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Sculling on the Schuylkill, A New Adventure and Skill

Did you ever say to yourself, “You’ve got to be young to do that,” and you might have been twenty-something looking at kids jumping on a trampoline? I’ve made up my mind, I’m not going to tell myself I’m too old for a new adventure. Research confirms that learning a mentally demanding skill will improve our thinking processes, especially if we move out of our comfort zone.

A recent bicycle ride along Kelly Drive lingered in my memory as I thought back to that warm afternoon cycling along the river while watching the rowers slide along the water. So when I looked at the courses offered at Mt. Airy Learning Tree, one of the classes, Row the Schuylkill, enticed me to sign up.

How many of us have wondered what it must be like to glide effortlessly along the Schuylkill River in a rowing shell? This course will provide one of the vest vantage point in the city to watch seasons change in Philadelphia.

I tried to ignore my hesitation. I’ve had a hip replaced the other is, well, giving me some feedback now. Regardless, I signed up and returned to the gym for some exercise on the rowing machine.

The Schuylkill River flows through Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, one of the largest city parks in the country. The Philadelphia city scape sets a dramatic backdrop to the river with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Waterworks buildings and the famous boat house row.

Our launching dock is upriver from the architectural landmarks, and from that vantage, trees follow the river on both sides. Only the sound of traffic speeding along the Kelly Drive thoroughfare reminds me that we are in the city. The evening sun is setting and the water takes on the colors of the fading sky. In the distance, a brown stone bridge arches over the river.

IMG_8088Arriving early for my first class, I pause at the edge of the river. What surprises me most is the number of boats on the water–it’s actually crowded with sculls, dragon boats and the small motored vessels transporting coaches next to their teams. Students load and unload along the docks, lifting their sculls over their heads as they return to shore.

Examining the scull on the shoreline, I see an entirely different perspective than watching the boat in the river. The sculls are surprisingly long for just four rowers, the quad size. I thought to myself, how do we ever maneuver such a long craft, let alone sit in that narrow well? Paddlers use two oars in a scull, one in each hand. I thought this is going to take some coördination.


Whatever doubts I had about my first analysis, were soon dispelled by our instructor and coach, Brannon Johnson. With a decade of experience and as a four-year Division I collegiate athlete at the University of Texas, Brannon made beginners feel at ease with her lighthearted approach and detailed instructions. Although I have to say, I was very envious of the experienced group, who just got to hop into the scull and immediately paddle down river. Neubees had to learn a few skills and strategies first.

The first challenge: getting into the boat without falling into the water. Brannon demonstrates how to step in the boat with one foot (an actual diagram of a foot is imprinted there, it’s that important to step correctly.) I envisioned myself stepping on the boat while one foot on the shore and doing a split. I moved my leg over quickly. I noticed when the other rowers rocked the boat just a little, it seems that it could be easily tipped.

Sculling beginning

Want to go fast like the other guys!

Kado holds the tether so that prevents the novice from floating down steam out of control.

Kado holds the tether so that prevents the novice from floating down steam out of control.

On the second lesson, I had the first chance to row in the quad. After managing to get safely in the boat, Brannon patiently repeats the instructions: square and feather. You hold the oars squared when pulling in the water and feather (when face is flat) while returning the oar to the stroke position. What I had the most trouble with is not pressing down on the oars. Pressing down while stroking means the oar is not in the water but rather flying unhappily in the air. Even while feathering, the oar is supposed to stay close to the water. I have slight dyslexic tendencies, so the order of things can sometimes be difficult. I somehow confused the square with the feather and interchanged them from time to time. Yikes! Kado, one of the assistants provides extra guidance on the single scull.

Brannon reports that we all did very well as nobody landed in the water, which did happen during the one of the other classes. Does make a good photo opportunity, she noted.

Lesson three is the most fun so far as we actually row down the river. Rowing demands concentration. I wanted to admire the scenery and gaze at the water; but when I tried that, I found that I became out of sync with my fellow rowers. Sculling demands a cadence, matching the movements of the others. While bending the knees, the seat rolls forward and then rolls back while pulling the oar through the water. I had to remember to place the left hand over right, and since left and right are interchangeable due to my dyslexia, I had to keep my brain focused on that position. Scullers face backwards; in the larger crafts coxswains monitor the direction.

During class four, I return to the quad with two experienced rowers on board, making the skill more demanding as the cadence became faster and consistent. As in the last time, I focus all my concentration on the stroking, repeating to myself the steps as we glide up the river and under the bridge. Rosie, our coach, advises rowers on our techniques. At one point, I “catch a crab,” which means that an oar gets caught awkwardly in the water. Rosie gets me back on track and into the cadence again. My muscles feel the effect of the exercise, but I have graduated to higher skill level!

Lowering Quad

Lowering the Quad

The evening weather continues warm and beautiful for lesson five. Children load off and on paddle boats lined up along the dock. Under the guidance of Brannon, I practice stroking in the single scull.

During the last lesson, Brannon offers to take me out on the launch in the interest of promoting the sport on social media, since I mentioned that I was a blogger and would like to take video footage. Altogether we have two singles, one double and two quads out on the river, and we experience another beautiful evening on the water for our final session.

Check out on Facebook BLJ Community Rowing, “a program that is welcoming to all who want to try (or already love) the sport of rowing.” So if you have thought about learning a new skill, whether rowing or anything else, I’ll leave you with this quote:

Learning is like rowing upstream: not to advance is to drop back.
~ Chinese Proverb

Bicycling the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, Philadelphia

This past June my sister and I biked along the trail that runs parallel to the Schuylkill River, and we returned on a warm October afternoon to head in the opposite direction and try out the new addition to the path, the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk. Officials opened the new leg of the path just several weeks ago.


