Crewing for TIME at ’84 Olympics

I wasn’t a kayaker in 1984. I had never sat in a kayak, never seen a kayak (except on TV), and didn’t know the first thing about paddling one. It wasn’t until I moved to the Pacific Northwest that I became a passionate paddler.

Likewise for rowing. Growing up in the Midwest, rowing just wasn’t the sport that it was on the coasts even though my youngest brother was on a crew team for Washburn University which had and still does have a respectable rowing team.  I never had the opportunity to watch a race firsthand.

Canoeing was something I may have tried once or twice as a kid on a lake with my Girl Scout troop or vacationing with my family somewhere. But I have little memory of it so the experience must not have been impressive.

The Olympic venue at Lake Casitas was a colorful place as you can see here in this photo of me walking through one of the main entrances.
The Olympic venue at Lake Casitas was a colorful place as you can see here in this photo of me walking through one of the main entrances.

Given my extensive background in each of these sports, I seemed the natural choice to be the reporter to cover those events for TIME Magazine when the 1984 Olympics came to Los Angeles. Once again, my home location then, on the north side of the San Fernando Valley, proved to be to my advantage. To me, this was plum assignment. I had to drive every day during the competition up to the Ojai Valley, about 90 minutes north, to Lake Casitas Lake where the kayaking, rowing and canoeing events were staged. The drive was relatively traffic free as I whizzed up the north side of the Valley and cut across to the 101 freeway to head on up towards Santa Barbara and Ojai.

Traffic during the ’84 Olympics was one of the big fear factors.  People were urged to work from home, to stagger their work hours if they had to go into the office, to take the time off and go to the Olympics in order to help minimize clogged freeways. In fact, many Angelenos left town, renting out their homes to Olympic ticket holders and cashing in on the demand for housing. So the dreaded deadlock on the freeways and city streets never materialized.  In fact, it was some of the fastest-flowing traffic that I could remember in all the years that I lived in that car-loving city.

Men compete in the kayak singles on Lake Casitas. The venue was like a 'mini-resort' to the athletes.
Men compete in the kayak singles on Lake Casitas. The venue was like a ‘mini-resort’ to the athletes.

The athletes competing in the Lake Casitas events were located in the Olympic Village in Santa Barbara. Initially, many of the teams complained that the distance between the Village and their venue was too far. But those concerns too soon vanished as people settled in and began to enjoy both the venue and the trip there.

As I wrote for TIME: “The site itself inspired festivity. Bright, Olympic pink roadside banners mark the two-lane highway as spectators near the north short venue. The spectator viewing area is bursting with vivid color. More than 31,000 annuals, marigold and petunias were trucked in and planted along with several sycamore and alder trees to create park-like setting. Spectators spread their blankets on a grassy knoll where they have apanoramic view of the 2,700 acre lake.”

The Swedish women's team give each other a big hug on the podium after receiving their gold medal for the 500 meter kayak doubles. Canada took silver and West Germany the bronze.
The Swedish women’s team give each other a big hug on the podium after receiving their gold medal for the 500 meter kayak doubles. Canada took silver and West Germany the bronze.

To the athletes, it was, as then Olympic rowing commissioner Barry Berkus put it: “almost like a resort.”  Because their primary quarters was located 28 miles away, a mini-village was created at the sight that overlooked the lake complete with a pool built especially for them.

The big names on the U.S. rowing team that everyone was pinning medal hopes upon were John Bigelow from Seattle. Bigelow’s chance for a medal chances was washed away by Finland’s powerful Pertti Karppinen but Brad Lewis from Los Angeles and his partner, Paul Enquist, also of Seattle, considered ‘dark horses’ surprised many by taking the gold in their doubles race. All three rowers figure prominently in journalist and author David Halberstam‘s masterful book about the ’84 men’s eight row team, “The Amateurs: the Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal.”   I recently read Halberstam’s book, right after having finished another good book about the sport, “The Boys in the Boat,” by Daniel James Brown. Both are excellent books, set in different time periods (Brown’s takes place before and up to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin) and detailing the drama behind the dream.

A member of the Australian women's coxed four rowing team shows off her bronze medal to an admirer.
A member of the Australian women’s coxed four rowing team shows off her bronze medal to an admirer.

But it was the women’s eight who  thrilled the crowd by taking the first gold medal in for the U.S. in that event. Champagne flowed. Fans cheered. Autographs were signed. As I overheard one observer say:  “How things have changed in rowing. They’re getting autographs. It used to be lucky to get anyone to come.”

Olympic team members signed autographs for the fans.
Olympic team members signed autographs for the fans.

