And so in time the rowboat and I became one and the same like the archer and his bow or artist and his paint. What I learned wasn't mastery over the elements; it was mastery over myself, which is what conquest is ultimately all about.
Richard Bode, First You Have to Row a Little Boat
The Pull of Rowing
When I was ten, my family moved to a house at water's edge in Larchmont, a well-heeled town on Long Island Sound north of New York City. Initially, I was anchored in the rose garden, with only a cheap marine air horn to engage in the bustle of my new backyard. I'd give three quick blasts, the local signal used by crews for pickup from their moored sailboats and motor cruisers, then duck behind the seawall, chortling as the launch from the yacht club circled aimlessly, looking for passengers. Though my distinguished lawyer father denies it, I'm quite sure the idea was originally his.
As a belated birthday present, my parents gave me a rowboat, on the condition that they could name it. I craved a boat so intensely that I would have sacrificed more than my pride. Promises to do dishes for a year or not to spy on my teenage sisters could have been extorted. But all my parents wanted was to choose a name. That seemed simple enough until I was marooned on the wrong side of a closed door, while the two people who theoretically loved me most in the world conferred, oblivious to the passage of time. Finally, the moment came when I was led to see my new boat. A five-foot fiberglass pram, almost as wide as it was long, with two unscratched wooden oars, a speckled blue interior, plank seat, and shiny oarlocks: it was perfect. Prominently emblazoned on its stern, in oversized black letters, were the words Ikky Kid. My eldest sister, Dale, insists that the name was her inspiration.
Being ten, I did not waste time pondering the message my family was trying to convey. I just launched my boat, clambered in, and rowed away to a new freedom. In hindsight, the name was a good fit. It accurately described a stick-figure brat with a tendency to whine. Dale remembers me as a nonconformist from an early age, but I think the label is a euphemism. I was stubborn, allergic to criticism, and loath to admit I was wrong. I'd back myself into corners and say things I didn't mean but was too proud to recant. "I'm not hungry," I'd assert, then wind up listening to my stomach growl through the night.
Ikky Kid provided an outlet for my frustrations. I spent most of my time in her, cruising all the crannies of Larchmont Harbor, slipping past large houses with their stone gazebos and private docks. I followed families of Canada geese as they swam sedately through rustling salt marsh grasses and surprised couples nestled in the smooth granite of a waterside park shaded by stout oak trees. I rowed to imaginary Olympic glories. Once, trying to execute one of my father's poorer plans, I towed a putrid, bloated swan that had washed up on our beach out beyond the harbor's breakwater to the main body of Long Island Sound, which stretches more than a hundred miles from open ocean off Rhode Island to New York City. I passed whole days inside that little boat, swigging warm orange juice from a carton, gobbling cookies, lying in the sun, reading, drifting. It was a world of its own, and I was the captain.
The next summer, accompanied by a friend in an equally undersized sailboat, I made the seven-mile crossing to Long Island. We swam gleefully, uninvited and unnoticed, in the outdoor pool of a stately Gatsby-type house with a sloping green lawn lined by bright beds of flowers. On our way home and scarcely a mile from Larchmont Harbor, we were stopped by the Coast Guard. A pockmarked, humorless man in an orange jumpsuit asked our ages, carefully logged our names and addresses onto a clipboard, and called our parents. It hadn't occurred to us to think about the distance or the danger. We were simply heading for another shore, propelled by a spirit that reminds me of Joseph Conrad's words: "I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men."
My family's turreted, slate-roofed house was one of only four on a small island. At low tide, it was close enough to the mainland so that a good long jumper might have been able to make the leap onto a thick bank of hold-your-nose muck. There was an arched stone bridge, but as far as I was concerned, living on an island meant rowing everywhere. I rowed to my junior high school, undeterred by the fact that if it was low tide when school let out, I had to walk home and return later when there was enough water in the channel to float the boat.
It is impossible to move a rowing boat across the surface of the water without leaving an imprint, a disappearing record of the boat's passage. I'll never know if Ikky Kid shaped the way I see the world or was simply the outlet for the person I already was. Certainly, I was given plenty of other opportunities. Regular piano lessons and long fingers didn't inspire me to be a pianist, and my mother's good cooking unfortunately did not encourage me to follow suit. I wouldn't have minded converting hundreds of hours on tennis courts into a career as a professional player, but I wasn't good enough. My tendency was to go for instant gratification, for the slam, rather than biding my time for an opening. I do know that from the moment I stepped into Ikky Kid, at some waterline level, I sensed the potential of using my own power to compose a life. Ikky Kid floated me into wider horizons, away from my circle of competitive, achievement-oriented friends, giving me room to find good company in myself and in nature.
I have a friend whose short, pudgy son was determined to play high school basketball. None of us wanted to discourage him, but the odds seemed starkly slim. Josh spent hours at the hoop in the driveway, challenging all comers to games of one-on-one. Then, seemingly overnight, he metamorphosed into two tall legs on a lean frame that almost had to stoop to enter a doorway. Everyone was surprised but him. It was as though he had known all along the possibilities within him. Rowing helped me to outgrow my Ikky Kid persona in the same way. I just bided my time and took a while to let others in on the secret.
Ikky Kid only whetted my appetite for the outdoors. Though confused by how they had ended up with a kid like me in suburban New York, my parents did everything they could to foster my interests, shipping me further and further west. In my early teens, they packed me off to a ranch camp in Wyoming, where I earned coveted status as a "roughrider" by guiding my horse through swamps and drinking, with eyes scrunched shut, snake blood that tasted suspiciously like lemon juice. With an unopened tin of snuff conspicuously stuck in the back pocket of my jeans, I came home saying crik instead of creek, and spent hours trying to lasso the dog. When I returned from a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) wilderness skills course the following year, the same dog refused to eat a coffee cake I baked over a fire in the backyard but deigned to keep me company when I forsook my bed for a sleeping bag outside.
Under the misleading headline "She Practices What She Preaches," an article in the local newspaper featured a photograph of me at sixteen, looking like an orangutan with long arms and drooping shoulders. I was about to spend weeks hauling rocks with a Student Conservation Association trail crew in Yosemite National Park. In the article, I chirp, "I'm going to be involved with the wilderness for the rest of my life. If I don't do something about it now, there won't be any wilderness left later." I graduated early from high school and interned for an environmental education program in New Jersey, which wasn't as oxymoronic as it sounds. By eighteen, I was a National Park Service summer naturalist at the Grand Canyon. Photographs from that era show me looking as cool as I knew how my left hip juts out at an angle, both hands are stuffed into the pockets of drab green pants, the trademark flat-brimmed hat is pulled firmly over my head, and the gold-colored badge over the pocket of my gray shirt appeared excessively polished.
Copyright © 2001 Jill Fredston