June 5, 2000
By Gregory S. Walker
Twilight in the Snake River Canyon is fast fading. A gentle breeze chills the air, but does not disturb the glassy surface of the river. The dramatic walls of the canyon reflect on the water in remarkably subtle hues of green, blue, purple, red, yellow and orange. Venus, the evening star, has risen and the nearly-full moon hovers on the horizon in spectacular anticipation of the setting sun.
Atop the canyon, a coyote awakes from its afternoon nap and wails its lonesome greeting to the rising moon. High above the water, a red-tailed hawk floats almost motionless as it rides the wind currents, surveying the shoreline for one last meal before the twilight gives way to the shadows. The hawk tenses as its magnificent eyes spy the shape of a field mouse approaching the water to get a drink.
The hawk readies its wings to dive, about to extend its talons, but a creature that looks like an enormous eight-legged water bug skims across the river's surface and chases the mouse back to its burrow. The hawk has seen this creature before. The aerial assassin has never been threatened by the creature, but still it is too big to challenge.
On the water's surface, the creature is, of course, a lonely shell of eight rowers and one coxswain from the Washington State women's rowing team. Oblivious to the fact that they have interrupted the hawk's dinner plans, the cox calls out the stroke count as the rowers' oars puncture the surface of the water with the deftness of a kingfisher spearing a young Chinook for its evening supper.
Getting eight people to do the same thing at the same time is extremely difficult, especially in a fiberglass shell where eight of the nine people on board are sitting backward. An oar entering the water a fraction of a second after the other seven upsets the boat's synchronicity. Sitting in the boat, senior Liz Snook and junior Amy Armstrong know this. The sun is now gone and the remaining light beats a hasty retreat up the walls of the canyon. The darkness renders their eyesight virtually useless, heightening the rowers' other senses. They can hear when an oar strikes the water off beat and feel when the balance of the boat shifts a matter of inches from port to starboard.
Finally, all eight rowers strike the water simultaneously. At first just once, but then again and again. The boat is lifted out of the water and skates for several hundred meters like a human-powered hydrofoil. Snook and Armstrong know it -- they feel it. This is the Zen-like condition for which all rowers strive.
"It feels like you're floating on top of the water," Snook said. "It's very hard to describe to someone who hasn't rowed before, but if it looks like we're moving gracefully and without any effort, then we're doing what we're supposed to. That's when we're working our hardest and moving together as a team."
Practice ends as the moon rises above the canyon's rim. Rowing back to the dock, located at Wawawai Landing, which is upstream of Lower Granite Dam and about 20 miles southwest of Pullman, Snook says she often finds herself taken aback by her physical surroundings.
It is unique to train on a clean, calm river alongside of salmon, hawks, coyotes and in extremely rare cases, a real-live mountain lion whose name is not Butch. Especially considering that most established rowing programs compete in smog-choked urban waterways like the Montlake Cut and Hudson River or in mercurial tidewaters like the Chesapeake and San Diego bays.
"I think it's the most breathtaking place we compete," Armstrong said. "Others are on rather urban areas or in the middle of a lake and here we are in this huge, beautiful canyon. It's just astounding sometimes."
The pastoral setting of the Cougars' competition and practice site is just one of many unconventional facts about the WSU rowing team.
They are not coffee-drinking caffeine fiends who rise at 4:30 a.m. for a pre-dawn row on mist-covered lakes. They attend classes at the same times as the rest of WSU's 20,000 students and then practice in the afternoons, when the surface of the Snake River is at its smoothest.
Though many rowed before coming to WSU, most did not grow up in the rich rowing tradition enjoyed by members of prestigious East Coast teams such as Brown, Princeton, Radcliffe and Yale.
The Cougars are about as pretentious as the farm girl-next-door and that's exactly what many members of the WSU rowing team are. Snook grew up on a Colville farm with horses and chickens. She played basketball and soccer and ran track. She has crimson and gray in her blood. In fact, her grandparents, Joyce and Dean Snook graduated exactly 50 years ago to the day that Snook graduated from WSU earlier this May. Both parents are Cougars and little brother Matt will be a freshman in Pullman next year. But her rowing experience prior to WSU was limited to a family canoeing trip to British Columbia.
"In high school, I never thought I would be rowing," Snook said. "After I blew out my knee my senior year, I wanted to find a sport I could still do and I thought about intramurals and some club sports. My dad told me that the rowing team was looking for walk-ons, so I gave it a try.
"I didn't know what I was doing and it was a little intimidating at first, but I wasn't alone. The coaches were really patient with us. After a while, it becomes addictive. It's the ultimate team sport."
People still rarely guess correctly in what sport the undersized former walk-on competes. "I get soccer and swimming a lot," Snook said. "Once, someone even asked if I was a cheerleader."
Armstrong comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. She is nearly six-feet tall with broad shoulders and strong legs. Given the chance, she might make a half-decent linebacker. She is often asked what position she plays on the basketball team. No one mistakes her for a soccer player, though someone once asked if she was a gymnast. "I still laugh at that one," Armstrong commented. "I mean look at me. I'm real flexible."
The Canadian grew up on the shores of Victoria Harbour on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Among the half dozen sports she played, she rowed for both a club team and her high school in the provincial capitol and was recruited by WSU coach Tammy Crawford. While the difference between rowing in Victoria and then on the Snake was an easy transition for Armstrong, the difference between the city and the wheat fields of the Palouse left her feeling like a fish out of water.
"When I visited on my recruiting trip, the first day I freaked out," Armstrong said. "What am I getting into? But by the end of the second day, I really liked it. I thought it was a place I could handle." Armstrong handled it as well as anyone ever has at WSU -- becoming the first rower to ever earn a seat in the Cougars' varsity boat as a true freshman.
The beauty of WSU rowing is that just about anyone with a dream and determination has a chance in this sport. A neophyte rower/farm girl and a transplanted Canadian can achieve rowing Zen. Just ask Armstrong and Snook. As the animals of the Snake River Canyon silently observe with mystified curiosity, they row alongside each other every day during practice as members of the Cougars' Varsity eight boat.
High above the Snake, the hawk has lost sight of its mousy prey. The giant water creature has frightened away all the local vermin for the time being. The hawk will go hungry tonight. But in twilight's red glare, the hawk espies something about the creature that it has not seen before. With its remarkable vision, the red-tail detects all eight legs striking the water simultaneously as the creature eases into a graceful glide that even a hawk on the wind can appreciate.