Rowing to Latitude
Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge
By Jill Fredston
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2001 Jill Fredston
All rights reserved.
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 ofcreek, 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 appears excessively polished.
It was another small boat adventure, however, that probably deserves the credit for getting me into college. The summer before my senior year, while kayaking in Alaska's Prince William Sound on a second NOLS course, I'd been with five others when a pod of orcas surrounded our double kayaks. Orcas do not deserve the sinister reputation reflected by their common name. They are known as killer whales because they compensate for their relatively small size by hunting in packs, but they generally avoid people. In more than a month, we'd only seen their distinctive tall, triangular fins from afar. But on the second-to-last day of the trip, a group made up mostly of mothers and young materialized out of the mist. One pulled up so close that it looked as if a submarine had docked alongside our kayak. They nuzzled around us for maybe half a minute and then, with gentle exhalations, slid back beneath the sea.
None of the other group members we reunited with at trip's end believed our story of the orcas until they smelled us. Inured by days of continuous rain, we had been oblivious to the fallout of whale spout drizzling onto our clothes, hair, and hands, imbuing every surface with the essence of rotting fish. I took at least ten prolonged, peel-the-paper-off-the-walls showers in an Anchorage hotel room, then boarded a plane to head back to New York for my last semester of high school. Before the plane had even left the gate, all the passengers in my row, on both sides of the aisle, had changed their seats while I pretended I didn't know why. On the second morning of school, I received a summons from the health counselor. She said, "Jill, I don't understand it. You have always been a good student, and you've come to school dressed nicely, but your teachers are complaining that you seem to have an odor problem this year."
It is not encouraging to be seventeen years old and not know if you are going to smell like raw sewage for the rest of your life. Even my parents made me sit at the lonely end of the dining-room table. Determined to find a solution, Mom poured tomato juice over me in the bathtub because she'd heard that it neutralizes skunk odor, but I can definitively say that it does not work for whale spout. It does, however, leave deep, reddish stains that make the bathtub look like the preferred spot for nocturnal sacrifices. Desperate for ideas, I called the others in the group, including a middle-aged lawyer in California who had canceled all appointments and was conducting business by phone. A worrisome week went by before we were all restored to our fragrant selves. When the college applications asked for an essay on a recent memorable experience, I didn't have to think long.
I chose Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where the air was clean and the mountains close. Gravitating toward courses in geography and environmental studies, I toyed with the idea of becoming an environmental lawyer, a career that struck me as a respectable compromise between a mainstream occupation and my environmental leanings. In the meantime, I rowed, not so much because I had an urge to compete as because rowing seemed an instinctive physical extension of the maturity and independence I felt in leaving home.
I was walking across the green in the center of campus when I saw my first racing shell, suspended on sawhorses, so thin it was translucent. The hull was more than sixty feet long, with eight sets of sliding seats, one right behind the other. I was no longer the scrawny kid given doughnuts at camp as part of a weight-gain program, but at five feet eight I was still made up mostly of sharp bones and right angles, with a strength born more of determination than of mass. Though team members attempting to recruit passersby of significant size overlooked me, I was hooked.
Crew boats were like nothing I'd ever rowed. The "eights" were waterborne rockets — capable of exhilarating speed that made Ikky Kid at her fastest look like a stunted wannabe. Learning to use my legs, arms, and back to drive a thirteen-foot oar through the water while rolling back and forth on a little wooden seat was like learning to walk again. The unified effort of my body had to be carefully synchronized with that of seven other women, while we were steered and encouraged by a small coxswain with a disproportionately large voice. When we matched each other perfectly, which didn't happen often enough to take for granted, we had "swing." Then the boat would surge forward, trailing a symmetrical signature of whirling pools from each oar.
Too frequently, swing eluded us. In our first race, we lacked the discipline to keep our hands steady, so we kept throwing the boat off balance, causing one unfortunate after another to "catch a crab" — get her oar stuck in the water. The veering boat would slow, sometimes to a stop, the coxswain would rage, and we'd thrash like dying fish before getting the boat back on course and up to speed. Only because the five other teams were similarly inexperienced did we eke out a win. In our post-race exuberance, we drifted past two sets of warning buoys and nearly went over a dam in our borrowed eight-thousand-dollar shell. It was an inauspicious start to a magnificent season in which we reigned undefeated until the final championships, when we faced corn-fed mesomorphs from Wisconsin.
My memories of that race are ragged. Someone crabbed at the start and we skidded backward, into water abandoned by the other boats. I remember the coxswain's disembodied howls coming through a speaker under my seat, exhorting us to pull as we never had before. And we did. It might be the only time in my life that I haven't held just a little bit of myself in reserve. "I HAVE THEIR SEVEN!" the voice shrieked as we drew up to the stern of the first boat ahead. "NOW GIVE ME THEIR FIVE!" Foot by foot, we clawed past the rower in the bow seat. One boat behind us, four still ahead. We became one long, gasping body with sixteen muscled arms and knotted calves. Can't pull harder. Have to. No. Must. Beyond logical thought, out of air, two boats behind now. Nothing but the voice, exploding waves of pain, and a rising roar of spectators. Spots in my eyes, dead legs, lungs sucked dry, heart splitting my chest, searing fire in my back. Breathe. Can't. Must. Only two more boats. The voice thundered. Quit Can't. Breathe. Can't. Must. "LAST TEN STROKES!!" the voice promised, and counted them aloud like drumbeats. I emptied the last fragments of myself into my oar. Die. Soon. "FIVE MORE!" I had nothing left but a silent scream. We crossed the finish line and I slid into darkness, into a quiet that even the voice couldn't penetrate.
Consciousness came with the sound of my teammates vomiting into the water. The coxswain, a woman again, explained that it was a photo finish, a matter of inches being decided upon by officials. Eight bodies now instead of one, we lay back against one another's numb legs, swilling air, unable to ignore the pain, which was as excruciating as frozen fingers beginning to thaw. We managed a clumsy rag-doll-like row to the dock, but the world was a grainy television screen, a fuzz of speckled gray. Landing, I leaned in the wrong direction, fending off into harmless air rather than reaching for the wood float. The rest of our team poured onto the dock, knowing that we were too far gone to lift the boat out of the water and over our heads by ourselves. First place was awarded to the mesomorphs, but surprisingly, that was of little matter.
I didn't row all four years at Dartmouth, partly because foreign study kept me away during several semesters of racing, but mostly because I thought it demeaning to be in any boat other than the varsity and was afraid to take that chance. Accustomed to having most things come easily, I hadn't yet learned the discipline of total commitment. Rowing at very competitive levels means at least three hours of training every day. It means long hours in the weight room and on running trails in exchange for a few minutes of the purging euphemistically called racing. Despite the coach's constant reminders to have "fast hands" or a "quick catch," my rowing stroke never seemed to achieve the level of perfection I'd commended myself for in Ikky Kid. And my eyes were a problem. During practices especially, they kept wanting to drift out of the boat, and around each outside bend in the river rather than staying drilled into the back of the woman in front of me. I was discovering that at heart I am more of an endurance rower than a sprinter. For me, rowing is about more than moving fast. It is about going somewhere. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Rowing to Latitude by Jill Fredston. Copyright © 2001 Jill Fredston. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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