Capsize on Long Lake
As the chronicler of the outdoor exploits of the North Country Men’s Club, the Editor has provided readers of this newsletter (a small but discerning audience) with accounts of many expeditions by club members. Whether the intrepid outdoorsmen were paddling through Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park in August or skiing through the snow to a remote Adirondack lean-to in February, the Editor was always sharpening his pencil in preparation for taking down the various eyewitness accounts — often incoherent and contradictory — that would deftly be turned into an accurate yet compelling adventure tale (As always, the Editor must express his grateful appreciation to Tommy for his keen powers of observation and memory, as well as his uncanny ability to zero in on who screwed up and why on this or that trip).
A startling confession
Having chronicled so many NCMC outings, the Editor must now with some trepidation make a startling confession: he has for years left this newsletter’s readers completely in the dark concerning what is arguably the most daunting enterprise the NCMCers have ever undertaken. This heretofore undisclosed mother of all outdoor challenges, braved as far back as 1993 by club members, is the annual Adirondack Canoe Classic, also known as the “90-Miler.” Yes, startled reader, you have either never heard of the 90-Miler or, if you have, have never been informed that NCMCers Jack, Billy, Jay, Dylan and Tom have paddled and portaged a total of 1,890 grueling miles in this extreme test of outdoor skill, endurance and mindless repetition. (1,890 miles is a fair estimate. Some portions of the 90-mile race in certain years have been cancelled due to unsafe conditions. On the other hand, particularly in those cases in which Jay and Billy have paddled together, completing the full race course has certainly required paddling farther than 90 miles when one considers the meandering path the canoe will take under the influence of wind, wave, hangover, poor technique, lack of sleep and the sort of faulty sternmanship that invariably leads to bowman muttering and mutiny).
How, you ask, could the Editor have been so negligent regarding the Adirondack Canoe Classic? The Editor can only say that the NCMC paddlers have been uncharacteristically reticent about the event, no doubt through a reluctance to relive their pain and suffering, and, perhaps most importantly, to publicly acknowledge the maddening humiliation of seeing a variety of women, children and old, emaciated, and stooped men leave them in their wake race after race. Nevertheless, through much prodding and plying with beer, the Editor has in recent times been able to wrest the details of the races from the NCMC paddlers, and piece together the following long-overdue report.
“Highway of the Adirondacks”
Dating from the early 1980s, the Adirondack Canoe Classic is a three-day race from Old Forge to Saranac Lake. The 90-mile route follows lakes and rivers that were the region’s major thoroughfares for woodsmen and tourists in the 19th Century, when horse and rail were the conveyances that brought visitors to the Adirondacks. A “sport” from the city coming to the mountains in the 1800s to hunt and fish or just camp in the woods might well have hired a “guide” to row him along the watery “Highway of the Adirondacks” that today’s 90-Miler participants travel during the race.
The race is always conducted on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday following Labor Day. By this time, the jet ski tourist crowd has called it a summer and taken their obnoxious, loon-threatening machines back home, leaving the region to the resident woodchucks. Paddlers in the race glide through peaceful waterways that only a few days earlier were raucous and wake-filled. They see much evidence of man’s work along the shorelines of the race course, but they also experience many, many more miles of shore that looks as wild as anywhere. Indeed, once Labor Day has passed, there is no need for the Adirondack canoe camper to limit himself or herself to Lake Lila, the Bog River Flow or other legendary Adirondack waters off-limits to motors and development. Just about any lake or river along the route of the race can offer the same solitude and hiatus from the internal combustion engine.
In fact, the members of the NCMC always observe during the race that camping somewhere on the banks or islands they are passing would perhaps be a much better way to spend the weekend in question than paddling and portaging non-stop for six hours a day, only to be outclassed by the aforementioned old men, etc. Tommy, for example, has confided to the Editor that one of the ways he takes his mind off the excruciating pain in his back during the race is to imagine himself camped on some likely spot he can spy from his bow seat. In his reverie, he sees himself settled into a Maine Lounger on the rocky outcropping of a campsite, sipping a cold Bud from a cooler and thumbing through a collection of Robert Service’s poetry while keeping alert for loons and other birds. A beached canoe is at the ready for a leisurely late-afternoon paddle. In the background, white campfire smoke wafts up in front of the perfectly pitched tents, and some comely female NCMCer (aren’t they all!) is preparing a tasty and filling meal. If it is late in a race day, and he is particularly hallucinatory, Tommy’s imaginary camping self will hoist his beer in salute to the passing flesh and blood paddler, and adopt an expression that is clearly saying, “You poor sucker!” (Another method that Tommy employs to take his mind off the pain and monotony of the race is to critique Jack’s helmsmanship on a regular basis. Tommy, however, has no desire to take the stern himself, as it would not allow him to “zone out” for long periods of the race and simply stare trance-like down at the canoe’s bow wave as he plants his paddle.)
