Rowing on the Rise: Competitive Rowing Takes Off on Lake Leelanau

Northern Michigan had some of the best rowing water in the nation, but rowers and boats were nowhere to be seen. Erik Zehender set out to change that.

This article is featured in the July 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. 
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This is Mother’s Day.

At 8:15 a.m., nine northern women, from 20-something to 50-something, most of whom have left families sleeping at home, are walking in the pale morning light to the shore at Lake Leelanau’s Fountain Point Resort. The thermometer reads 46 degrees. The grass is drenched in cold dew. The Mother’s Day fashion show includes such pieces as a gray zip-up hoodie, Detroit Tiger ball-cap (ponytail out the back), orange GoreTex jacket, purple workout leggings, red fleece vest, gray bandana, another orange GoreTex jacket, turquoise print headwrap, breathable layers protruding beneath other breathable layers. There’s only the barest evidence of hair-combing.

In short, the women are dressed not to brunch, but to work, to workout, because they are here to propel a boat. To become, in essence, a motor. They’re here to achieve flawless (in theory) synchronicity in the goal of rowing a needle-narrow 60-foot-long shell down the run of Lake Leelanau. And they’ll do that using only their legs and backs and arms. And they’ll do it hard enough and long enough that, quite possibly, some will feel like throwing up. Yes, this is Mother’s Day—badass Mother’s Day.

The nine women gather in a circle for a few minutes with Erik Zehender—a coach and founder of Fountain Point’s rowing club—to discuss the practice ahead. Then they walk to the boat rack a few feet away and take positions along an “eight.” “Eight” refers to a boat with eight rowers and a coxswain, the person who calls the pace, a human metronome.

“Boats on shoulders,” commands Zehender. The women hoist the boat to their shoulders and pause. “Walk it out! Be careful of the oars!” says Zehender, referring to the dozens of 12-foot, 4-inch oars that are neatly arrayed on the lawn. The women carefully step toward the dock. “Eyes open! Pay attention!” Erik says. The process is cautiously and meticulously orchestrated not just because the team doesn’t want to conk somebody with a boat, but also because the boats are carbon fiber, somewhat fragile and when new can cost up to $40,000 apiece.

They now hoist the boat above their heads and walk slowly onto the dock. “Boat to waist,” shouts the coach. “Boat to water.” The women delicately lower the boat to bob on the H2O. And now they grab oars from the lawn, pop them into oarlocks, kick shoes off and line them in pairs where dock meets grass. They slide gingerly into their rowing seats—the boat is tippy. And this next moment is subtle, but important for the women. Each puts a hand on the dock, fingertips, actually, and gently, slowly, pushes the boat along to the open water. Nine sets of fingertips on the dock, now eight, now seven, now six, now five … and finally the last fingertips on the dock. And now none. The boat drifts for a few moments on the glassy morning water, the oars hovering, at rest.

“When my hand leaves the dock, I feel the world fall away,” says Terri Lutes, the woman with the turquoise headwrap who’s now in her second season of rowing. “This is therapy for me.”

Lake Leelanau runs a slender 17 miles north to south, and rising like a rampart along much of the west side is a ridge that blunts prevailing winds blowing in off Lake Michigan nearby. Technically the lake is a dam backwater, first formed when the original Leland dam was built in 1854, raising the levels of three lakes and the connecting streams, but the water’s enduring narrowness keeps it feeling ever poised between life as a river and life as a lake.

The long reach of protected, still, clean water could not be better for rowing crews and their sleek and elegant boats—craft that echo the very shape of the lake. So imagine what it was like for Erik Zehender. He grew up at Fountain Point and discovered rowing as a sophomore at Northwestern University, where he formed enduring memories of rowing in morning light up the Chicago River, into the Loop and beyond to the industrial guts of the city. One summer he brought three teammates up to work at Fountain Point, and they’d row Lake Leelanau in their spare time. He spent 17 years working off and on in London and in Europe, where he’d see rowing teams plying nearly every river.

