By Jenny Neyman
Starting out in rowing takes drive for anyone. Marti Pepper and daughter, Jacque, were no different.
When they joined the Alaska Midnight Sun Rowing Association at the beginning of the summer, they suffered through the spaghetti arms, burning thighs and sore core muscles that come from the sneakily full-body workout. They got confused by the unfamiliar and seemingly unending terminology, and fumbled through learning how to carry, launch, retrieve and even fix the fancy boats.
They wrapped their heads around the disorientation of facing one direction yet moving the other, and swallowed the panic of feeling the boat list or the oar jerking parallel to the boat (called “catching a crab”). And they mustered the dedication it takes to make it to practice all summer at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. Saturday.
For the Peppers, there was an added, literal element of drive: They live in Nikiski, and rowing practice is on Mackey Lake in Soldotna. That means a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call, all summer long.
“It takes a 45-minute drive,” Marti Pepper said.
“Well, depends if we’re late or not,” Jacque added.
“Ssshh, it’s always 45 minutes,” Marti said.
“Sleep got a little bit missed,” Jacque said.
The early morning meeting time was the first and largest hurdle to overcome for the Peppers. Marti had a co-worker years ago who rowed, and made it sound so fun Marti wanted to try it, if it weren’t for the time.
“I said, ‘There’s no way I could ever do that,’” Marti said. “Then Vickie Tinker (club president) said, ‘Just try it. Once you get out on the water, you’ll get over the morning.’”
She agreed to give it a try, her skepticism keeping her company that first long drive in to Soldotna. Sure, rowing sounds fun, she loves the water and she was looking for a way to get in shape. But to get up at 4:30 a.m. all summer? Rowing would have to rock her world to keep her going.
“Initially, I did it for the exercise, but what I ended up getting out of it is the people who are involved are just a really good group of people,” Marti said. “It’s so calming. You can’t think of anything else when you’re rowing. It really takes a lot of concentration. And there’s really no talking in the boat. You hear the water rushing by, so that was exciting, too.”
Pepper said she didn’t anticipate how beautiful the lake would be at that time of the morning, when the light is still faint and fragile, mist rises to greet the day, and the only other creatures, aside from the occasional floatplane, are loons and ducks, which look at you like you’re crazy, and bald eagles swooping down to dip out a fish for breakfast.
There was only one thing missing, Pepper decided. It would be so great if her daughter could share this with her.
Her teenage daughter. Who would have to agree to get up at 4:30 a.m. Day after day. In the summer.
“To have her enjoy something I enjoy is way cool,” Pepper said.
Yeah, not so cool, Jacque decided at first.
“She started asking me and I kept saying saying, ‘No,’ because of the early morning,” Jacque said.
Eventually, Jacque caved in to her mom’s enthusiasm, and scheduling. Pepper works in town, and told Jacque she wouldn’t be making two trips in the morning, so if she wanted a ride to town, the taxi was leaving a little after 5 a.m.
Despite the missed sleep, it didn’t take Jacque long to be as hooked as her mom.
“I grew up on the water and I love it. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s fun,” she said.
A junior in high school, Jacque hasn’t found much of a home in school sports. She religiously watches Nikiski Bulldogs volleyball, has played soccer and loves dance, but rowing captured her interest and devotion to a measure beyond what traditional school sports have. In a way, it still fits in with the activities she already enjoys. One of her fellow rowers helped her with her stroke timing by telling her to keep the counts of a waltz in her head.
“It’s nice being able to relate something I loved to something new,” Jacque said. “I was surprised, though. I saw them rowing and thought, ‘That looks easy.’ They throw you in the boat and I have no idea what I’m doing. My legs burned afterwards. It was definitely an eye-opener.”
The rowing association brings a crew coach in at the beginning of each season to help novice rowers get their feet wet and experienced rowers hone their technique. The Peppers said this year’s coach was the best — although, admittedly, the only — coach they’d ever seen, and the other rowers were welcoming, encouraging and — thank goodness — patient.
“Everyone is so understanding and tolerant,” Pepper said. “If you really hose a stroke, they just say, ‘OK, get back in and get the next one perfect,’ so it’s really nice how they work as a team. And you have to give it your all. You have to keep the same pace as everyone in the boat.”
“If you get behind, your oar is going to hit everybody else’s and make a big crash, and that’s a bad thing,” Jacque said. “Then you get behind and the boat curves to that side.”
Keeping up wasn’t Jacque’s challenge. For her, it was tamping down her need for speed long enough to learn proper technique.
“That was difficult because I did not want to go slow. That was the hardest thing about rowing was slowing it down and getting the form right,” she said.
On June 11, a mere 10 rowing sessions in for Jacque, and less than a month in for Pepper, the Head of the Kenai Regatta on Kenai Lake in Cooper Landing came up.
The Peppers raced in a 5,000-meter, sweep rowing eights race (eight rowers in a boat with one oar each, plus a coxswain), and won it.
“That pretty much gets you hooked,” Jacque said.
“She has no fear,” Pepper said, noting Jacque probably didn’t inherit that trait from her. “I caught a crab in that first race in Cooper Landing and it scared the beheevees out of me.”
Jacque was ready for more. She had to wait until the end of the summer, Sept. 12, for the Moose Nugget Regatta in Wasilla. The Peppers were in a mixed quad sculling race (four people, mixed men and women, with two oars each), with Donny Joachim and Deanne Pokryfki, of Soldotna, and won. Then Jacque got thrown into a master’s boat to fill an empty slot. She wasn’t completely fearless at that point.
“I think I’ve raced the least out of all those people, then I had jeans on, and you never row in jeans because they restrict your movement,” Jacque said. “They rowed at 37 strokes per minute, and the fastest I’d ever gone was 28. The scariest moment of the entire thing was paddling out to the start line. But I think we got up to 38. And we ended up getting second place. That was cool.”
That was the last row of the season for the Peppers, although the memories of their summer mornings are still as vivid as cold lake spray.
“You miss it because it’s such a part of your everyday planning,” Pepper said. “Just to be out on the water every day, getting this fun activity, not, ‘I have to go work out at the gym.’ I don’t know what I’m going to do to stay in shape for rowing.”
Jacque is likewise looking forward to next summer, and beyond. Her new requirement in her college search is that they have a rowing team. Pepper is still driving around with her rowing clothes in the car, and said she can’t wait until next summer.
“What other things can you do that I would enjoy so much and she would enjoy so much, and challenges us so much, and challenges us in different ways?” Pepper said. “Well, I’m challenged in all ways,” she amended.
“I learned to be quiet,” Jacque added. “Which was a little bit of a challenge.”