“No talking in the boat! Eyes on the head in front of you.” Behind my coach’s voice, I could hear the noise of cars barreling down the Schuylkill expressway.
Both my hands clutched the oar as we passed the first bridge, and I wished we were allowed to wear gloves. We weren’t. It was snowing – not hard, just flurries, but the coaches thought it wasn’t too early in the year to get out on the river. We were headed down past two more bridges to do our usual five-mile-long row. Then, afterwards, there would be a two-mile run down to the statues of angels. One girl who didn’t feel like running would complain of menstrual cramps, and the male coaches would uncomfortably say she didn’t have to run. Packs of boys from the local prep schools would hoot and holler as we ran by.
I grew up rowing shells on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. My high school team rowed out of the boathouse where the Olympic team practiced. The river was dirty, polluted, and had a long history of being so. Although Philadelphia was the first city to feel responsible for providing its citizens with clean drinking water and bought a large section of land that was the Schuylkill watershed and later became the first large urban park of its kind, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries people continued to use the river as an open sewer and to dispose of other offensive waste. Despite an 1828 law that fined a person for dumping “putrid, noxious, or offensive matter” into the river, throughout the 19th century, it was done anyway. During much of the 20th century, coal was mined near the Schuylkill headwaters. Culm, a byproduct of the mining efforts, accumulated in such large amounts that it raised the level of the riverbed and made navigation on the river difficult. Repeatedly from 1866 through 1946, studies recommended abandoning the river as a water source, seeking cleaner water upstream. It wasn’t until 1945 that the Schuylkill River Project was born in an attempt to clean up the river and restore it to its former glory.
When I began rowing my freshman year, I was considered a “novice,” meaning I had never been in a boat before. My friends all played lacrosse in the spring, but ball sports had never been my thing. I excelled at whole body sports: swimming and skiing, and I thought it would be fun to be down on the river. My parents had pointed out the boathouses to me when we were driving back to the suburbs from Philadelphia. The houses sat stately, old and filled with tradition. Every night, the boathouses were silhouetted with white lights.
Although the Schuylkill was originally home to Lenape Indians, peaceful fishing and trapping people, it was a Dutchman who was the first white man up the waters and who gave it its name. When William Penn was granted the area by Charles II, Penn apparently took a canoe trip up the Schuylkill into the backcountry. During this period, the seventeenth century, shad was abundant, and the Indians were busy trapping the beaver to near extinction.
There were several attempts to make the Schuylkill a navigable route, and there were also attempts at building locks at the falls several times, usually without permanent success. The waterway was used to float chestnut, hemlock, and oak down to the Philadelphia market, but the lower river was not so calm or predictable. What did emerge were two developments: the wealth of coal just below the surface farther up the watershed in Schuylkill County and the view that the banks of the Schuylkill were a wonderful place for the rich to build mansions. The mansions remain, high above the river, many now converted to historic buildings or museums, but they give a taste of a Philadelphia – and a lifestyle — long gone.
Anthracite coal was discovered near the headwaters of the Schuylkill, in what is known as Schuylkill County. In the 1750s, the area belonged to farmers, but by the end of the century, mining had begun along the Schuylkill. In The Schuylkill, J. Bennett Nolan says, “There are still valleys in lower Schuylkill County where coal has not been found and where the wheat fields roll back to the mountain wall with no breaker to disturb the serenity of the landscape” (12). Nevertheless, coal and its byproducts did find their way into the water source, corrupting it.
Robert B. Johnson, in his book A History of Rowing, claims rowing began in the ancient world but that the idea of rowing in crews came from navies. Johnson traces the popularity of rowing in England to its similarities with the age of chivalry, when athletic prowess and courage could win a man knighthood. Rowing combined precision and timing – thinking skills – with the raw physicality of taking a boat down the river. In 1867, the Schuylkill Navy, an organization of rowers still in existence, announced that Philadelphia was going to become the supreme boating city in America.
Thomas Eakins, a Philadelphia painter and rower, captured the golden age of rowing, the 1870’s, before the sport became bogged down in scandals and betting, in a series of paintings called “The Rowing Pictures.” He painted the winners of his day – John Biglin and Max Schmitt — working alone or with other rowers on the Schuylkill. Once, he even painted himself in a scull in the background. At the time Eakins began painting the rowers, he had just come back from studying art in Europe. He was interested in depicting the human body, but nudes were not really acceptable in Victorian Philadelphia. He used the rowing pictures as an outlet, a way to capture posture and muscles, grace and precision.
