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Winter 2007 [Issue No. 11]

ESSAY

 

 

Flat at Dawn and at Twilight ▪► Bruce Fisher

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The Black Rock Canal is the shipping channel at the very end of Lake Erie. It used to be that all the shipping from all the upper Great Lakes flowed with the water from the west, from Duluth on Superior and Chicago on Michigan through the Straits of Mackinack, south out of Lake Huron past Detroit, then east on Lake Erie past Cleveland and on to Buffalo. The big boats from the west stopped unloading in Buffalo after 1957, which is when the Canadians finished their Welland Canal, just twenty miles west of the Black Rock. Now, mostly, itís small boats on the Black Rock Canal. Now, mostly, what comes out of the west, across Lake Erie and all the previous lakes, is weather.

Storms come, sometimes suddenly, following that route of freighters now long departed. Storms drop down from Alberta into the American plains and then proceed eastward like raging Hun armies. In their seasons, they stoop to fetch water from Chicagoís front terraces, that they turn into snow for western Michigan. That water makes them stronger: with it, they blow past flat Michigan and past its thumb to Lake Erie, and over Erieís three hundred miles of open shallow water they fetch up more water until they meet this next west-facing shore. Then our orchards, our vineyards, our slickened streets are conquered, and our damp-holding hillsides wetted again, ever dotted with fat Holsteins up to their shins in every seasonís mud.

Wind that is the bane of rowing here comes here from the west and it comes over the lake. Wind here crosses over the indefinable borderline between the end of the lake and the start of the Niagara River. Itís easy enough to say where the Black Rock Canal starts: there are breakwalls at the mouth of Buffalo Harbor, three of them. From high windows in the bank buildings and the courts and the government offices, the storms that come that way lift white churned water over those breakwalls and thatís the workdayís entertainment, or at least distraction from the foolishness and self-importance of the proceedings behind all that glass. The west-southwest wind blows the water from the lake into the harbor and into the canal, not the other way around, and the flow and the wind send it downriver, the Niagara River. This would be the same Niagara River that ends in Niagara Falls, but here, it is a city river, which is separated from the Black Rock Canal by a breakwall two miles long and by another mile of Squaw Island. The Niagara flows one way, with the wind.

One morning, I walked a club single down the inclined concrete path from the boathouse to the docks. I chose River Dock, river side, to put in. The wind made it a day for the heavy hatchets, the grays from the long row of oars that the club owns. These grays are oars whose blades are shaped to catch more water and to force more work, and they do.

A heavy rig is a good thing in a wind. A northeast wind is a good thing, rare as it is, for right out of the boathouse, it is a headwind. The resistance of more water and more wind means that the two miles of water between the boathouse and the locks is a distance for warming up that is a harder piece of work to do, and what is rowing but work?

Rowing north out of the docks is the normal course in the Black Rock Canal. Rowing north is usually easy because of the following wind, the normal wind that geography makes so predictable. One starts out with help from Alberta, Chicago, Cleveland and Erie, when the wind is normal.

But there are those who like a headwind. There are those who find that a headwind has a certain stimulating effect. Its smell is of land. Its breath is inconstant, even as it fades with the fading sun.

The next day was Sunday. The wind had sorted itself out by Sunday. Rowing north and downstream from the docks was easy with the south-southwest tailwind of a few knots, the kind that makes the air feel breathless and there is the illusion of smooth water, but of course this is cheating and every rower knows it and we would all be ashamed at this business of sparing ourselves the work except that all of us know what to expect. What we expect is a headwind on the way home, and that means ripples that become chop and chop that grows to waves when the Huns ride. This is why one gets up early to row, for as the sun warms the air, the winds awaken, and before the winds wake up, we are safe in Rome.

That is not, however, what happened on Sunday. Put-in came a little later in the morning than one would have preferred. This was all, all the fault of the Sunday morning news being full of big news about big changes in grand schemes that only pretended to be grander than the real plan, the same plan, the only plan for any day, and that plan was, simply, to row. 

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To write about rowing, as I do to tired friends over and over again, is to refocus on the moments just undertaken. No doubt they would prefer a normal diarist, one who revisits the same personhood day after day, and brings a gift of flowers or new humor or refreshed love with each visit. A diarist is something of a barnacle or a pretty coral that reaches out and traps whatever happens to be passing by and measures it with the intense and focused application of fine prejudices, and sharing that diary is a true act of intimacy. Perhaps this is never the case with the work of a rowing diarist. A rowing diarist is one who overlooks or rather looks past this tiresome business of personhood in order to explore the power of minute variations. The rowing diarist says that those items that vary are wind, water, light and air as they act to change the response of the same old equipment in the same old course of water with the same old person moving the process along. What does not vary is the rowerís obsession with the experience of feeling wind, water, light, air, and feeling breath, sweat, aches, joints, muscles, and feeling the glide over an element and through another, through fluids, under sky, being born and reborn, borne by a boat, in a canal.