We bicycled past the view of Boathouse Row and around the back of the Philadelphia Art Museum and alongside of Waterworks before coming to the over-the-water extension. A viewing area above the walkway at Locust Street gave us a vantage point to take photographs up and down the river.  On a Tuesday afternoon, there wasn’t much pedestrian traffic so the four-block ride to the end at the South Street Bridge in West Philadelphia took about ten minutes. Along the trail the boardwalk widens with benches so we could pause and view the cityscapes.

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The walkway serves as a practical walking path from 30th Street Station to the Art Museum. Normally, I would take the subway from 30th Street and get off at 22nd Street, and then walk to the Art Museum. Now the walkway conveniently connects those locations while enjoying the beauty of the Schuylkill River.

Biking Along Kelly Drive, Philadelphia

Fairmount Water Works and Boat House Row


On a glorious afternoon in May, my sister and I hopped on the train into center city for a visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We had no specific plans, but the beautiful day beckoned us to stay outdoors. We walked the perimeter of the museum, pausing along the pathways to view the city and scenes along the river. The famous boathouse row, housing social and rowing clubs, has stood on this site for over a century. Each building has its own unique character, with different architectural styles and colors.


We strolled down to the buildings that make up the Fairmount Water Works. Just weeks before, the Schuylkill River flooded the area leaving the buildings and furnishings waterlogged. Officials had the spaces cleaned, but more work had to be done before visitors could come through again. Philadelphia built the Fairmount Water Works between 1812 and 1872, and finally ceased operation in 1909. The Classical Revival exterior, which hides the industrial inter-workings, has made this site a tourist attraction, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Schuylkill River Trail

As we walked along the river, we came across Wheel Fun Rentals, which had a good choice of bikes, including cruisers, city and road bikes. Being the perfect day for a bike ride, we picked up a map and headed north on the River Trail that runs parallel to the Schuylkill River. The entire trail, about 10 miles in length, follows Kelly drive for about four miles. Kelly Drive was named for John B. Kelly, Jr., a triple Olympic Gold Medal winner in rowing; he was the father of Grace Kelly.  The bike path then loops with the MLK Drive bike path, crossing over the Falls Bridge. Bikers can also ride all the way to the Manayunk tow path and to Valley Forge.


Biking along the river was exhilarating as every scene that unfolded in front of us presented a view that I had not appreciated when driving past the river. We stopped and admired the gardens and statues. Just beyond the West Girard Bridge, a brown stone railroad bridge stretched across the river, its arches framing the distant landscape.


A bit of irony about the statue of John Kelly resting on a bed of bricks in the photograph above: in 1920 Kelly applied to race in the prestigious Diamond Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta but authorities rejected his application because he was a bricklayer by trade, and the regulations at that time deemed that anyone who had been employed as laborer, artisan or mechanic could not be considered “amateur.”

The trail was well-maintained and flat, but we had to be careful negotiating around others on the path, which was busy with strolling families, runners and other bikers. The river supported traffic from the rowers and a few motor boats. Maps located the many sculptures in Fairmount Park. We stopped often along the way to take pictures or reflect on the view.

We hope to return to the trail to bike the entire loop and perhaps kayak to Bartram Gardens.



Manayunk’s First Annual Winter Solstice

Celtic Connection

Years ago I happened to be in Ireland during the celebration of the Summer Solstice, which was truly a magical experienceWinter_solstice as folks lit bonfires on beaches and hillsides in every town in the countryside. This year, just a day after my birthday on Saturday, December 21, the first day of winter, was time to reconnect to my Celtic roots. This event in Manayunk would be my first celebration of the Winter Solstice and held in a nearby neighborhood in Philadelphia. Fire plays an important role in the Winter Solstice, too. The Druids believed that at this time of year the sun stood still for twelve days, starting the tradition of burning the Yule log to banish evil spirits and preserve light during the darkest days of the year.

Manayunk (pronouced man-ee-yunk)

The Lenape Indians, the first settlers in the Philadelphia region, named the area, translated means “place to drink.” Located in the northwestern section of Philadelphia, the town lies on the banks of the Schuylkill River. Canal View Park on Main Street stands in recognition of the first canal started in the United States and was the scene for the solstice celebration. A tow path follows the canal. Victorian storefronts and mill buildings line Main Street where eclectic shops and a variety of restaurants offer many opportunities to enjoy holiday shopping and eating. Santa made several appearances, extending greetings to all who strolled along the Main Street. The Mummers added to the merry mood playing holiday favorites.

Birds of Prey

Before the winter solstice events, Damien Ruffner from the Schuylkill Center gave an informative lecture and presentation on local birds of prey, including a Red-Tailed Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, and Barn Owl. Having the chance to view and photograph each raptor up close was amazing.

Why does it seem as if the birds are actually listening to the lecturer?

Drums, Torches and Fires Celebrate the Return of Light 

As the torches along the canal were lit and the wood pilings on the oil drum set ablaze, the ceremonious drum circle, a Native American tradition, began the rhythmic pounding. The audience was encouraged to make affirmations on wishing sticks, which were added to the bonfires. For 6,000 years our ancestors have celebrated the return of lighter days with friends and family to honor earth’s seasonal rhythm. Feeling connected to family and community, including all the creatures that share our planet, I thoroughly enjoyed the Winter Solstice celebration of harmony with nature and the ancients.

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