Duluth woman powered by paddleA person doesn’t need to see Julie Deters of Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood on the water to know her favorite sport.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
A person doesn’t need to see Julie Deters of Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood on the water to know her favorite sport. You don’t have to admire her well-defined arm and shoulder muscles, or find out that the Maori hook she wears as a pendant means “safety on the water.”
You don’t even have to know that the Cloquet art teacher somehow managed to become No. 1 in the world last winter on the Concept 2 rowing machine in the 2013 indoor rowing season.
All you have to do is drive behind her and read the license plate.
“We Kanu” it says.
A previous vanity plate read: “Qajaq” (“kayak” in Inuit).
Be it racing canoes, kayaks, outrigger canoes, the rowing machine or the dragon boat, Julie Deters is all about paddling.
Especially in a dragon boat.
Deters’ latest accomplishment is qualifying for a spot on the Senior A Mixed Team USA that will travel to Hungary this month to compete in the International Dragon Boat Festival.
The Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival — where Julie and her husband, Ron Deters, started in the sport — began 12 years ago.
At the time, Ron Deters was the Duluth Boat Club program director and in charge of teaching all the dragon boat teams how to paddle and steer the boats. The standard crew complement of a contemporary dragon boat is around 22, comprising 20 paddlers in pairs facing toward the bow of the boat, one drummer (or caller) at the bow facing toward the paddlers, and one sweep or helmsman at the rear of the boat.
Their co-ed team was called the Stone Dragons, and Julie Deters became the lead pacer.
“The idea is that everyone paddles in perfect synchronicity,” Julie Deters said. “You need to get to the point where you don’t need to think, it’s just kind of in your muscle memory.”
The Stone Dragons won the Lake Superior Festival every year they entered except the first, she added. After the first couple years, Ron Deters (on behalf of the Duluth Boat Club) purchased three “OC-6” canoes, aka outrigger canoes. The advantage of the OC-6, he knew, was that it only took six people to propel the boat instead of 20.
Pretty soon, Julie Deters started a women’s outrigger training group, which grew to about 60 women after three years.
So she formed an all-women outrigger racing team to compete at other regional events. They called themselves “Mahi Wahine,” which translates as “strong women” in Hawaiian.
With the success of Mahi Wahine, an all-women dragon boat racing team was born. Named Wikiwiki Wahine, the new name meant “speedy women.”
Love and paddling
When they first met in college, it was Ron Deters who was the paddler.
“I liked paddling right away,” said Julie Deters, who ran track in high school. “All Ron had was a racing canoe, but it was really low key [canoeing together]. Racing was his thing.”
She would go to canoe races to support him, but didn’t compete herself.
“It was like a big family reunion,” Julie Deters said. “Canoe racers are really solid folk.”
Then they decided to try a race together and discovered they made a really good team.
“I realized my body could do that,” she said.
Canoe racing was her first paddling passion; dragon boat racing came later.
Meanwhile, she and Ron Deters got married — they honeymooned by going sea kayaking in the Apostle Islands — then moved to Madison for a time while they looked for jobs in the Duluth area.
“Ron was very familiar with the water in northern Minnesota,” she said, noting that he had led Boundary Waters canoe trips and worked for a dog musher in the region after college. “We move up here on $6 an hour.”
That was 1991.
After renting a one-room cabin in the outskirts of Duluth for a time, they bought a house and 56 acres in Alborn. Pretty soon they had 10 sled dogs and a couple of sleds.
“We had a lot of fun tooling around the trails,” Julie Deters said, adding that she was teaching in Cloquet by this time and commuted about 100 miles a day back and forth to work.
Then, when she was 30, she got pregnant with their first child, Sam, now a senior in high school.
“We had to make a choice,” she said. “It was either Sam or the dogs.”
Sam won. They gave away or sold their dogs and found a new home in western Duluth, a gorgeous spot right on the St. Louis River.
Sylvie came along three years later. A freshman next year at Cloquet High School, Sylvie has inherited her mother’s artistic talents, while both kids are athletes like their parents.
Although Sylvie teases her mom about her buff arms, Julie Deters said part of what keeps her competing is being a role model for both her children and her students. She wants them to know that women can compete at high levels at any age.
“I remember when I first started getting back into more of a fitness routine after having kids, I’d be a little embarrassed about my muscles,” Deters said. “It seemed like it wasn’t quite as acceptable (as it is today). In time, though, the students would just say ‘That’s who Ms. Deters is — Ms. Deters is strong.’
“The really positive thing is that girls started saying ‘I want to be buff like Ms. Deters when I’m old,’ ” she added. “And boys started to show more respect for me as an athlete.”