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Summer sculling on Tonawanda Creek

Katie Barnum, rowing on Tonawanda Creek.

Katie Barnum pulls her 27-foot scull through on Tonawanda Creek.

Photos and text by MEREDITH FORREST KULWICKI

Published August 20, 2021

Editor's note: Summer Hours is a photo series focusing on UB staff members who use the longer days to pursue interesting hobbies, causes and other endeavors outside of their day jobs.

Perched on the sliding seat, with her feet secured in shoes attached to the boat, Katie Barnum, web developer for the College of Arts and Sciences, pushes the 27-foot scull away from the dock. The boat is about a foot wide and the oars provide a 12-foot wingspan.

“If you make one wrong move, you can become a swimmer,” says Barnum, who usually rows on Tonawanda Creek, launching from the UB boathouse in Amherst Veterans Canal Park a few miles north of the North Campus.

While she jokes about being a “fair-weather rower,” Barnum has been on the water for 23 years and still rows in the neighborhood of 30K, spending up to six hours a week on the water.

Barnum stores her scull at the UB Boathouse in Amherst Veterans Canal Park.

Barnum stores her scull at the UB boathouse in Amherst Veterans Canal Park. She carries the boat to the creek balanced on her head.

Barnum (right) carries oars to the dock with friend and rowing mate Elizabeth Ostermeier-Denecke.
Barnum carried her boat about 100 yards from the boathouse to the creek.
Barnum secures the oars in place on her scull.
Barnum pushes off the dock to start her morning workout on Tonawanda Creek.

Barnum pushes off the dock to start her morning workout on Tonawanda Creek.

She was introduced to the sport by her dad, who spent a year rowing for Syracuse University in the early 1960s before becoming a coach in the Albany area. Barnum rowed on the UB varsity team as a student in the mid-2000s, helping the team win a number of medals, including a bronze at the 2007 Dad Vail Regatta. A coach for 15 years, she has spent the past three working with the UB men’s rowing team, a student club offered through the Student Association.

“I think in general rowing is one of those sports where you have to be persistent and you have to be disciplined and you have to get up in the morning and do it — and make no excuses. If you make excuses, the quality of your work is not as high,” Barnum explains. “These are life lessons; this isn’t just rowing.”

Rowing has taken Barnum to international locations, including Canada and Ireland, and to almost every state on the East Coast. This summer, she took her first sailing lessons with Discover Buffalo Sailing.  

“Pretty much any opportunity I have to get in a boat, I will take it,” she says. Her dream job: a tugboat captain. In late 2019, Barnum purchased her first single scull.

Oars make a little splash as they're pulled through the water.

“If you make one wrong move, you can become a swimmer,” Barnum says.

The oars give the boat about a 12-foot wing span.
The water provides a reflection of Barnum as she pulls through the creek.
Ducks often share the creek with Barnum and her fellow rowers.
Barnum rowing.

While Barnum describes herself as a fair-weather rower, she's generally on the water six hours a week.

For safety reasons, Barnum is never on the water alone. Her most likely early-morning partner is her former coach, Elizabeth Ostermeier-Denecke, who now coaches the UB club team with Barnum. The world of rowing is very small, and the two attended the same training program in Georgia more than 20 years ago. But they didn’t realize it until a few years later, when they both ended up in the UB rowing program. They have since become close friends.

“She found the athlete in herself through rowing,” Ostermeier-Denecke says of Barnum, and she continues to push her friend when it comes to competing. “She was very nervous, and I think the whole summer (of 2020) she was, ‘I will not race in a single’ and I got her to do it twice. It was a really big deal for her.”

Barnum rows on Tonawanda Creek in the early morning.

The morning sunrise illuminates the creek water, making a silhouette of Barnum. She often rows in the morning because the water is calmer.

Still, most summer mornings on the creek, it’s just Barnum in her single with a friend or two, and the odd collection of ducks. The water is flat, a touch of the sunrise sweeping across the creek. It’s a place where she says she can forget about the world.

“It’s quiet. You don’t have to think about anything else because, really, you can’t.”

Katie Barnum is a UB alumnus who is currently working on a master’s degree. She has worked with the College of Arts and Sciences for almost 10 years and manages about 75 websites for the school. She says she has tried to quit rowing, but it just never seems to take.