring its raging character from a few centuries back.

The trouble is, this is the stretch of river I row on—along with 400+ other rowers. And as you know, Dear Novice Rower, skinny little rowing shells and angry, foaming waters don’t mix. Can’t mix. Ever.

I’m not by nature a reactionary or a hothead. But my initial feelings as I found out about these plans in the local paper leaned in that direction. As I got my head together, I thought that the leadership of my club should DO SOMETHING.

But alas, I’m part of the leadership of my club(!). So into the fray I go, praying for guidance, wisdom, and self-control. I learn that this planning has all been going on for a while, and that the individual who was supposed to talk with the rowing club about these plans, never did. I’m hoping there’s an explanation that softens the edges of my hard feelings.

But out of every storm comes some good stuff and some fodder for the blog. All’s not lost.

This stormy week has made me wonder why I care so deeply and profoundly about a river. I can usually let things go…why is this keeping me preoccupied and feeling edgy?

I was talking with a sibling about the whole sordid affair. I told her I felt like I’d just learned from the newspaper that someone was using eminent domain to claim our family home.

That’s when I realized why it all mattered.

We rowers consider our rowing waters our home. Sometimes we take our show on the road—head to another lake or stream to practice, or race, or attend a camp. But we return to our home waters, rack our boats, store our oars, and breathe it all in, happy to be…home.

Our waters are special. They have character. They define us. (And, I would argue, to some extent we define them.)

The river gorge where I row is stocked with fish that jump into the air during our practice rest breaks, bringing with them jokes about "catching our breakfast." There’s a cranky beaver we see from time to time. (I didn’t like it much when he tail-swatted my single when I got too close. The whitewater can have him….) Bald eagles fly over, sometimes diving in front of us, or supervising our practices from the trees that line the gorge. Foxes come down to the water for rest and drink. Dogs bark at us from the beach. Ducks and geese float next to us on the current. And because this is a gorge, the hustle of the city floats above us, while we float quietly underneath. This solitude makes it the only place in the city I can go where I can hear myself breathe. Our river is beautiful.

The water gets super swirly off of one particular cliff. Red or green rowing shell-eating buoys mark the river channel. I know what the underside of Lake Street, Franklin Avenue, Washington Avenue, and U.S. Interstate 94 look like as they pass over the Mississippi. I know when to bow my boat toward shore, and when to use the middle-of-the-river current to beat my teammates in practice. (Sadly, they know this too!) I marvel at how intrepid graffiti artists climb to dizzying heights to tag the tressels of a railroad bridge. Our river has character.

Our safety committee drills us in the spring, so we know that the air temperature may be 70 degrees F., but the water temps may be less than 50, making a flip into the water a pretty scary experience. Tragically, I also know that if some sad someone overwhelmed by life, or a river admirer who is careless, falls or jumps into the river, they will “resurface” three days later near our boathouse. Our river isn’t fair or kind.

My feelings about “our” river aren’t unique. Rowers often talk of having a regatta on their “home lake” or “home river.” It’s rowing’s version of the home field advantage. We know where the eddies are, the slipstreams, the hazards, the all-to-rare-to-find sheltered spots. And we aren’t afraid to use this knowledge to our advantage.  (We hope our competition is too busy looking at the eagles to notice.)

We have guest rowers come to town and row with us from time to time. I’m sure, as when I’ve rowed at other places, it becomes an unconscious, hopelessly biased, comparison shopping experience:

“Yes, their boathouse is cool, but the retention walls around their river are a tad unfriendly.”

“What a great lake to row on! But kinda boring without the current. And I hate catching my oar on lily pads.”

“So grateful the geese don’t poop like this on our dock! The fishermen are bad enough.…”

“That airplane is flying so low I can read its engine’s serial number...."

“So many beautiful bridges! But the twists and turns and four-story barges? No, thank you."

Home waters always win.

Maybe, just maybe, I could get used to rowing somewhere else.

But it wouldn’t be happy. Or easy.