When Zehender moved back to Lake Leelanau in 2009 to help run Fountain Point, which his family has owned since 1936, it was inevitable he’d want to put boats and rowers on the water—a whole fleet of them if he could, maybe multiple fleets. He could never get over the fact that Northern Michigan, and Lake Leelanau in particular, had some of the best freshwater rowing in America, yet rowing was absent.

His desire extended far beyond the notion of wanting his neighbors to get a good workout. Zehender figures rowing landed him every job he ever held, developed his leadership experience, enriched his college years, built his career, keeps him in shape, maintains his confidence, taught him to work with other people. “Once you learn those things in one area of life, you can apply those mechanics to other parts of your life,” he says.

In 2010, Zehender found a couple of other people—Timm Sahs and Melissa Fournier—who were also interested in bringing rowing to Leelanau, and they started discussing possibilities. Then one night, Zehender was trolling Row2K.com, basically a CraigsList for the rowing world, and he saw a small but complete set of boats being sold by a rowing club at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “There were three 8’s, two 4’s, two pairs, a single, and oars and a trailer.” They weren’t the best boats in the world, but they could get the club started, and the price was way below what they’d have cost new.

Zehender and Fournier drove to Missouri and inspected the boats. They were strapped to a trailer under a pavilion at a defunct amusement park. “It was kind of surreal,” Zehender says. Fountain Point bought the boats and the two started to trailer them home when towering black clouds from a prairie storm rolled in, and hail started pinging off the carbon-fiber hulls. “Every boat we owned was on that trailer,” Zehender says. They sought refuge under an overpass for two hours waiting for the storm to let up. The good news: no damage.

They formed a nonprofit rowing club, Lake Leelanau Rowing Club, and lined up insurance through a national rowing association (“Fountain Point’s insurance said no way are we insuring this,” Zehender says.) And they started rowing in spring of 2011 with high school kids from Leland schools.

But a month later, Mother Nature took a second swipe at the nascent club’s boats. A freak windstorm blew through Fountain Point. The boats were sitting on blocks, not tied down, and the gale “just picked them up and tossed them,” Zehender says. Fractures spidered through the hulls. They were wrecked, unusable. Zehender was able to salvage just one eight, and with some repair it was back on the water. One boat, however, does not make a rowing club.“But something beautiful happened after the storm,” Zehender says. Upon hearing of the boat disaster, the Grand Rapids Rowing Association gave an eight to the nonprofit club. “It was an incredibly generous gesture,” Zehender says. Then Forest Hills Eastern High School made the same generous gesture. Then the Grand Valley State University’s head rowing coach loaned his spare boats to the nonprofit. “So people from Grand Rapids came out of nowhere to keep us rowing.”

“But something beautiful happened after the storm,” Zehender says. Upon hearing of the boat disaster, the Grand Rapids Rowing Association gave an eight to the nonprofit club. “It was an incredibly generous gesture,” Zehender says. Then Forest Hills Eastern High School made the same generous gesture. Then the Grand Valley State University’s head rowing coach loaned his spare boats to the nonprofit. “So people from Grand Rapids came out of nowhere to keep us rowing.”

Zehender desperately wanted to build momentum with high school rowers, and figured he would see enthusiasm surge when the club achieved huge and early success with scholarships. In 2013, a student rower was recruited with a scholarship to Michigan State University, another student walked on at Michigan State and received a scholarship, and a third student landed a spot on the Grand Valley team. The results are nearly unheard of in any sport: a tiny, brand new club placing three students into major university programs. He also figured that news of Michigan State University and other Division One university teams practicing at Fountain Point would also help.

So Zehender was frustrated when little momentum grew among high schools. “Coaches were telling kids that rowing wasn’t a real sport,” he says. Small schools said they could not get enough kids to man the teams they already had. And schools were not adding rowing to their official sports team choices. But eventually, thanks to Zehender’s polite persistence and a new athletic director at Traverse City West Senior High—somebody who grew up on Lake Leelanau and who knew the students who received the rowing scholarships—the high schools came on board. The evidence is clear in spring 2017, as the Fountain Point lawn teems with up to 40 high school rowers five days a week, and as two more of the club’s rowers were recruited to division 1 schools: University of Kansas and University of Louisville.The adult program has had its ups and downs as well, but is also now solid. At the end of 2015, Zehender felt the spirit on the adult side was so lacking that he seriously considered shutting it down and focusing only on the kids. He found that if people were just randomly assigned to boats, that is, not with friends, the team never quite gels and people fade away. “If you aren’t committed to the people in the boat, you aren’t committed to the sport,” he says. Now he requires rowers to come with an entire team; like when you sign up for a bowling league and bring your friends. The idea worked, and in spring of 2017 on any given weekday evening, 30-some adult rowers show up, too.