At the beginning of the spring rowing season my senior year, I was getting ready to race a double, a two-seated, four oared shell, with another girl, Carrie, a thickly built woman with a mess of curly brown hair. The race, the first of the season, was called Stotesbury. We rowed casually down to the race line. Two Canadian girls in unisuits looked intimidating on the starting line next to us. The prom had been the night before, and though I had gotten more sleep than most of my friends, I still hadn’t gone to bed at 9 p.m. as my coach had directed me to. We were in position at ¾ of the way up the slide when the gun went off, and then Carrie’s oar was in the water, but it was stuck and it wouldn’t come out, a rowing occurrence called catching a crab. The whole boat lurched to one side. By the time we got going again, we were so far behind we weren’t ever going to catch up. I remember I could hear my team mates shouting “Come on. Pick up the rate,” but at that point, it was too late. We lost miserably, by boat lengths.
We were on our spring break training trip in Florida when I got news that I’d gotten in to the first college to which I’d applied, a small liberal arts school without much of a rowing team. In Florida, we mostly rowed singles and doubles, and dolphins followed us, trailing behind the stern. I remember thinking I had to make a decision. I was now the captain of the women’s team, and I had been recruited to row at some of the schools to which I applied. What would my life consist of, I wondered. Did I want the next four years of my life to be all about crew? In high school, crew had been an escape from everything else. Would it continue to be that if I rowed at a school with a competitive rowing program? I doubted it.
Later that spring, my doubles partner and I were doing well. After the ill-fated row at Stotesbury, we were doing better, at least winning three of our last races. We were rowing at Nationals in Camden, New Jersey. At the starting line, we decided to take off our shirts and just row in our black sports bras.
Our start was nothing like the one where Carrie caught a crab. Instead, we were propelled, almost on top of the water. Right away, we were ahead, and we were gaining – boat lengths of open water, it seemed. My arms, my heart, my lungs were pumping as fast as possible, my muscles contracting and expanding nearly on their own, and I was thinking about nothing except how fast I could move my arms away from my body. Speed was all I wanted. And then there was the finish line, and we were the first ones over it. We had won. We were national champions, except no one knew who we were because we had taken our shirts off.
At the high school senior roast where teachers and staff embarrass students, the librarian had me. She held up a slinky, black lace camisole and read a few lines from an Anne Sexton poem:
“I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyebal,
but I am rowing, I am rowing.” By then, most everyone had heard about my race in the black sports bra, and though I hadn’t yet decided to become a writer, the librarian knew me because of how much I liked to read and hang out in the library. She had gotten it exactly right. What I loved about rowing was its beauty, its intricacy, its poetry.
Senior year was almost over, and I was trying to decide how much of a part of my life I wanted to make crew. The place I really wanted to go – Dartmouth – wasn’t interested in me, but University of Pennsylvania, the dock over from ours on boathouse row, had recruited me and accepted me to attend school there in the fall. I knew what my life would be like – afternoons in the weight room and on the rowing machine. Practices twice a day on Saturdays. Their rowing program was old and had tons of money. Begun in 1835, it was the beginning of organized sport at University of Pennsylvania. Before that, the male students would use a local gymnasium for boxing or shoot pool at a nearby parlor. It was an Ivy, the best – I should have been be happy, and yet, I wanted something else. I wasn’t totally sure what that something else was, but I felt it when I saw a power bar commercial in the Sierra magazine I was reading in the library during one of the painful days before the deadline when I was trying to decide what to do with my life. My friends said things like, “You got into Penn and you’re thinking of not going? That’s crazy,” but I wasn’t sure I wanted more of what I already knew. I wanted something different, but I couldn’t – or didn’t know how to — describe it. I wasn’t sure four more years rowing in that dirty river was it.
I had talked to my parents about applying to colleges in the West, and my mother had said, “no.” She wanted me to be able to drive home for breaks. I chose the first college that had accepted me, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York with an under-funded club rowing program. After rowing out of the Olympic boathouse, it didn’t measure up to even my high school program. I wasn’t totally sure why I’d made the choice I had. I just meant to go somewhere where my dad hadn’t gone to law school and rowing wouldn’t be my life. Perhaps I knew that I wasn’t competitive enough to keep it up for four years; I’d been bow in the double, not stroke. I simply had to follow the stroke rate Carrie set. My coaches had even told me they didn’t think I was competitive enough to row stroke. And I had an idea what rowing at Penn would look like – miles on the rowing machines in the winter to the point of puking or seat racing, a high-pressure situation where the coach substitutes two different women with the same crew to see who could make the boat go faster. After all, what I liked about rowing was sitting in the boat, inches away from the water, the precision of the stroke, how it took brains and muscle, watching the curl of water around the blade, taking part in something beautiful.