Taking the plunge
As best the Editor can determine, the proposal to join the 90-Miler originated with Jack, who had read about it somewhere or encountered someone who had raced. His proposal was initially ridiculed by Tommy, who concluded immediately that paddling 30 miles a day for three days was obviously impossible. Upon further reflection, he acknowledged that it might be within the realm of human possibility, but only by a tiny subset of the human race that combined freakish powers of endurance with a brain that featured extremely limited intelligence spiced with severe mental illness that could therefore derive pleasure and satisfaction from such an ordeal.
It was nevertheless decided that Jack and Tommy, at age 40, would enter the 1993 version of the race. It has been six years since that watershed event. Tommy recalls the night before the start of the race vividly:
“We were to pick up Jack at a grass airport in Piseco Lake that he planned to fly into. He never showed. Big surprise. We reached Old Forge well after dark. The first thing I noticed was that every car that came within our headlights had a Wenonah on top. There were scores and scores of them. I saw more Wenonahs in five minutes than I had seen in all my previous life. It was as if all the members of an extremely secret and widely dispersed society had decided to gather for the first time and come out of the closet together.”
We’re talking serious canoes
The shocks for the paddlers continued to come in the next morning’s light. Bringing their canoe to the start of the race, Jack (who ended up driving to Old Forge) and Tommy came upon a canoeing scene that was light years beyond anything they thought they knew about the sport of paddling. Arrayed on the emerald grass around them were about 250 canoes, almost all of them golden Kevlar Wenonahs. The night before, viewed in brief flashes through headlights while tied upside down to car roofs, these canoes had all looked more or less like the Wenonah Sundowner Tommy was carrying on his own car. Right-side up in the light of day, however, was another story.
First, dozens and dozens of them were racing canoes of the slimmest and stripped-down design imaginable. Void of gunwales and seemingly only a few inches deep along their entire lengths, they featured pinched bow and stern sections no wider than the paddler’s seats, allowing for minimal resistance to the water and giving the paddler the ability to put his blade in the water with only the slightest sideways positioning of the arms. These eggshells seemed incapable of being paddled in anything but the calmest waters. In fact, considering their lack of freeboard, it did not appear that they could keep from taking on water if anyone ever sat in them.
As eye-opening as the design of the racing hulls surrounding them were the modifications made by the boats’ owners. The tractor seats were neatly cushioned with sections of foam sleeping pads cut to the form of the seat and glued in place. Transparent plastic sheets were stretched drum tight across the bilge area between the bow and stern seats to keep cross winds from dipping into the canoe and slowing it down. Spare paddles (black paddles made of graphite!) were affixed inside the boats in a variety of ingenious ways that secured them solidly while keeping them easily accessible. Soft pipe insulation was strategically placed along portions of where the gunwales should have been to prevent chafing of paddlers’ arms and legs. There were footrests of various designs. Most impressively, large water jugs sat snugly in holes cut into foam blocks secured to the canoes’ floors. Flexible hoses snaked from the jugs’ tops to allow the racers to drink without interrupting their strokes! The result was that 10 boats of the exact same racing model were customized to the point that the owners would have no difficulty determining whose boat was whose with just a glance.
The owners of the boats were of similar design to their crafts. They were generally long and lean paddlers, built for the long run and wearing the kind of tight-fitting spandex outfits favored by Tour de France cyclists. None of them wore a PFD.
A bit unnerved by the spectacle presented by the hard-core paddlers, Jack and Tommy took some comfort in the fact that some of the racers looked like regular folks. They came in various shapes, sizes, sexes and ages. There was even a lowly aluminum Grumman canoe hiding here and there, as well as a few glowing wooden canoes of short length, maximum rocker, and upturned ends. Still, the overall impression was one in which the NCMCers felt somewhat out of place.
A mad start
Soon enough, however, the race started, and waves of paddlers in various classes went off down the lake in a flurry of paddles and leaving a collective wake of a magnitude one would have thought impossible to produce through muscle power alone. There was a baffling array of classes of racers based on the boats and the people in them. There were “racing” canoes and “recreational” canoes and “standard” canoes — the standard canoes were slower than racing models but faster than the tubby recreational hulls — and tandem and solo versions of each. There were one- and two-person kayaks, and traditional Adirondack “guide boats,” some with a single person at the oars, and others with an oarsman accompanied by a paddler in the stern. There were war canoes (no peace canoes, per se) and some craft that seemed to be neither canoe nor kayak. Piloting all these boats were teams of young men (in the open category), middle-aged men (called “masters”) and geezer men (called “seniors”). There were also teams of women entered in all the various age groups, as well as a kids’ age group, and couples vying for one of the “mixed” crowns. There was also a family category in which a parent and child could compete. It seemed that the only distinctions lacking were to group paddlers by sexual orientation, political leaning and color of boat: “Next to the starting line, in standard-class red Wenonahs with cane seats and no footrests, are gay men over 40 who nevertheless vote Republican and use straight paddles.”