Thus to read a rowing diary is to read repetition. It could be an immersion experience, if it werenít so common: millions row, or have rowed, in the two hundred years or so that rowing has been a sport and not just transport or work or an instrument of the hunt. Rowing is not, however, however populated it may be, very welcoming of othersí attentions. I said, to parents watching a regatta last spring, that the only people who watch rowing are those whom the rower loves. They were embarrassed by that admission, but there was no disagreement. We were watching our children race. The races were, as most rowing races are, utterly without suspense, because hereís how it is in a rowing race: if one boat is clearly far ahead of the other two or three boats in the race, and the race is a normal 1,500 meter or 2,000 meter race, or a 5,000-meter ďheadĒ race, then chances are very good that the order of boats at the finish line wonít have changed. There is no suspense, mostly.

 And then there is sculling. I scull, solo. Sculling is a solitary activity even when there are spectators.

On the Columbus Day holiday, for example, I got up. I stretched. I made herbal tea, and while I drank it, and as the children slept late on their school holiday, I listened to a performance of Chopinís posthumous nocturne in C-minor, which is so simple: a balancing of the right and the left hands along the theme that has the rhythm of a waltz and a very geometric or meditative melody. Everything in that piece is balance. Everything in that piece is symmetry. Everything is minute adjustment. Everything is minute adjustment to keep the balance and the symmetry of a long thin line, and the variation of performances of that piece is a variation of intensity.

You have just read a description of sculling. 

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On Monday morning, dockside was at a more respectable hour, just an hour past dawn, which is still a fat time in October, being that dawn comes around 7 a.m.. There was an eight putting in, boys, young ones, maybe novices. Came the hail from its coach. The coach is a typical coach. He is a man of fifty or so, who himself rowed but as a boy. He is Irish-American; the rowing scene in Buffalo is an overwhelmingly Irish-American scene. They are so acculturated that none of them have yet admitted or commented on the irony that we all think the pinnacle of rowing is the annual race at Henley-on-Thames Ė not our lovely Royal Canadian Henley, held twenty miles west in St. Catharines on Martindale Pond, but the echt Henley, on Thames. This fine man, this coach, this volunteer volunteering his coaching early on a holiday morning, is happy to talk about his son who has rowed and who has won at Henley-on-Thames. Dad wears a Henley tie with pink Henley hippos that his son acquired there.

Coach yelled to me as I put in, ďTheyíll let anybody row here,Ē and he got me but good, man Ė me quipping back but swallowing it, as his eight of boys was launching. And then as penance he helpfully added that there were too many boats down below the Iron Bridge downstream, so I should instead head upstream to the Gap.

So the Gap is where I headed. The normal wind was back; the heavy rig, the gray hatchets again. I hugged the breakwall past the wide gulf at Bird Island, which is that bend of the ancient breakwall in which shelter cormorants and Canada geese perching on just-submerged rocks, and this meant scudding over some Clorox-bottle buoys that the Buffalo Yacht Club sailors set for themselves, exercising, without benefit of statute, their home-water privilege. They pride their club for its age, second-oldest in North America. Nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake has the oldest golf course in North America. Past this place was where the first sailing ship penetrated North America, in 1688, piloted by the Sieur de la Salle and his liar of a passenger, the egregious Belgian priest Louis Hennepin. How this old town downwind of Alberta seeks its legitimacy in age, no matter who was young back then..

The breeze made all that open water all choppy. The cormorants slid their snaky heads up out of the water, and the fat, splay-foot Canada geese stood on the rocks like Christs out past those Clorox buoys, and some of them had the audacity to complain about the intrusion of a single solo sculler. Their chatter was the white noise of sculling, not even a distraction. The wind is something to be avoided even when itís light, so I slid up alongside the breakwall because then the Hun wouldnít see me. There were more Canada geese and mallards and migratory black-bodied white-billed coots, who all complained and complained, for I was breaking their monopoly on the calm water in the lee of that breakwall and interrupting their butts-up dabbling.

I pulled and pulled in that thwarted breeze. I pulled and pulled and left perfect swirls the way that good oarsmen do: two tiny tight whirlpools at the end of each stroke, one for each side of each oar-blade. Pulling against that mitigated wind, pulling despite it, sliding my butt back and forth with each massive push of my massive powerful pudgy thighs. This is the stuff of dreams, and voŪlŗ Ė the dream came: what if we were to get clever and organize a party of botanists to plant a windbreak on this wall? A line of sturdy arborvitae cedars, native North American cedars that are thick, low, and dense, to be bent by this wind into a sheltering hedge? Thatís the dream.

The reality was good enough: not glassy, not spotless, no mirror, but at least a moderated course of a thousand meters of racing water, with a fresh breeze to cool the neck, is what it was.