Elizabeth Roth, one of Terri Lutes’s 50-something crewmates, signed up for Fountain Point’s Learn to Row class in spring of 2016 after seeing an invitation to do so from a friend on Facebook. “I fell in love with it immediately,” she says. For her, the experience connected at several points. She likes to compete—“This feeds that beast,” she says. “Plus, this doesn’t hurt.” Roth has legacy injuries from horseback riding that left her back fragile, her knee tendons “ready to go,” as she says. “I was worried about that, but this feels more like rehab, like they are getting stronger.”

Beyond that, it’s the psychological piece of the team bonding that also inspires Roth. She loves the support of the other women in the boat, but also the way she has a deep responsibility back to them. “The women all come to the boat with their own baggage,” Roth says. “Whether it’s insecurity or pride or fear or whatever, and when you get those moments when all that baggage is left behind and everything comes together, it is amazing.” Those moments are few and far between early on, as rowers learn the basics of the stroke and working as a team. One person can screw up and stop the whole boat. “And there’s all these little things, like maybe your coat gets caught in the seat runner and everybody has to stop.” That’s where the forgive part of team comes in. “But when that boat starts to fly,” she says, “it’s really something.”

Previous to rowing, Lindy Kellogg—also on the boat with Roth and Lutes—had only participated in solitary sports, like running and cross-country skiing. “For me, coming to that group mindset is new and really great,” she says. The powerful feeling of team, of such intense connectedness, “is hard to put into words,” she says. There’s encouragement to push boundaries: “We’ve seen days of 35 degrees and whitecaps, and being on a team, you are more willing to go out there and suck it up.” And there’s that support that Roth also mentioned. In the broader, more disconnected world, Kellogg says, “we’re less forgiving of each other, but on the boat, we are all forgiving of each other.”

It’s October 30, 2016, and something like a gypsy camp of rowing teams has exploded across the lawn of Fountain Point resort. The event is the end of season regatta that Zehender launched in 2011 as part of his drive to put Fountain Point on the nation’s rowing club map. Boats—a hundred or more—from 12 teams are arranged in rows in the center of the lawn. Around the perimeter, canopies, standing tent pole to tent pole, shelter teams from around the Midwest waiting for their turns to row. High schoolers huddle in blankets around campfires, the smoke hovering above the rows of boats. A group of boys plays euchre to kill time. Hundreds of rowers and their families wander around, sit bundled up on the beach to watch the races.

Over at the dock, there’s a constant bustle. Fresh from their race, an eight team rows up on the north side of the dock. They carry the oars to shore raised like team flags. On the other side of the dock, another eight team lowers their boat to the water to launch. To the south, across the water, five eights are spaced out, rowing slowly to the start line.

Straight west across the lake, yet another team races north in the wind-shadow of that big ridge—today colored in autumn golds of aspen and the deep green of conifer, also reflecting in the water. The team looks small from this shore, but even so, you can tell they are in synch, rowing hard, all seemingly part of one organism, like a giant water bug propelling its sleek body down the lake. Soon they finish and row slowly back to Fountain Point. Their fans are waiting. They clap for the team. They cheer for them. The boat nestles to the dock.

Here on land, Erik Zehender is nowhere to be seen. He’s out on the water, patrolling the race in a motorboat near the final approach to the finish line. He’s yelling things like, “Last 200! You’re almost there! You guys look great!” into a megaphone. He’s feeling joy, the joy a man feels when he sees his vision come to life.

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse Magazine. [email protected] | Erik Olsen is an active lifestyle, commercial and editorial photographer with a Michigan influence. Find more at ErikOlsenPhoto.com.


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