Indeed, the sport of rowing has grown even more popular. In 1981-82, only 43 NCAA schools had women’s rowing teams. Today, that number has more than tripled to 143, including Western Washington University in Bellingham, where I live. Over the years, I’m proud to say that several members of the women’s Division II championship crew teams have worked with me as my studio assistant.

As for the ’84 Olympic teams, the U.S. took home eight medals tying with Romania, one of the only Eastern bloc countries to participate in those Summer Games.  In fact, the Romanians took home more gold medals in rowing than any other country. They also cleaned up collecting ‘gold’ onshore from spectators as they sold Romanian t-shirts and model wooden shells to earn money to buy and take back with them stereo sound components.

The Romanian crew team sold miniature wooden sculls to spectators to earn money for stereo equipment.
The Romanian crew team sold miniature wooden sculls to spectators to earn money for stereo equipment.

Lake Casitas is again vying for to be the venue for the Olympics in 2024 if Los Angeles is selected in what would be the 40th year reunion of the Olympic Games. If it’s successful, I might see you there!



An Oystercatcher Family Catches My Eye

One of the joys of living where I do is being so close to the water. After a long day at work or on the weekend I can paddle in my kayak and escape the distractions of cell phones, computers, televisions, radios and anything else that competes for my attention on shore.  It restores me–if the water’s not too rough–and I emerge ready to take on the world again.  Sitting on top of the water puts me at eye-level with the nature that surrounds me. Often, those surroundings bring pleasant surprises too.

A month ago, for instance, I took an evening paddle with my sister-in-law, who was visiting, to a favorite place where I take visitors who aren’t experienced kayakers. It’s a sheltered bay where the water tends to be warmer and shallower, especially at low tide and it’s just a short paddle out to an island designated as a wildlife and bird preserve.

We had just reached the rock separated from the island at high tide but adjoined by a sandbar during low tide, when I spotted them.  Actually, I didn’t see them at first.  First I saw two sea gulls perched on the rock’s highest point, proudly sitting on a nest. Then, coming round to the rock’s southern face, I came upon the other birds. “You’re in for a treat,” I told my sister-in-law coming up behind me. “There are a couple of oystercatchers here.”

An oystercatcher looks almost comical with its orange beak and bright orange ringed eye.
An oystercatcher looks almost comical with its orange beak and bright orange ringed eye.

Indeed, sitting on a scraggly rocky shelf above the water’s edge, were a pair of the jet black and long, narrow orange-billed birds known commonly as oystercatchers. They are almost comical in appearance with that orange ring around their eyes. These shorebirds, about the size of a crow, are exciting because only an estimated 400 of them exist in Washington state.  In fact, the Northern Pacific Coast Regional Shorebird Management Plan has identified the Black Oystercatcher as a regional species “of high concern.”  This pair, I suspected, were probably the same couple I have seen in recent summers when paddling that bay because not only do these birds tend to mate for the long-term but they also return to the same territory year after year.

Then I discovered the surprise, three surprises to be exact.  Huddled up against the rock wall were three small fluffy grayish offspring. They barely resembled their parents except for their spindly legs and long beak . In the  many years that I had been paddling around this island, I never had seen oystercatcher chicks and here, now, was a complete family!

The oystercatcher parent keeps a close eye on the chick exploring on the water's edge.
The oystercatcher parent keeps a close eye on the chick exploring on the water’s edge.

My boat drifted quietly towards the rock but floated at a respectable distance so as not to frighten the birds or intrude on their nesting territory. The parents eyed me suspiciously. Satisfied that I had no aggressive intentions, they relaxed a bit. The chicks darted in and out between them, undaunted by my presence. Their beaks were not yet as brightly colored as their parents, nor were their legs. I bobbed up and down in the water watching quietly. After a long while, I backed off slipping my paddle into the water as silently as I could so as not to alarm them with my departure. The family seemed to content to let me leave.

Two weeks later, I paddled back out to the same spot to check on the young birds. They had relocated from their home on the rock over to the main island. I guessed that they had walked across at low tide as the chicks couldn’t yet fly. The family found a comfy new spot on the south side, where there was plenty of space for the five of them to move freely about. The chicks were now quite a bit larger from when I first met them.

Two of the family's chicks stroll down towards the water. They don't yet have the bright beaks nor the ability to fly.
Two of the family’s chicks stroll down towards the water. They don’t yet have the bright beaks nor the ability to fly.

