In the peaceful stillness of early morning, an eagle soars high above Emigrant Lake. The water’s calm surface is broken only by the rise and brief flight of a trout. Both eagle and trout are looking for their breakfast. The only sound heard is the splashing of oars piercing the otherwise still water, and the heavy breathing of energized rowers as they power their boat through a grueling workout.
Oh, and the sound of a coach urging on the rowers – all recreational participants who awoke long before sunrise to be here – through a megaphone while directing real-time adjustments to nearly every aspect of their rowing technique.
This is adult rowing at Rogue Rowing, Ashland’s award-winning rowing club.
But in the early morning cold, it may be hard to grasp rowing’s appeal. “It’s impossible to overstate the impact of outdoor recreation on our mental well-being,” says Perry Collonge, one of the coaches at Rogue Rowing. “Getting outdoors is highly correlated with positive mental health, and many people who like watersports enjoy the speed of rowing versus the relative slowness of canoeing and standup paddle boarding.”
“There’s a calmness and stillness in the morning that’s very Zen-like and brings a person into the present, and people fall in love with that.” – Perry Collonge, Rogue Rowing
Collonge discovered rowing in college and is now a novice adult coach, in addition to being a licensed family therapist. An avid runner at the time, he was recruited for rowing on campus and found it to be a perfect fit.
Rowing is an excellent activity for anyone who enjoys endurance-based exercise. “It’s a cardio-based, full-body workout that’s also low-impact,” says Collonge. “And, it’s good for those who want to be part of a team, with all members working together and being synchronized. There’s a real team-building experience.”
Rick Brown, executive director of Rogue Rowing, says that while competitive rowers are typically tall, lean and fit, there are plenty of recreational rowers who don’t fit that body type. “Rowing is something that can be done for a lifetime, and that can be started at any time,” says Brown. “It’s great for both the mind and the body.”
Brown, who also took up rowing in college, competed on Maine’s elite Bates College teams and coached at several prestigious programs before being named Rogue’s executive director in 2015.
While all ages can enjoy recreational rowing, it tends to appeal primarily to those who are empty nesters, because it requires a time commitment. Collonge says that while it’s popular among former runners who can no longer withstand running’s physical pounding, some strength is required to carry the equipment—boats and oars—from the boathouse to the water.
Once on the water, the practice begins
A typical early morning rowing practice can range in intensity from moderate to strenuous and lasts from 90 minutes to two hours. Upon arriving at each practice, participants first learn what aspect of rowing they’ll be focusing on, including boat and seat assignments. Coaches will discuss the objective of the day’s workout – it could be enhancing technical skills or focusing on building endurance. Practices usually involve some interval training, in which rowers speed up and slow down at different times throughout the workout.
Beginning rowers cover shorter distances, but Collonge says that participants can get in shape really quickly while learning and are soon covering 3-4 miles in a practice.
Ergometers – those stationary rowing machines seen at gyms – in the club’s boathouse are often used for warmups, and occasionally for full practices on particularly foul-weather days.
To compete, or not to compete
Rowing is popular as both a recreational and competitive activity. “Everybody comes in with different goals,” says Brown. “Some come for the competition, some for the fitness, and some for the social aspects.
Beginning rowers can start competing quickly. Brown says many are ready to race at the novice level – open to rowers with a maximum of two years’ experience – in just a couple of months. After two years of novice competition, racers are required to step up to age bracket competition, a move Brown says is common. “Many who initially had no intention of competing find out that they really enjoy the competition once they give it a try.”
“It’s interesting that as a coach, I can usually tell who is going to be good at rowing when I see them based on their physical build,” says Collonge. “But you can never tell whether someone is going to fall in love with rowing, and that’s really what makes someone want to be really great at it.”
Here’s why rowing is a great fitness option: It enables participants to commune with nature while getting a great full-body, low-impact workout.
“On Emigrant Lake you can see wildlife while being surrounded by rugged snow-capped mountains, so it’s very picturesque,” says Collonge. “There’s a calmness and stillness in the morning that’s very Zen-like and brings a person into the present, and people fall in love with that.”
Adds Brown, “Rowing is really like nothing else. The challenge of performing the proper technique takes tremendous mental focus and physical effort.”
There’s also a highly social aspect to rowing. Brown says that unlike many elite programs, rowing throughout Southern Oregon is much more of a community recreational activity that promises fun for everyone.
“We’re very inclusive,” says Brown. “And we try to allow everyone to experience their own journey.”