For a rower on a BIG lake such as Lake Winnipesaukee, there are precious few perfect rowing days in the summer. Probably if one went out just at dawn (4:30 am), usually there is no breeze then and flat water could be found. However, I am not that ambitious in my old age, although I do wake up for the occasional sunrise and walk out into the front yard of our island camp to take pictures… then I climb back into my warm cozy bed!
A few days ago, about 8:30 am, I set out in my Alden ocean shell across the lake to another nearby island, to see if the bald eagles were nesting again this year. It was my third or fourth row since mid-May so I felt in good enough shape to do a longer row (expected to be an hour or so.) And by 9 am, when I reached the eagles’ nesting island, there was still no wind, not even a breeze. It was truly exhilarating to row so far in silence, on perfectly flat water, and no other boats to be seen or heard (due to being a WEEKday before the summer season has really gotten going.)
Rowing on flat water with Peaches along, camera in the bow of the Alden; Governor’s Island on Lake Winnipesaukee, Sept. 2009.
I should describe what rowing is like in a sliding-seat shell. The Alden is a 14 ft. long “double” (designed to hold 2 rowing stations) but we have only one rowing machine (the sliding seat on tracks with spreaders and oarlocks attached) and one set of oars. The oars are 9 feet long, overlapping in front of you, and you cross your hands one over the other to grasp the handles. Your feet are secured into “footrest shoes” fixed to the front rails of the sliding seat; you do sit backwards in the boat, facing the “stern.” For the power stroke, you slide your butt forward by bending your knees, reach out with your hands to dip the oar blades into the water, then push strongly with your legs while tightening your abdominal muscles and keeping your back and arms straight until your legs are fully extended. At the end of the power stroke, you do a slight “layback” by leaning backwards a bit, pull a last few inches on the oars by bending your elbows, then you release the blades out of the water by cocking your wrists up.
You do a “recovery” stroke with the oar blades “feathering” (skimming) just on the top of the water while you slide yourself forward again by bending your knees, then you are in position to start your next power stroke by simply straightening your wrists to dip your oar blades back into the water. This may not sound all that simple; it is a lot harder to learn than it sounds! But once learned, it’s like riding a bicycle… you gradually improve your skills, and you develop a rhythm and an efficient, smooth technique. You can then travel significant distances (I work up to 3-4 miles by the end of the summer) and you can move at a decent speed, in fact really fast compared to a kayak or any other kind of rowboat. The shell very much resembles a wide canoe and it is very stable in the water, so you can make headway even in quite rough water although that takes a lot of effort. I can also fish from it too!
So I enjoyed honing my technique by trying to dip the blades only halfway into the water, and letting them skim lightly over the surface on the recovery strokes, and I really noticed the sound of the bow cutting through the water, which I usually can’t hear at all due to the lapping of surface ripples or chop. I didn’t even have to turn around very often to watch ahead of me, because no other boats were around. Rowing is the best overall exercise I have ever done, while being the least stressful on any one area of your body; you work your leg and torso muscles primarily, and you develop your stamina (heart) because it is of course aerobic.
Arriving at the eagles’ island, I soon spotted the nest with my binoculars. During a previous row over, I had seen one eagle on the nest. This time I spotted two hatchlings in the nest, along with one resting adult, I assume the mother bird. Shortly she stood up and the babies started rousing, and I watched her feed them so I got a good look at two chicks. She apparently either had something already in the nest to feed them, or else she regurgitated for them, because she did not leave the nest before feeding. I could faintly hear the little scree-ing noises the babies made.
I was quite happy to see there were two chicks again this year! I had not, however, seen the other parent on my last observation, so I decided to row around the island and check all the roosting lookout spots I knew of. And lucky me, there still was no breeze at all! It was so great to row alongside shore, stopping periodically to check the trees with my binoculars. I went 3/4 around the island and came to a mini-cove where I knew they liked to hang out, and suddenly there HE was, the magnificent male eagle, perched in a pine tree at the edge of the lake. He allowed me to row right underneath him and he just watched me, as they have done in the past. He was about 30 feet above me; with the glasses I could see the sun, which was side-lighting him, glint off his beak and his talons where he held onto the limb, and shine on his bright white head and tail feathers.
Well this just made my day! I purposely had not brought Peaches along this trip because I had wanted to enjoy the smooth water without her weight off-balancing the boat… plus she might have distracted the eagles, especially if she had seen them and gotten all excited. I sat and ate my yogurt breakfast keeping an eye on the male, who stayed on his roost watching the water. Finally I headed out to row back, and by 10:30 I was back, and even THEN there wasn’t a breath of air stirring. It was starting to get pretty hot by then, and the typical west wind came up later in the day.
This had been MY idea of a Perfect Day on the water! The only thing that made it better, was that two days later I rowed back again, and spent more time observing the nest from a greater distance out, where I could see better INTO the nest (which is pretty deep), and lo and behold there were actually THREE baby eagles not just two!! This is a great thing! Judging by their size they are about one-third grown. I got to see both parents on the nest at the same time, and more feeding of chicks by the mother eagle, and dad flying back and forth to perch nearby. The only thing I haven’t seen is one of them actually catching a fish.