The calming waters and scenic views of Cane River Lake don’t just benefit local boaters looking to soak up the sun.
For more than two decades, college rowing teams have made Natchitoches a spring break destination and a training ground as squads gear up for conference and national championships in April and May.
Five schools visited Natchitoches this year, including LSU, Texas, Wichita State, Oklahoma City and Central Oklahoma.
“Cane River Lake is a natural haven for rowing teams, especially for spring break,” said Jason Stelly, NSU’s rowing coach. “Teams can build up their speed and focus on rowing technique in the calm water.
“It’s a great setup because the city is willing to work with these teams. They don’t charge fees for using the river, and they can get deals on food and hotels, so it’s affordable.”
Texas coach Peter Rosberg says limited boat traffic on the 36-mile oxbow lake offers an ideal training location.
“I love it because you can go so long in one direction,” Rosberg said. “There’s so many miles, and you’re protected from the wind.
“I also love the setting with houses on the bank. Everybody is really friendly on the river and will wave at you. It’s really special. For the money we spend, it’s best deal I’ve encountered.”
Rowing teams are beginning to flock back to Natchitoches after water levels on Cane River Lake are becoming more consistent.
A combination of flooding and drought caused rowing teams to cancel in the last several years, and the uncertainty has impacted a decrease from the lake’s heyday with double-digit teams.
But the Cane River Waterway Commission is expected to complete a project by the end of the year which pumps water from Hampton Lake into Bayou Possiant, which flows into Cane River Lake. The project will help stabilize water levels.
Consistent water levels will bring a steady stream of tourism dollars from college rowing teams each spring.
Most schools bring a men’s and women’s team, which totals 50-65 rowers.
Natchitoches mayor Lee Posey introduced himself to a group of seven Longhorn rowers in a restaurant, and he said the city’s relationship with the college rowing community is an important one.
“They thought Natchitoches had a wow factor as a town, and they said it’s one of the best practice venues they’ve ever been to,” Posey said. “For us, it’s one of the neat pieces to our (tourism) puzzle.
“I’ve met people who visited as college rowers years ago that bring their families back to Natchitoches for trips.”
Constant access to the ideal practice venue benefits Northwestern State rowing.
Stelly said most college rowers come in with little or no experience, and the steady waters are a tremendous teaching tool.
“You get great, clean strokes, and you can teach proper technique,” Stelly said. “We have to adjust when we get on rough water with wind like Lake Lanier in Georgia where the national championships were held this past year.
“But we get a great start here on Cane River Lake.”
The NSU women won their first conference championship and finished second at the national championships this past season.
The conference consists of 66 schools ranging from Virginia to Florida to Texas.
Stelly credits Cane River Lake as an important part of that success.
“The water levels are much better now, and we’re seeing teams start to come back,” Stelly said. “In the past, teams have had to cancel at the last minute when water levels were really low or really high, and teams stop coming when that happens.
“We didn’t want to recruit teams back to Cane River Lake until we know water levels will be consistent.”