Even though the mansions on the banks of the Schuylkill were no longer private residences, the lifestyle of the upper-class wasn’t totally gone from Philadelphia. In the affluent suburbs where I grew up, a charity ball was thrown every year where debutantes wore white dresses, danced with young men, and then were presented to society. My mom enrolled me to be a deb. I went to the first gathering – a reception in the back yard of a huge, stone mansion. When my friend’s mother picked me up, she said, “You’re not wearing heels?” I was wearing a fitted, yellow, silk dress, appropriate gold jewelry, and stockings, yet she had noticed my shoes: flat. Maybe that was the moment I decided it wasn’t for me. I remember feeling uncomfortable as I made my way among other private-school-educated women, all of them wearing their pearls and heels. This wasn’t to be the only gathering. It was just the first. Later, there would be trips to the eye hospital and other fundraisers so we could begin to take our mothers’ place in Philadelphia society.
I came home and told my mom, “I don’t think that’s for me.” I heard from my friends who had stayed in about buying the right white dress and gloves, or learning the intricate dance to be done on stage that night. Still, my dad had already sent his check in, so we were given several tickets. I brought my first college boyfriend, wore a red, strapless dress, and drank so much that I was throwing up in the toilet the next morning when my mother hollered up the stairs that we had to leave to drive to my grandparents’ for Christmas Eve. Not for me.
A red and a black duffel bag sat on the polished, marble floor in front of me. Through the loudspeaker, trains were announced. My mother hugged me. Then my dad did. I felt a combination of excited and abandoned. Even though I had chosen this, not to go to New York or DC like all my friends had, I felt scared, lonely. I was heading halfway across the country. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Thirtieth Street Station, the Philadelphia train station where we said goodbye, was emblematic of everything I was leaving: white pillars outside, a high, vaulted ceiling inside, friezes of various historical events, gilt detailing and the Angel of Resurrection bronze statue commemorating WWII veterans in the center. Where I was going, nothing was as old. Cities in the West were the age of the suburb I’d grown up in.
Over the next decade, I moved from Colorado to Idaho to enter a writing program. I pursued backpacking and skiing until I saw a sign at the farmer’s market advertising learn-to-row and Master’s crew. I asked the representative – a fit guy in his fifties – what I could expect. Were there ten-mile runs and calisthenics? I remembered how thin and strong I was senior year of high school. I didn’t think I was in shape for that.
“No,” he said. “It’s pretty mellow. We just like to get out there and row.”
I was at the next practice, but it was nothing like rowing on the Schuylkill. The mountains rose up on either side of the Snake River, and we would sometimes see a beaver or blue heron on the banks. The drive down to the river was on a two-lane rural road instead of a four-lane, crowded expressway. On the drive – where we hardly ever saw other cars but occasionally had to follow a combine or ATV — we could often spot deer, elk, or quail crossing the road or looking curiously on from a nearby hill.
The rowers were different too. Some had learned to row in college, but others had learned from community programs. There were architects and professors but also house painters and truck drivers.
Still, sitting in the boat was the same: the feeling of being just inches away from the water, practically in the river. It had never been the races that filled me with joy. What made me happy was just rowing along, being outside, watching the ducks and the puddles in the water we made with our oars. There was also the feeling of accomplishment, the power of eight rowers working together when the boat was balanced and moving so fast on top of the water that it felt like flying, but usually there were only small moments that felt that way.
For one week while our coach was on vacation the rowers brought their own small boats to row. After practice, one of the rowers brought out a cooler full of beer. Three of us sipped beers as we waited for the rest of the rowers to return to the dock. Each of us said something about how lucky we were to be rowing on the beautiful Snake. One of the guys mentioned that he didn’t miss rowing on urban rivers back East, where he had seen cash registers and hypodermic needles either float by or dropped along the banks. Still, what we saw when we marveled at the view wasn’t natural. The Snake was sometimes called “Snake Lake,” a reference to the fact that the wildness of the river was long gone. In 1945, Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to build the first of four dams along the Snake to provide electricity and water for irrigation, and to make Lewiston, Idaho an inland seaport.