Two were scrambling and playing down towards the water while mother keep a watchful eye on them (and me) from her place on the shelf above. A third chick was clinging precariously to the side of the rock, scaling it as if rock climbing. But unlike rock climbers, the young bird had no belay and when suddenly lost its footing, tumbled down several feet to the hard ground below. “Ouch!” I thought seeing it hit with a thud. Was it hurt? The concerned mother bird got up to  check on her youngster, ‘tsk-tsking’ her baby as she moved in. But in typical youngster fashion, the bird bounced back on its feet after being momentarily stunned.

The antics of these young chicks entertained me as I attempted to capture a few images of the chicks with my telephoto lens. Finally, as the sun started to set, I reluctantly turned my kayak around and started towards shore.

Whether the chicks will still be there the next time I paddle out I don’t know.  But it’s precisely these kinds of little surprises that turn an ordinary end of the day into an extraordinary adventure.

As the sun sets, the lone oystercatcher keeps guard over its island home.
As the sun sets, the lone oystercatcher keeps guard over its island home.

9/11 Pacific Coast Time

I saw the film, “Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close,” last night.  I had missed it in theatre but was glad to find it on cable.  Most appropriate that I should have seen it the evening before 9/11 as it’s about a young boy who lost his father on that day and also about how the tragedy brought New Yorkers together.  It’s a moving and uplifting movie based on a book of the same name.

To mark this day, which for many of my generation could be considered “our  Pearl Harbor”, I thought I’d reprint the essay I wrote on the day after as everyone was still trying to sort out what had happened.  It’s longer than my usual blog posts so I hope you’ll excuse me as it wasn’t written for this format.  But also hope that it will cause you to stop and remember, if even for just a moment.

The Day After

I awoke this morning to the sound of an aircraft flying overhead. I thought it was a commercial jet from Vancouver B.C. “The airports must have been reopened,” I said to Mike. It was just after 6 a.m. The last thing I saw on television last night was that Sea-Tac expected flights to resume at 9 a.m. this morning. But it was not a commercial airliner, it was a military jet patrolling the Puget Sound. I telephoned my friend, Pat, to ask if she’d like to take the kayaks out this morning. The water looked calm and peaceful and I thought that it would be a good way to start this particular morning. She said she wasn’t sure because she hadn’t been feeling too well since yesterday. Her brother-in-law works in the Army side of the Pentagon too. He was also lucky and escaped injury. But I insisted, telling her that I thought it might help to clear her head.  So she agreed.

“The water looked calm and peaceful…”

I ran the boys to school and then headed down to the boatyard where we keep our kayaks. We hauled them out and pushed off into the strangely still
water. Our kayaks moved quietly and smoothly through the rippleless water.  We talked about all that had happened the day before and all that we had heard on the latest news reports.  Pat had heard more than I as she had been up since 4:30 a.m., unable to sleep.  I had already been to three places in town that regularly stocked the New York Times.  All three had sold out.  I telephoned the news stand downtown that carries the Times; they too were out and told me that everyone in town was out of the paper. “I thought the paper would do an overrun,” I said.

“They did,” the young woman on the phone replied.

“Well you can get it on the Internet,” Pat reminded me as we paddled past the shipyard’s pier.

“I know,” I said. “I did that yesterday but I somehow wanted to have something in my hands.”

In fact, I had logged onto the NY Times website late yesterday afternoon just as Bush was finishing his address. I read everything, consuming every little bit of information that the Times had available. Even as I read, the paper was updating its website to include Bush’s remarks and the latest updates. How busy my buddies in the working media throughout the country must be, I thought. One of them is a “special projects” editor for the New York Times in D,C, Yesterday’s events would certainly qualify. I haven’t even bothered to e-mail him. Or anyone else that I know in that business, for that matter. In some ways, I feel disconnected. I suppose almost anyone who has ever worked in the news media has similar feelings. At least they are getting answers, or attempting to get answers. The rest of us just have to wait.

Last night at dinner, my son commented on how poor the news coverage was at first. I explained to him that in situations like that, no one knows exactly what is going on. At first, you get reports that there is a fire somewhere, an explosion in the World Trade Tower, maybe a bomb. But I can just imagine the disbelief when the word comes across that an airliner has just crashed into the Towers. Then there’s word that not just one, but two have crashed into the Towers. What chaos and confusion there must have been. I doubt that not even the eyewitnesses on the street or those taping what was happening in their videocamera could believe it. It just didn’t seem real.
“You know that air crews have a code that they are supposed to punch in if  the plane is being hijacked,” Pat told me this morning. “Not one of the four planes sent that code,” she said. We both shook our heads. How could that happen? How could any of this have happened? Answers. There simply are no answers.

