Cane River Lake regains reputation as spring training destination after years without a paddle

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The LSU rowing team flips their boat into the water

Nathan Wilson | Reporter
Each year, teams from around the country converge on Natchitoches to train in a world-class venue. Cane River Lake was created a century ago, but it offers unique advantages to rowing teams who ply its waters.
Natchitoches is hosting high-school and collegiate rowing teams for the first full season since Covid began and Dr. Jason Stelly, Associate Director of Competitive Sports at NSU, is pleased with the turnout. “It’s a spring training haven,” he explained. “It’s just a beautiful setting in terms of rowing… going to other venues you realize that real quick.”
Stelly estimates the number of teams present isn’t anywhere near the 15-20 who visited annually when he began coaching the sport in 2008, but he sees signs of new life. “Early 2010s the water levels were inconsistent… and we lost a lot of those spring training teams for like three or four years, he explained. “They started to come back a little bit and then Covid hit.”

This article published in the March 26, 2022, print edition

Now the number of teams visiting Natchitoches is growing again. Standing along the riverbank, Stelly pointed out the assembled teams. “Jesuit, it’s a high school from Dallas, this is University of Kansas, that’s LSU, University of Central Oklahoma is in the front there, and then University of Texas, UT Austin,” he said. “Last week we had Vanderbilt and University of Georgia here.”
Natchitoches serves as a gracious host for visiting teams. Aside from basic accommodations, rowers enjoy discounted access to NSU’s cafeteria and Northwestern provides use of their fleet of motorboats for each team’s coaching staff. University of Central Oklahoma coach Brian Ebke acknowledged Stelly’s role coordinating his team’s decision to visit Natchitoches for the first time in 2022.
Stelly prefers to emphasize the consistency of the environment as a major selling point for rowers hoping to practice during their spring break. “Cane River is an oxbow lake, so it’s dammed up on both sides. This is just top wind we’re seeing, there’s no current,” he said. He indicated that teams come to spend as much time on the water as possible, and enjoy the predictability. “A lot of teams, they don’t have to cancel practice, or it’s based on rain or lightning, but never water conditions, which is very rare,” he said.
From left, Madison Szekely, Tori Dettinger, Keri Adams, Julia Laperouse and Emmett Nobles prepare for their next race
Photos by Nathan Wison