Through the process of damming the river, they not only flooded ancient archeological sites, but they also made it nearly impossible for chinook and sockeye salmon and steelhead to make it back to their spawning grounds. In 1988, Snake River coho salmon became extinct. In 1991, Snake River sockeye were listed as an endangered species. In 1994, Snake River chinook salmon were listed as endangered. Barges ferry fish through the locks around the dams in a dim effort to keep the species reproducing. I wondered if the rowers – most of us East Coast transplants – romanticized the West, wanted to see it as virgin and pristine when perhaps this river had been changed and manipulated just as much or more than those eastern rivers? Given enough time, would it become as polluted as the Schuylkill?
One afternoon, in a single, a shell made for one person, I rowed to the other side of the river to get some shade from the hundred degree heat, and I thought about what the Snake might be like if it wasn’t tamed and controlled by these huge dams. It might be the wild whitewater with rapids named Granite and Wild Sheep that runs through Hells Canyon. We probably wouldn’t be able to row it in shells, but the salmon would swim freely, and we would probably know more about the sophisticated ancient people who settled along the Snake 9,000 years ago, the people who carved small, bone sewing needles and traded with another tribe for the jawbone of an arctic fox. The Army Corps of Engineers had attempted to save the Marmes rock shelter, where these ancient people lived, by building a levee, but the force of the water was too great, and now the rock shelter sits under forty feet of water.
I had no doubt that of the two rivers I knew, neither was truly wild. Humans had tamed them nearly to the point of destruction, but it didn’t stop me from feeling that they were worthy of appreciation. The Schuylkill has been restored to its pristine origins and is now a place locals fish and picnic along its banks. I imagined the same fate for the Snake. Philadelphia was the first city to realize that a city had a duty to provide fresh drinking water to its citizens. On the other side of the country, the government had seen its role in providing cheap electricity. Each river had done a service.
The Snake had been here long before the dams and will be there long after it. People heavily involved in the dam debate say the Pacific Northwesterners want it all – cheap electricity and healthy salmon runs. Keith C. Petersen, the author of River of Life, Channel of Death: fish and dams on the lower Snake, asks what the public would pay to save the salmon. He says the public claims they don’t want the salmon to go extinct, but the cost of saving the salmon is abstract because they are not farmers along the lower Snake looking to irrigate or transport their wheat. He introduces a scenario that could affect everyone. If the dams were taken out and the cost of energy spiked, businesses and homes would be affected, jobs would be lost, and school programs would be cut. Homeless and without jobs, would Northwesterners still be so anxious to save the salmon? Petersen suggests that, at least in our lifetime, the lower Snake will be a river of compromise, where no one special interest group gets its needs met but where the public continues to want – and get – salmon and cheap hydroelectric power. The magazine I write for (owned by a power company) ran an article where a polling company from Portland, Oregon reports 70 percent of Northwesterners would be concerned (35 percent very concerned) if electricity prices went up five percent to ensure healthy salmon runs.
Looking back at Thomas Eakins’ rowing pictures, I am reminded that training to be a competitive rower always was a rigorous undertaking. In Johnson’s A History of Rowing, published in 1871, he describes training for a crew, based on how the Harvard crew trained, which included a diet of mostly boiled meat (even for breakfast), runs, rows, and bouts of sweating under 6-8 blankets and/or 2 featherbeds after drinking a pint of liquor. After, rowers were encouraged to rub down with a towel until their skin was red and raw. Although training for being a competitive rower had changed by the time I came to rowing, it remained a sport that encourages an athlete to get down to the basics: sweating and running and rowing until one is sore and aching, until nothing else matters. That senior year of high school, I lived for those five mile runs and two hour practices. When my body ached, everything else faded.
Even though I knew that both the rivers had been meddled with, I can’t change my experience on them, knowing the Snake feels more authentic and pure to me regardless of the fact that it might actually be farther from its natural state than the Schuylkill. I think about that girl I was who rowed the Schuylkill and the other girl that moved West for snow-capped mountains, gushing rivers, and the dearth of debutantes, what she thought was a blank slate. I wonder what words of wisdom I could impart to either of them. If I could go back in time, would I? Of course, I know that neither of them would have listened to what I have to say.
Two Rivers originally appeared in Weber: The Contemporary West in 2014