Paddling Past Post Point
“Our kayaks moved quietly and smoothly through the rippleless water…”

Our silence was broken by the sound of rotary propellers overhead. We looked up. A Coast Guard helicopter passed above. We watched it go by knowing that it probably wasn’t searching for lost fishermen or boaters today.

“My sister said that she thinks she heard the plane go into the Pentagon,” Pat said. “Then she called up her husband and told him to ‘Get the hell out of there,’ just as he got the word to evacuate.”

We traded more stories that we had read or heard about others who had survived.  In a way , we too were survivors. We had arisen, dressed, eaten breakfast, gotten our kids off to school and were now doing what I suspect many other Americans are doing today, talking between themselves about yesterday’s events.  We were trying to make sense of a senseless acts of terrorism. Or was it so senseless?

Somewhere in the world, someone is feeling very good about what happened yesterday. Feeling good about having shown the world that we, in America, are not as invincible as we often think that we are. It is difficult to understand exactly how this could be possible.  And yet, as anyone who’s ever been abroad can tell you, not everyone is as enamored about America as we might like to think.  We do, sadly, have enemies. Identifying exactly who they are is not always so easy.  And that’s what’s so frustrating about yesterday’s assault on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It’s clear to me, that whomever it was in charge was making a statement in their own sick way.  They targeted two institutions–one symbolizing this country’s financial strength and the other the country’s military strength. The fourth downed plane, I believe, was not headed for Camp David but probably also for the Pentagon. And what does this mean for us? I’m not sure but I am certain that someone out there in this world that has grown so small with the Internet, is very angry with us and we’d better pay attention.

“It’s a little odd, isn’t it?”  I said to Pat, “to think that this morning no one can fly in or out of, or around the country.”

“Yeah,” she said.

We watched the ferry cruise out towards San Juan Island just as it always does at 9 a.m. every morning. Our little part of the world seemed so quiet compared to what was going on elsewhere.

I am amazed by the stories filtering out about those who fled and survived.  I fear that there were be many, many who did not. I am hoping that our friends and family of our friends are not among the casualties.  But I know that someone’s friends and familiy members will be.  One of the passengers on one of the planes was someone a friend of ours knew personally.  And, as the days go by, I expect that will more the case. I think I am still numbed by all that has happened in the past 24 hours. I think a lot of people are.

I just learned on the local radio station that the jets to which I awoke this morning had forced a Lear jet to land at Bellingham airport.  The Lear jet, headed from Alaska to Seattle, was, as it turns out, carrying transplant organs to a Seattle hospital where a recipient was waiting.  The jet was grounded but the organs were airlifted on by helicopter. One more person would survive.  So will we.

Along the Waterfront

One of the great pleasures of living in the Pacific Northwest, and Bellingham in particular, is being able to take advantage of our natural beauty on the water.   I went out earlier this morning before going in to work at the studio.

I was introduced to kayaking a few years after settling here and now paddle year-round as often as I can.  My paddling partner, Pat, and I  purchased our first kayaks together at least ten years ago and had been going out together ever since. Neither of us ever tires of taking the boats up and down the shoreline of the bay in either direction.  There is always something new to see.

The Pan American Fisheries building (left) sits on the Fairhaven waterfront, a reminder of a busy cannery era gone by.

From the water, you can better imagine Bellingham as it was in the early 20th century when sailing ships lined the waterfront loading lumber and fish and coal into their holds.  Pilings protrude upwards from the shallower sections of the bay where the canneries and loading docks once stood.  The “rock” of tin, as it is known locally, is a reminder of a time when the leftover material used in canning the fish was just tossed down into the water until it solidified into the boulder it is today.  At low tide you get a full view of its size.  Today only the Pacific American Fisheries building in Fairhaven survives from the once very prosperous cannery era.

The Alaska Ferry docks at the Fairhaven terminal on the waterfront coming and going on Fridays to and from Alaska.

At the Fairhaven terminal, just next door, the Alaska Ferry ties up on Fridays and, during the summers, every other Saturday. The ferry carries cars, trucks and people back and forth from Bellingham to as far north as Skagway on the Alaska Marine Highway.  It is a popular route for people travelling up the coast.  And the horn of the ferry can be heard all over Bellingham as it cruises in and out of the harbor.

For me, kayaking is a great way to relax and “destress”, even though you must always be careful and attentive to the conditions surrounding you on the water.   I manage to snag some good photos when I take a camera with me, tucking it safely into my life jacket to protect it from the damaging salt water.   With the  warmer, sunny summer weather, the lure of the water makes it very hard to stay indoors in the studio.    But grabbing a few shots during an early  morning or late evening paddle is  a wonderful way to start or end a summer’s work day.