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Genius Loci: A vast river, stretching in the sun

There is a famous Lakes District in northwest England, frequented by William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, and other famous literati. The Charles River has a Lakes District, too: a modest, beautiful necklace of interlocking ponds and straightaways that flows from Weston, through Newton and Waltham, ending at the Moody Street Dam. It is an improbably delightful part of the world, “as obvious, open, and friendly as a yellow Lab,” in the words of environmental writer David Gessner.

I know the District because I’ve been rowing there for at least a decade. About 50 mornings a year, I push my shell off the dock of the Cygnet Rowing Club underneath the bridge that links Route 30 with Route 128. Then I row downriver, past the Newton Marriott, skirting what remains of Norumbega Park, and enter an open stretch of water that is the theoretical boundary line between Newton (starboard) and Waltham (port). I turn around either below Mount Feake Cemetery in Waltham or in the long straightaway in front of the refurbished Waltham Watch factory.

The Lakes District is my (watery) turf. I know this stretch of river like Carl Yastrzemski knew the Green Monster. I know the rowing is better in the cool spring, before the water chestnuts and lily pads surge up from the river bottom, and before the annoying racing canoes (“Hut! Hut!”) and kayakers hit the water. And, pace the great British poets, I know our District has history, too. When I steer my bow past Auburndale’s Islington peninsula, I catch sight of Waltham’s famous Norumbega Tower. (Actually, scullers face backwards, but please bear with me.) The late Harvard chemistry professor Eben Norton Horsford insisted that Norumbega was the Indian word for “Norway,” and the 100-foot-tall stone tower marks the spot where Horsford thought Leif Eriksson founded a Viking settlement around AD100.

You are thinking: Horsford was insane. And when I tell you that he also thought that America was named for Erik the Red, you say, well, that proves it. But he is also the man who invented double-acting baking soda, still used today. Genius or crank? Hard to say.

The Norumbega amusement park, where the Marriott now squats, was once among the most popular destinations in New England. Accessible by tram from Boston, the park featured New England’s largest zoo, as well as the legendary Totem Pole Ballroom, where the Dorsey band, Frank Sinatra, Artie Shaw, and Benny Goodman all played.

Weekend recreation meant canoeing, and the park kept an inventory of 5,000 canoes for off-duty lovebirds to paddle around the adjoining lagoons. “In its heyday,” declares the Needham Historical Association, the Lakes District “was the most heavily canoed stretch of water on earth.”

Canoes still ply the waters, thanks to the state-chartered facility next door to the Marriott. We scullers hate them. We go fast, we go straight, and we like to hog the middle of the river. Which is why we generally row between 5:30 am and 8 am, long before the boathouse opens. At those hours, it’s just us, the trumpeter swans, great blue herons, bitterns, and egrets at almost every curve, and the occasional muskrat diving away from our flashing oars.

Early one morning, half-asleep, I turned my head and saw what I thought was a small herd of elephants splashing in the river about 10 feet in front of my bow. I screeched to a halt, nautically speaking, just in time to see three deer swimming the river, crossing from Newton over to Brandeis University, on the Waltham shore.

William Wordsworth wrote a lot about his Lakes District, including this fragment from “The Prelude”:

I dipp’d my oars into the silent Lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water, like a Swan…

My thoughts exactly.