Women on Water: Rowing a Northern Michigan Boat

For the July 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, we challenged five female Michigan writers with the task of reflecting on Northern Michigan’s lakes, streams, beaches and boats—in a word: water. The third essay in the series was written by Traverse City-based writer and Fleda Brown.

Read the first two essays in the Women on Water series:

My aunt Cleone, who often made the lake rules, felt it was necessary to wait not one, but two hours after eating before swimming. Someone she knew apparently had drowned between hour one and hour two. So we were doomed. But at least my cousin Alan and I could head out in the rowboat as soon as breakfast was over, putting in our two hours on the water legally. (We children were allowed to take the boats out alone after we’d demonstrated that we could swim the half-mile across the lake and back.)

The rowboat was a gorgeous thing, double-oared, fast as lightning with all four oars in motion. It was a Mullins brand, almost exactly like a Whitehall. We called it The Whaler. It was 13 feet long, galvanized steel, dented and scuffed even then. It had a few light wood ribs, a wood keel inside the hull, and weathered gray wood trim, gunwales and seats. What made it so good was its wine-glass stern, so there was no drag to speak of from the back.

When my cousins Alan and Roger were young, they could with great effort and with both rowing, hold their own against a five-horse motor of the time. When Alan and I weren’t trying for speed, the glide was effortless and the wake nearly nonexistent. It was easy to manage in a wind, because its weight and deep keel prevented sideways skidding. All the power went into forward movement. We scorned the flat-bottom aluminum rowboat and made the little kids use it.

Sometimes we took peanut butter and honey sandwiches. This was before all the property along the shore had cottages planted on it. We could pull up through the reeds on a deserted beach and eat our sandwiches, bothered only by a dozen little bees.

Robinson Crusoe, The Boxcar Children, Huckleberry Finn, Heidi: the stories that held me had to do with getting away from civilization and making your own new one from the bottom up. The wooden ribs of the rowboat could hold the few items you’d need. You didn’t even have to have a lifejacket back then. And the trip, which had no specific goal, was self-propelled. My cousin Alan is exactly my age, but he’s a lot bigger and stronger. I pulled as long and hard as I could—I would not allow myself a handicap for my girl-ness.

The joy of water is its resistance that never becomes intractability. In a strong wind, your muscles burn from trying to make a little headway measured by the trees on shore. On a glassy lake, water shows you where you’ve been in ever-widening rings. You carve it. You bless or cuss your oars. If they’re the old heavy wood ones, your palms begin to redden and sting, the oarlocks rattle and thunk. If they’re the newer plastic ones, your arms seem to fly upward out of the water, the oarlocks manage only a tinny click. If you’ve greased them too much, the oar pins can fly out.

Since you row facing backward, you see the past. You have to look over your shoulder to see the future, but you can’t keep your head turned that way for long, because you’ll get a crick in your neck, so you just glance, to keep yourself going in the direction you intend, and to keep from hitting anything. This requires a different sort of awareness, based partly on trust and partly on seeing what you’ve already done, for good or ill.

If you’re attentive, you can give up the oars for a minute, lean over the bow and grab a turtle off a log. At least my cousin Alan could. He had fast hands. You hold it by its shell and learn a lot from looking into its prehistoric eyes.

What else I learned: (1) be still if you want to see anything interesting; (2) the world is vast and great fun if you’re willing to use your muscles; (3) the tactile is infinitely rewarding, even more so than the imagination; (4) you can’t fix the past, but you can watch it peacefully from the rear; (5) watch out for the overhanging branch.

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