THE RIVER RAT REMEMBERS Episode 9 Practice Sites

BKistlerBKistler Posts: 90 Baller

Join former AWSA Executive Director Bruce Kistler as he recounts incidents from the Golden Age of water skiing. Interesting people—legends, characters and unsung heroes. Curious places and events. Moments of discovery and wonder. Accidents, mishaps and miscues. Glimpses from inside the organization. Personal stories from a lifetime on skis.

9 Practice Sites

My “home” site on the Conowingo reservoir was in Maryland 60 miles from where I lived, so practice was strictly a weekend affair. I’ve already described how it was a big piece of water. If the wind was out of the east or west, we could find relatively calm water in the lee of the river hills. However, if the wind was out of the north, there was no place to hide. If it was out of the south, the only skiable water was immediately next to the massive Conowingo dam. There was a warning sign on the powerhouse but no barrier to keep boats away. I sometimes had nightmares about falling immediately above the turbine inlets.

There was a fleeting moment when we had a nearly ideal stretch of water. When the Philadelphia Electric Company expanded the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station, it constructed a large peninsula out into the river to make an outflow channel for spent cooling water. Before they closed off the entrance to the channel, we had guaranteed smooth water.

We became members of the Lake Clarke Water Ski Club in Long Level, Pennsylvania. Lake Clarke was another large impoundment on the Susquehanna River, two dams above the Conowingo. Since it was even farther from where we lived, we didn’t practice that often at Lake Clarke, although the club had a new jump ramp that offered a rare opportunity to get a few jumps in. My mother was in the boat one time when I crashed hard after losing both tips and got the breath knocked out of me. As I gasped for air, the look on her face seemed to say, “Oh, Brucie, why didn’t you take up tennis?”

The Lake Clarke crowd was a great group that followed the tournament circuit. It was always a lot of fun having your gang cheering for you and for each other. The club was spearhead by Chip Debus, who later operated ski schools in Hockingport, Ohio and West Palm Beach, Florida.

At some point, I learned about the Port Indian Ski Club on the Schuylkill River near Valley Forge, only 40 minutes from my home. At last, we had a place where we could ski after work or school. From that standpoint, Port Indian was a blessing—but it was also a curse. Although it ran beside lovely Valley Forge, this stretch of the Schuylkill was a filthy, smelly, industrial river, or at least was in those days. Thomas Eakins, famous for his paintings of scullers on the Schuylkill, would be turning in his grave if he knew what his beloved river had become.

There was a sewer plant across from the ski club and I remember mounds of yellowish foam issuing from the outfall. There was also a noisy freight yard which emitted the stink of phenolic (think overheated truck brakes). The jump ramp was pointed up river and we discovered that the aprons made a marvelous trash trap. Once we made the mistake of trying to clean it out. All the debris was coated in a brown oily film. Afterwards, it took a lot of detergent and elbow grease to clean up the boat and ski equipment. There was also pollution of a different sort. Just downstream at Norristown there was a powerplant which caused the shallow river to become extraordinarily hot. On top of all this, boat traffic was often heavy. The only people who had it worse than us were the rowing crews who were trying vainly to coordinate their oar strokes.

What skiers do for a little time on the water.

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