Especially at first, rowing feels undoable. This probably stems from the near impossibility of the task at hand—maneuvering thousands of pounds of gear safely and gracefully down the river. And yet, as with anything, those who do it best make it look effortless.
I remember feeling tangled up like a just-born fawn, my oars penduluming in front of me. Every now and then an oar blade would catch too much current and swing out of my hands. Unwieldy wooden handles clacking against each other, pinching heavily on my thumbs.
Maybe it actually is impossible, even for the Herculean among us, to get a raft or dory down a river by sheer brawn, without a sense for the more artful possibilities.
In fact, the only way I was ever able to row was to outthink the physical experience of the sport and regard it as an intellectual pursuit; to approach rowing as an art. To do this is to accept that you can’t overpower the river, but instead, learn to be smart enough and quick enough to work with it; allowing the water to move the raft more powerfully than a human-powered oar stroke ever could.
And then there is the meditative tactile experience of rowing.
The burn of wooden oars in your spring-soft hands.
The feeling of leverage as the water resists the oars when you’re pushing forward. Sometimes, the feeling of drifting.
The quiet joy that comes with sweating your guts out in the most beautiful and serene landscapes—a non-motorized world where the only power is human-power.
Rowing got easier, so slowly, so gradually that I don’t remember improving. The only real marker that I was getting better was that I began to regard upcoming rapids with enthusiasm, not fear. Or maybe I just learned to love the heightening of my senses before a big rapid, that inevitable drop in my stomach.
Still, there’s that moment of unpredictability as your boat is caught in the accelerating current above a rapid. And then, the swirl of action as things go according to plan (or not). That’s where the balancing act comes in, the muscle memory, but also the cleverness of reading water. The brain and body diametrically opposed, yet completely entwined. The way through the rapid sprung from your most creative combination of skills and knowledge about the water.