It was delicious. Scullers know what this is Ė good water with no current, and nostrils tickling in air that was moving just half a body above the sternum. Conditions as follows: bright, just under 60 Fahrenheit, smooth water unchurned by motors or eights, with new air whistling past the ears and that sharp clarity as from new lenses that high barometric pressure in autumn gives. One thousand pure unobstructed meters, it was.

It ended. It always ends. It ended at the Gap itself, where there was no more protection from the southwesterly. There was no choice but to turn.

So steadily, and strong with the lakeís breeze fanning, is how the shell turned and then coursed with the unobstructed wind downstream past the mile of LaSalle Park, past the second-oldest yacht basin proper, tight in past the Navy Reserveís ramp, past the new construction for the new Frank Lloyd Wright-designed boathouse, past the West Side Rowing Club, past Cotterís Point which would have been the logical end, but the hard weather of the rest of October would come in snowblasts only four days later, so that wasnít the end of it, no. Down-channel, past the International Peace Bridge and past all those original limestone blocks of the old Erie Canal that nobody but rowers ever looks at except for an occasional coal-boat, and occasional users, like sailors, the rich ones, who motor their sailboats with sails furled to a seasonal anchorage on the wide shore of the widened, flattened Niagara down past the locks.

Along the Black Rockís city side runs a highway. It is elevated by ten feet of stone even above the Canal stones, and these are faced with concrete, and that concrete is the palette of champion rowers in this town. Each ephemeral victory of real note is emblazoned on those walls above which the unseeing drivers speed, like this: 2000 Henley Womenís Lightweight 8 West Side Rowing Club, and all their names are there, from coxy to bow, and coachesí names too, and in West Side colors, maroon, black, white. Another, more compact painting hails the 2001 and 2002 national pairs in West Side colors, the brothers with the German names, and you see them at the boathouse, coaching, authoritative, two slight men with black short hair. 1996 Canadian Schoolboys Four, but itís fading, for these paint jobs donít last through the ages, and they donít even call that spring race the Schoolboys any more, due to the advent of girls. Itís the Canadian Scholastic now, but the boys and girls alike still call the race Schoolboys, and what a pageant it is: a couple of thousand rowers all gathered at Martindale Pond a mile from the Ontario end of the Welland Canal, just twenty miles away from these canal stones, at the Royal Canadian Henley racecourse. A hundred crews go there, orderly strong gangs in their colors. The mighty Canadian private schools, Upper Canada College boys and Branksome Hall and Havergal girls, Ridley College and Sir Winston Churchill, and the Michiganders and Ohioans and Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers, perfect children in their uniís, pronounced you-knees. Kids who win races at Schoolboys paint their names on the walls of the Black Rock Canal and never a car-driver nor a car-passenger sees those trophies, and then the trophies fade, and are painted over.

Downstream, there are more paint jobs about victories in US and Canadian national races. The newest: girlsí eight, Royal Canadian Henley, gold. Thereís only gold at Henley. You either win Henley or you lose, itís so refreshingly simple. Nobody keeps the time and there are no other metals or medals but gold, gold. The walls are silent except about gold, such as the boys of a Catholic high school, coached by a local Olympian, won in the American Nationals this year. Such wins are why the rowers of this continent hold West Side in high esteem. Everybody who rows out of this boathouse knows cold, and knows wind. Everybody knows that their job is to be imperturbable in the face of such conditions. Everybody who rows against them knows about these conditions.

Below the Iron Bridge of Ferry Street, which connects the city to Squaw Island, which is where the Underground Railroad used to ferry folks to freedom just a mile across the Niagara, thereís more water for rowing, a couple of thousand meters more, until the railroad bridge, and the locks beyond.

The kidsí practice route is this: from the boathouse downstream to the locks, back upstream past the boathouse to the Gap, then back downstream to the boathouse. Locks, Gap, back.

Locks, Gap, back. Thatís what Iíd wanted. Boathouse to locks is about 3,300 meters. Locks to Gap is 5,000, back home to the boathouse a last 1,700. Itís a 10k circuit. I wanted it all, but the crews were headed in, so I opted to turn at the first buoy beyond the Iron Bridge.

I was warm.

I was ready.

I set the rotating dial on my watch.

The plan: a fast start, a steady pace for 1,500, then a 500-meter sprint.

Ready.

Tick.

Go.

The Chopin piece, as described before: symmetry along a long line. Everything in each piece was balance. Everything in each piece was symmetry as I struggled against the Hun wind out of Alberta, which comes from a much, much more ancient place, perhaps Baikal. Everything was minute adjustment. Everything was minute adjustment to keep the balance and the symmetry of a long thin line that I created with my effort, the four tiny whirlpools at the tips of my blades, each one disintegrating and fading as I watched.

This was my race, into the wind, without any competitors, without the urgency of a crowd watching at the finish. Two thousand meters as if it counted.

I won.

  

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