Oh, they’re really racing
Jack and Tommy were in the “C-2 Standard Men’s Masters” category, which is the category for men over 40 in canoes that are not quite racing hulls, but weigh less than 55 pounds. Due to a mix-up, however, they failed to start with their class and ended up going off with the last wave of the day, which was a racer wave. The racing boats they started with disappeared from view in a matter of seconds, leaving Jack and Tom alone on the lake. That day has turned out to be the most pleasant day of the 15 90-Miler race days Tommy has experienced and the 18 that Jack has completed. Left to their own devices, they traveled the Fulton Chain of lakes and Brown’s Tract (a, narrow, winding, reed-framed, shallow, tannin-colored stream leading to Racquette Lake) at a fairly relaxed pace, enjoying the scenery on lakes they had never before paddled and taking full advantage of the food and drink provided at the pit stops along the portages. At the pit stops, they stopped to stretch their legs, eat candy bars, and chat with the volunteers, many of whom looked at them quizzically, or gazed past them while asking if they knew if any paddlers were still behind them (A possibility they apparently considered to be quite slim).
Despite their leisurely pace, which took them in paddling solitude to the end of Brown’s Tract by late afternoon, they were quite tired upon reaching Racquette Lake, where they learned that the race was over for the day due to high winds on the lake. Pleased to have to paddle only 25 miles rather than 35, they called it a day. It wasn’t until Day Two in 1993 that Jack and Tommy realized that they were actually in a race and that the other paddlers were going hard the entire day; paddling without interruption, rushing along the portages and, in the case of some paddlers, peeing as they carried their canoes. Since they started Day Two in their proper wave, and before the waves of racers took off, Jack and Tommy were for the first time in the thick of things and finally able to see just how fast the racers went as they were overtaken by them on Long Lake. The racers’ boats actually lurched forward as the paddlers’ blades bit into the water. It was a somewhat humbling spectacle to see how the serious paddlers went at it.
Different strokes for different folks
This revelation on Day Two in 1993 came after they had spent the previous night at Forked Lake Campground, where they had been shuttled after the first day’s racing was cut short. Unlike other campgrounds with designated sites, Forked Lake simply offered a few acres of open meadow alongside the lake of the same name. Tents in all styles, sizes and colors were closely crowded together on the grass, gear was strewn everywhere, and there were lines of paddlers — dancing in place from the need to “go” — in front of the few portable toilets. Alongside the meadow was a dirt parking lot filled with cars, trucks, vans, and motorhomes. Paddlers and their supporters were, in football “tailgating” fashion, hanging around the vehicles, eating and drinking and recalling the events of the day. They quickly dubbed the campground “Woodstock.”
Tents sights were at a premium on this day, to the detriment of late-arriving paddlers who had to set up their own camp. Indeed, one of the greatest distinctions between contestants is not what they do on the water, but how they manage the off-water logistics.
Consider Paddler A, who competes in the race without “pit crew” support from family or friends. He must drive with his boat to Saranac Lake, where the race concludes, on the day before the race begins. He unloads his boat and puts it on a trailer bound for Old Forge, where the race will start the next morning. He then has to find a place to park his car for three days and hope it doesn’t get towed. He then carries his gear to the van that will shuttle him down to Old Forge, a trip of nearly two hours. Picking up his race credentials in Old Forge, he then takes a van to a local campground for the night, where he sets up camp. The next morning, he packs up, throws his gear on a truck, and takes the shuttle to the race’s start. He finds his boat, affixes a number to the bow, and paddles 35 miles through whatever conditions he encounters. Dead tired six or seven hours later, he puts his canoe on a trailer at Forked Lake campground, finds his gear among the packs and bags on the gear truck, and looks for a small square of grass where he can set up his tent (He is like the last arrival at a crowded beach who has difficulty deciding whether a small patch of sand is open to his blanket, or is more appropriately the privacy buffer between two other beachgoing groups who were there first). If he is on the race’s meal plan, he takes a shuttle to and from the restaurant where dinner is being served. The next day he repeats the process of packing up, being shuttled to the race start, finding his canoe and paddling 33 miles, trailering his boat, riding in a van to Fish Creek campground, finding his gear, setting up camp, and shuttling to and from dinner. Sunday morning he packs up, paddles 22 miles to the finish line, finds his gear, go gets his car, loads his gear and his boat, and drives home alone.
