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Angels and Insects 

Four miles south of Batavia, Ohio and 25 miles east of Cincinnati in a lush green valley formed by glacial deposits, participants, spectators and 17-year cicadas interfaced at Harsha Lake for the 2008 Youth National Rowing Championships held June 12-15. A dam built on the East Fork of the Little Miami River formed this warm, beautiful lake bordered by wooded hills of oaks, beech, maple and hickory. Four Humboldt County Junior Rowers Shenae Bishop, Lissa Daugherty, Elizabeth Pierson and Jean Sack arrived to the sound of a chorus of millions of cicadas. (Full disclosure: Jean Sack is my daughter, which is why I was in Ohio.)

Qualifying Junior teams from across the United States had boats towed to this remote site to compete for national rankings. Buff teenagers rigged and carried their shells to the water for three days of races that would impact the rest of their lives. The best of the best, these strong bodies earned their invitation to this national event by winning 1st through 3rd places at regional championships held throughout the country. Seven minutes and 19 seconds spent on Lake Natoma in Sacramento on May 11th qualified our Humboldt Women's Quad - a four-place sculling boat.

Rowers, coaches, parents and cheering supporters clustered in shady spots under isolated trees and tents scattered about the grassy flats resting, waiting and watching. A sandy beach and swimming area, sans swimmers, separated racers from their cheering supporters and on-shore officials. The continual drone of the cicadas from the forested background was occasionally accompanied by visiting insects which dropped from the sky, landed on people on shore and were met with horror, disgust, amusement and fascination. The less than fascinated landing site targets flicked them off which made some of the cicadas scream when they flew away.

The North American Magicicada genus of cicada live underground for 17 years. When they emerge they climb trees, make a rattling racket, mate and then according to one Ohioan "die, decompose and stink." They are about 1.5 inches long with black heads, red eyes and orange wings; perfect monster material. However, in reality, they are generally gentle, do not sting or bite (sometimes give a tiny hello pinch) and just drop by for a visit, walk around and then move along.

When not focused on rowing or carrying their boats and oars, the rowers comically flinched, swatted, shrieked and ducked from the onslaught of cicadas near the trees where boats and trailers were parked. On the water, the picture was one of grace, determination, sweat and blisters. These national elite rowers seemed to float over the water in unison with legs pumping hard and rippling muscles powering their shells down the buoyed 2K course. With all races finished in less than eight minutes rowers and coxswains were then whisked away to hotels. Coaches prescribed drinking fluids, resting and relaxing; most racers lounged around their hotel rooms watching movies or hanging out at nearby malls, killing time until their next event.

And how did our Humboldt Quad, the Autumn Phoenix, fare? On Friday our women faced 97 degrees and placed 1st in their heat, which automatically placed them in the semi-finals. On Saturday, the semi-finals were postponed many hours to get back on schedule after thunderstorms canceled Friday afternoon races. During their semi-finals race, HBRA women battled to a photo finish with Pocock out of Washington state. An interminable 20 minutes after the race the official announcement was that Event 12, Humboldt Bay Rowing Association Women's Quad placed 3rd; our crew had beaten Pocock and would thus race in the Grand Championship rather than the Petite Finals.

That evening our delighted, triumphant crew were further enchanted by another creature found in Ohio's fauna — fireflies. Tiny flicks of light hovered over a nearby grassy field. It was on Sunday, Father's Day, June 15 that HBRA's Women's Quad placed fifth in the nation with a time of 7:20.12 — an amazing accomplishment for such a small, young team. With the everpresent song of cicadas rising and falling, the Autumn Phoenix was strapped back onto the trailer for the long ride home.

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Karen Sack

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