A mid-summer powder day at the Frisco Rowing Center
There’s something inherently calm and serene about rowing.
On a clear, blessedly warm morning in early August, I ventured to the Frisco Rowing Center on Lake Dillon for an introductory session with the center director, Joanne Stolen. She’s a windsurfer-turned-rower who apprenticed with the Rutgers University rowing crew, and, as such, she’s a bona fide morning person. She recommended I come to the Frisco Bay Marina at 7 a.m., right around the time the first few rowers returned from a sunrise outing.
As I drove from Breckenridge to Frisco, yawning endlessly despite open windows, I couldn’t help but wonder what was in store for me between those oars. My groggy, sleep-hungry brain went over the facts: I know Dillon Reservoir is considered the “black diamond” of sailing lakes, and rightly so. The winds are nasty and unpredictable, due in large part to nearby mountain peaks and narrow, tunnel-like inlets, both reminders that the reservoir didn’t exist before Denver Water built a dam in the early ‘60s.
I also know that chop and rowing don’t make good bedfellows. Now, it’s not as though I know this from experience. I’ve only ever rowed in the air-conditioned climes of a gym, where form, balance and the intricacies of the sport are overshadowed by sweat and pure exertion. But, given what I’ve learned about real-life watersports — sailing in particular — wind can be your best friend and worst enemy, and it takes a deft touch to parse out the two.
Shortly after cruising past Swan Mountain Road, I couldn’t help but stifle a yawn and lean over my dashboard for a glimpse of the lake surface. Again, I’m far from a morning person. I’ve rarely gone past the lake before 7 a.m. in the summer, and, even when I have, it’s not like water quality was on my mind. No, I was more interested in coffee, or maybe a bagel with spread, or just about anything other than that cold, black lake.
Consider skiing. On a snowy, socked-in sort of morning, folks who are lucky enough to have the day off won’t see anything but those luscious flakes. On the same morning, folks who are stuck indoors from sunup to sundown almost unconsciously ignore the conditions, or, more likely, grumble profanities on the work commute.
It’s funny how trying a new outdoor sport makes you pay attention to otherwise overlooked details. After rounding the bend at Farmer’s Corner, I did a double take: Dillon was a sheet of glistening glass.
The scene was almost dreamlike, with the sun slowly rising over peaks to the east and just the faintest hint of early-morning haze. It was calm and still — nothing like the unpredictable lake most people know — and, oddl enough, it seemed inviting. I spotted a single rowboat sitting a few hundred yards from the Blue River inlet, its captain carefully tying a lure between casts.
And, so, as I drove around the backside of Frisco Peninsula and away from the shore, I finally stopped yawning. I couldn’t wait to cut through the sheet of glass.
Rowing in the Rockies
I pulled into the marina parking lot and immediately found the rowing center. Not like it’s hidden. The nonprofit center revolves around a canopy, an oar rack and nearly a dozen boat racks, all placed on the lawn within steps of the shore. It shares a small dock with several kayak outfitters, but when I wandered through the nearby racks, snapping photos and waiting for Stolen, I saw no one but two far-off rowers and a small, energetic dog at the combination classroom-canopy-main office. It was still too early for kayakers, the snowboarders of water sports.
But anyway, the water was too damn calm and inviting to indulge my knuckle-dragger tendencies. I met with Stolen soon after and the director walked me down to the dock, where two rowers from the Front Range were getting ready to push off.
Rebekah and Ethan Spetnagel are a mother-son duo with the Rocky Mountain Rowing Club. The two consider Lake Dillon their rowing home, and earlier this summer at the Lake Dillon Challenge rowing regatta, the 51-year-old Rebekah took second place in the 2.5-mile women’s race. Her 15-year-old son also placed second on the 2.5-mile men’s course, barely losing to winner Chris Yun.