Stelly estimates the number of teams present isn’t anywhere near the 15-20 who visited annually when he began coaching the sport in 2008, but he sees signs of new life. “Early 2010s the water levels were inconsistent… and we lost a lot of those spring training teams for like three or four years, he explained. “They started to come back a little bit and then Covid hit.”
Now the number of teams visiting Natchitoches is growing again. Standing along the riverbank, Stelly pointed out the assembled teams. “Jesuit, it’s a high school from Dallas, this is University of Kansas, that’s LSU, University of Central Oklahoma is in the front there, and then University of Texas, UT Austin,” he said. “Last week we had Vanderbilt and University of Georgia here.”
Natchitoches serves as a gracious host for visiting teams. Aside from basic accommodations, rowers enjoy discounted access to NSU’s cafeteria and Northwestern provides use of their fleet of motorboats for each team’s coaching staff. University of Central Oklahoma coach Brian Ebke acknowledged Stelly’s role coordinating his team’s decision to visit Natchitoches for the first time in 2022.
Stelly prefers to emphasize the consistency of the environment as a major selling point for rowers hoping to practice during their spring break. “Cane River is an oxbow lake, so it’s dammed up on both sides. This is just top wind we’re seeing, there’s no current,” he said. He indicated that teams come to spend as much time on the water as possible, and enjoy the predictability. “A lot of teams, they don’t have to cancel practice, or it’s based on rain or lightning, but never water conditions, which is very rare,” he said.
Caleb Poor, a member of NSU’s rowing team, joined after seeing it advertised in the campus newsletter. He describes the conditions at NSU as ideal. “We still get wind and we can still get rougher water conditions, but we don’t have (rough conditions) a lot of people have… which is not nearly as ideal,” he said. Pointing to the smooth surface of the lake, he added, “It’s like this 90% of the time.”
Poor’s teammate, Hunter Bell, extolled the lake’s virtues. “The high banks break most of the wind,” he said. “Our waters are also one of the longest bodies of water so you don’t have to keep turning around.”
The portion of Cane River lake where teams compete today benefits from the high banks left behind when the Great Raft was cleared by Captain Henry Shreve in the 1830s. The immediate effect of clearing the Red River was disastrous for Natchitoches, since clearing the obstruction allowed water to drain from areas upriver and threatened to turn Cane River into a seasonal creek.
NSU Crew members Caleb Poor and Thomas Jeffrey replace a boat motor as part of Northwestern State’s support for visiting teams.
To combat this, local residents dammed up the two ends of the waterway to create the Cane River Lake we know today.
Josephine Engleman, President of the LSU rowing team, offered her team’s reason for travelling to Cane River Lake. “It’s a protected body of water so there’s not any crazy waves.” She pointed to a limitation she faces at LSU, where “the course is only 850 meters.” With barely half a mile to practice at home, her team can row as far as they want on Cane River Lake and takes advantage of the longer course size to improve their endurance.
Engleman also cited aesthetics as a reason for choosing Natchitoches. “A lot of the courses that we go to have industrial sites along the shore. Here you got the birds. You got the clean water,” she said. “We like Natchitoches. It’s pretty. It’s a good place to be.”
NSU has the opportunity to practice on Cane River Lake every week. Ebke sees the ideal conditions as a potential double-edged sword for the home team. “It’s nice to never be blown off the water because of wind or weather, so that’s definitely an advantage, but if you always row on flat water, when you get to bumpy water you might not be used to it and that can be challenging.” He still described the conditions as a draw for his team, “I’d take the flat water over the bumpy water every day though.”[/caption]Caleb Poor, a member of NSU’s rowing team, joined after seeing it advertised in the campus newsletter. He describes the conditions at NSU as ideal. “We still get wind and we can still get rougher water conditions, but we don’t have (rough conditions) a lot of people have… which is not nearly as ideal,” he said. Pointing to the smooth surface of the lake, he added, “It’s like this 90% of the time.”
Poor’s teammate, Hunter Bell, extolled the lake’s virtues. “The high banks break most of the wind,” he said. “Our waters are also one of the longest bodies of water so you don’t have to keep turning around.”
The portion of Cane River lake where teams compete today benefits from the high banks left behind when the Great Raft was cleared by Captain Henry Shreve in the 1830s. The immediate effect of clearing the Red River was disastrous for Natchitoches, since clearing the obstruction allowed water to drain from areas upriver and threatened to turn Cane River into a seasonal creek. To combat this, local residents dammed up the two ends of the waterway to create the Cane River Lake we know today.
Josephine Engleman, President of the LSU rowing team, offered her team’s reason for travelling to Cane River Lake. “It’s a protected body of water so there’s not any crazy waves.” She pointed to a limitation she faces at LSU, where “the course is only 850 meters.” With barely half a mile to practice at home, her team can row as far as they want on Cane River Lake and takes advantage of the longer course size to improve their endurance.
Engleman also cited aesthetics as a reason for choosing Natchitoches. “A lot of the courses that we go to have industrial sites along the shore. Here you got the birds. You got the clean water,” she said. “We like Natchitoches. It’s pretty. It’s a good place to be.”
NSU has the opportunity to practice on Cane River Lake every week. Ebke sees the ideal conditions as a potential double-edged sword for the home team. “It’s nice to never be blown off the water because of wind or weather, so that’s definitely an advantage, but if you always row on flat water, when you get to bumpy water you might not be used to it and that can be challenging.” He still described the conditions as a draw for his team, “I’d take the flat water over the bumpy water every day though.”