Getting to Know the Muskoka Rowing Club
To honour the history, dedication and current initiatives of each rowing community, Row Ontario will be producing a series of profiles on member clubs across Ontario. Today we get to know more about the Muskoka Rowing Club!
Muskoka Rowing Club
Location: Bracebridge, Ont.
The Muskoka Rowing Club’s first year on the water was in 1989 but plans to start a rowing club in Bracebridge had been in the works for a number of years.
Bill Dickinson and Jan Olsson, two former university rowers who met while teaching together at Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes S.S. in 1984, talked rowing quite a bit during their lunch breaks and were both keen on the idea of starting a rowing club in the area. They both knew starting a club would take a lot of time and effort, so they took their time in planning it, setting aside a few times per year where they would meet for lunch and discuss how and when they were going to open. In the Fall of 1988, they decided to go for it. To raise awareness about the club they put an ad in the newspaper and invited the Bracebridge and Huntsville communities to attend an open house on rowing, with a rowing display and information on the sport.
The open house turned out to be a success as a few hundred people attended the event. One of the attendees was Chuck Buddo, who had rowed for Canada in the 1930’s and even attended the Royal Henley Regatta in Britain. Buddo graciously offered to front the club $1,000 of his own money to buy its first boat. And just like that the club had the ability to get out on the water come the Spring of 1989.
“We drove down to the Argonaut Rowing Club and bought an eight and trailered it home,” said Dickinson. “The boat was originally called the ‘Ned Hanlan’ and was immediately renamed the ‘Chuck Buddo’. That’s an interesting story about a bunch of novices maneuvering a boat through the streets of Toronto and trying to get back to the highway while blocking off intersections on the way out of town. So, we had the boat, and in the Spring of 1989, we ran our first learn to row program, launching off the beach on the Muskoka River. We held a few different learn to rows throughout that first summer as well to try to build up the membership.”
After their inaugural year on the Muskoka River, the club continued to build its infrastructure by working with the town to build a dock for its rowers in 1990. They also got two hand-me-down boats from the Thunder Bay Rowing Club to increase their rowing fleet. The boats needed some work done on them before they were seaworthy, so they were fixed up at the high school over the winter in time for the next rowing season. The club continued to run learn to row programs in its first few years and added a few small recreational regattas as well. In 1992, the club took a big step forward and constructed a boat house, a big project that involved many members of the community.
“We built a boat house on the town’s land near the Falls in Bracebridge,” said Dickinson. “It was a real community project, we built it in sections and a lot of kids at the high school helped out. We put up this whole 90-foot steal building for about $29,000, which was a great achievement. We had help from volunteers who worked in construction to put up the trusses and we got deals on buying the wood, and all the materials. There were so many people in the community who contributed in big ways and small ways to make it happen. Probably a couple dozen people pitched in and helped build the boat house. There is a plaque on a sign board on the front of the boathouse that says it all…‘Many Pull Together’.”
Another key contributor in those early years besides Dickinson and Olsson was Tim Rainey. Another rowing enthusiast, Rainey was at the club from the beginning and would later become the Club Captain. Under Dickinson’s, Olsson’s and Rainey’s leadership, the Muskoka Rowing Club began to develop some competitive rowers out of their high school program throughout the 1990’s, with some of them going on to row at universities such as Western University and the University of Toronto. Michelle Mellow may have been the greatest success story to come out of the club, as she rowed for Western in the early 1990’s and was an alternate for the women’s eight in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
While the Muskoka Rowing Club was able to develop a solid high school program throughout its first decade in operation, the late Spring’s in Bracebridge made it increasingly difficult to keep the program viable. Each year the club needed to wait for the flow of the river to slow down before they could get on the water, which usually isn’t until mid-May or even later. Some years, the high school crews were only in a boat a few times before they travelled to St. Catharines to compete in the CSSRA Championships, which is not ideal for fielding a competitive crew. Eventually the club expanded its recreational programming to fit better with the seasonal limitations in the area.
The members of the club have access to approximately 9km on the Muskoka River to row on before they reach Lake Muskoka, with enough twists and turns to make it a little challenging for the coxswain. Over the years the club has hosted a number of events on the river, including the Head of the Muskoka, which was a 5km head race, a number of Terry Fox Day regattas to raise money for the Terry Fox Foundation, as well as regattas where neighbouring rowing communities were invited to participate. In recent years, the club has hosted a ‘Get Out On The Water’ day to encourage non-rowers to try out the sport as well as inter-club regattas throughout the Summer. They have also developed into a tight knit community of rowers who host social events at the club a few times per month and go out to dinner together after evening rows.
“We want to be an inclusive club and encourage all levels of athleticism and ages to come out and give it a try,” said Bonnie Paterson, the club’s current President. “A lot of people start here in their 50s or 60’s and really enjoy it. We’re in a retirement community and we’ve kind of evolved into a club where you can stay active for life. There’s also some interest in promoting a bit more of a competitive stream and going to regattas, so that’s kind of a goal for the club to start attending regattas in the future, we’re not there yet though.”
Currently the club runs a learn to row program every June, which is typically two days on the weekends or four evenings of rowing. They also run a ‘Return to Row’ program where returning members show up at the beginning of the year and are placed into boats to get their rowing legs back under them. Cindy Rusak, the current coach at the club has a been a big contributor to the rowing programs in recent years and has recruited a number of university students and high school students to join. Although the club doesn’t have a dedicated high school program, Rusak has helped develop several high school rowers who have gone on to row at universities such as Lakehead University and the University of the Ottawa. Jinty Stewart, who has been a member of the club since it’s early days, along with Diane Turnbull have also been active in coaching at the club and ran a number of sculling clinics in the last several years.
While most of the club members are from Bracebridge, some travel in from neighbouring communities such as Huntsville, Port Carling, Milford Bay and as far as Orillia to row at the club. There are also a few members who have cottages in the area and will periodically join group rows when they are in the area throughout the Summer. Through 30 years of history, the Muskoka Rowing Club has been providing quality rowing programming to all of its members and are set to continue to do so once rowing clubs are able to get back on the water.
Thank you to Bonnie Paterson, Karen Martin, and Bill Dickinson for their generous contributions and help in completing this profile. Photos are property of the Muskoka Rowing Club.