Stolen filled me in on the details as the Spetnagel’s boarded their crafts for an hour of rowing. Her brain is something of a steel trap, especially when it comes to rowing and the small, dedicated group that frequent the center. She tells me about the two-person team of Peggy Bailey and Kelley Amdur, both high-level rowers who now call Summit home. Baily won the U.S. National Championship when rowing for University of Wisconsin in 1975, Stolen told me, and Amdur rowed in the 1992 Summer Olympics after a storied collegiate career at Georgetown University.
While explaining how the center came to be — it was a weeklong camp before she took over eight years ago and began teaching classes — she frequently likens rowing to Nordic skiing. It’s another sport she knows well. When the lake freezes over, she move south to the Breckenridge Nordic Center, where the basics of rowing translate remarkably well to the snow: your thighs are the power supply, every stroke requires a delicate touch and precise, measured movements often tromp manic flailing.
Long before Nordic, though, Stolen was a student of rowing. While at Rutgers, she studied the ins and outs of competitive rowing, trying to dissect how top-tier teams like Ohio State and California found just the right mix of power and precision to dominate the Division I rankings.
“I used to go out with the coach and figure out the mystery of making eights go faster,” said Stolen, referring to the eight-person crews used in collegiate rowing. “It really is a trick to find the right mix of people — who sits where, who is your engine. There’s a whole dynamic to building a team that is interesting.”
Summit County winds
After the Spetnagels pushed off from the dock, the weather began to change. I wouldn’t have noticed on a normal morning, but there, on the dock, I couldn’t help but feel a slowly strengthening breeze. Again, like skiing, simply doing the sport — as in, being outdoors at the whims of a Mother Nature — heightens your senses.
Another rowing center regular, 64-year-old Chris Curtis, arrived soon after with his boat. He easily supported the bow with a metal handle, while another rower did the same at the stern. That’s how things work at the rowing center: Everyone helps everyone else, from carrying boats to lashing down covers to providing tips on technique and, as I soon found out, how to battle the wind.
“This is easily one of the windiest days we’ve had all year,” Curtis said. “You’d almost do better with a sail when it gets like this.”
Before heading out, Stolen had given me a crash course on rowing basics. The most important thing any newcomer should know: The oars are your friends. It sounds simplistic, but long, lean rowing crafts are different than their fatter cousins. They almost feel dangerously unstable — if you forget the oars are your friends. But, treat them like an extension of your arm and always leave them in the water or hovering slightly over it, and you have the freedom to wave at friends, take photos and simply enjoy the art of rowing.
“There’s such balance to the sport,” said Curtis, who picked up rowing in his late fifties and rows almost daily during the summer. “There’s balance and strength and finesse, the sort of skills any athlete needs. And it really is for any age and ability.”
And, there truly is an art to the sport. Every introductory session begins with 10-15 minutes of dryland training to get familiar with the oars. It took me a second to figure out the over-under passing technique — your hands only cross once per stroke, when the oars are perfectly in line — but once I did, it felt natural.
Rowing is funny like that. Unlike sailing or SUPing or whitewater kayaking, the learning curve is relatively slim. It takes a long, long time to perfect technique and navigation, but shortly after leaving the dock, I fell into a rhythm. It was a type of reverie, really, like hitting a groove on the Nordic track, or even linking turns on a crisp, unexpected powder day.
The relaxing, repetitive motion of rowing is the truest appeal for folks like Stolen and Curtis. It’s hypnotic — that is, until Lake Dillon reared its windy head.
As soon as I found a rhythm, the glass-like surface began to ripple, then to churn, then to nearly bubble, or at least, that’s how it felt perched in a boat barely wider than my hips. I never felt unstable, especially when I let the oars rest, but it was difficult to navigate with so much chop. It kept pushing me in circles, first to the main marina dock, then to the far side of the peninsula, then to the wetland on the lakeshore.
The conditions momentarily broke my water-bound meditation, and after about 30 minutes on the water, I fought my way back to the dock. Stolen met me there and helped me return my boat to the racks. Before I left, Curtis offered a few pointers and invited me back for another session.
“Usually, Lake Dillon is a gem,” he said. “It’s one of the true gems of the county, and to be out there when the water is totally flat, it’s just incredible. You should come back.”
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