Now consider Paddler B, the man with the pit crew. He is driven by friends or family directly to Old Forge, where he stays in a motel. The next morning he has breakfast at a diner and then goes to the start of the race, secure in the knowledge that his packing is being done for him. He paddles the course, perhaps being met along the way at one of the portages by his pit crew, which offers moral support and perhaps something tasty or a dry shirt, etc. At the end of the day, he pulls into Forked Lake campground, where his tent has already been set up and a cooler of beer waits on ice. He is either driven to dinner in his own car, or perhaps he gets a grilled dinner at his campsite. The next morning he has no packing to do and is driven to breakfast and the race start at the beginning of Long Lake, or has breakfast prepared by someone else in camp. After the day’s paddling, he is picked up in his car for the drive to Fish Creek campground, where the camp is already established. He probably has a nice dinner there prepared by someone else and can sleep in the next morning until the coffee is ready. After his third day of paddling, his pit crew loads his boat on his car. With someone else at the wheel, he has a couple of beers in the car until he falls asleep on the ride home.
Paddler C has all the support enjoyed by Paddler B, but, rather than camp, he stays in the official race-provided lodging, or other lodging that he arranges, and takes a hot bath or shower at the conclusion of each race day.
All else being equal, Paddler B and C certainly have an advantage over Paddler A, although Paddler A receives no time handicap in the race for “roughing it” during the three days.
The NCMC paddlers tend to choose a little from Paddler A and a little from Paddler B. Tommy usually drives to Saranac Lake by himself and shuttles down to Old Forge. Billy, Jack and Jay may drive to Old Forge and leave their car there, because Mary will be up at some point on the weekend, ensuring their transportation back to Old Forge. The paddlers may also avail themselves of some of the many Buffalo firefighters who participate in the race. These easy-going fellows may help shuttle a car or supply some beer during the race. Part of the fun of the race is the improvising that is necessary when things don’t go according to plan, as in 1999.
The best-laid plans
The Plan for 1999 was as follows: Tommy would drive directly to Old Forge for the first time since 1993, avoiding the huge hassle of going to Saranac Lake. Jack, Billy and Jay would also drive to Old Forge the night before the race. Mary and Vanessa would come up at some point on the weekend and come through Old Forge, where one of them would get Tommy’s car and bring it to the Saranac Lake area. At the end of the race, Tommy would have his car without having to have used the Saranac to Old Forge shuttle. Jay, Billy and Jack would ride back to Old Forge with Mary and Vanessa, where they would get the other car from Buffalo, and head home. As Bruce sings in “Tunnel of Love,” “… ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough.”
What happened in 1999 was as follows: Tommy, Jack, Billy and Jay arrived in Old Forge as planned. Jack had actually got rooms in a motel right near the start and had brought two Sundowners. Jack tried his best to get Jay and Billy to stay up late drinking beer. He figured — most reasonably — that heavy drinking would limit both boats’ stamina the next day, but that would hurt the muscular firemen, who rely on their strength, more than it would it would damage Jack’s and Tommy’s key attributes, which are their timing and technique. Unfortunately, Jay and Billly were having none of it. They climbed into bed immediately and waved off Jack’s proferred Budweisers.
The next morning the group engaged in their usual leisurely and late breakfast at a diner followed by their usual frantic packing. Also as usual, despite having done the race many times, they had no idea when their wave might be going off. They rushed to the start area, only to discover that the truck into which they were going to throw their gear had already left. Fortunately, they were able to throw their stuff in one of the volunteers’ vans. They then ditched their cars at the ice cream stand and managed to get to the start shortly before their wave took off. This fortunate happenstance is not to be confused with just making it to an airline flight or a wedding in the nick of time. In those cases, people know what time their flight is or what time the wedding is. On the other hand, our stalwart NCMCers had no idea when their heat was going off, other than sometime after the start of the race. In other words, it was just plumb dumb luck that they made it in time. Nevertheless, they did take off (with Jay resplendent in his pink gloves), and reached Forked Lake at the end of a long day of paddling.
It was a little less long of a paddling day for Jack and Tommy, who arrived first of the two boats, so they found the truck, unpacked the four paddlers’ gear, and lugged it to their favorite camping spot at Forked Lake, which is the small open area above the parking lot and the general hubbub. Tommy wanted to set up the tent, but he couldn’t find it, so he waited (and waited) for Jay and Billy to finally arrive. When Jay and Billy did arrive, it became painfully clear that no one had taken the tent from Jack’s van. This was the first time the group, on any of their many expeditions, had left a tent behind unintentionally (A tent was intentionally left behind on a winter trip to Indian Pass that included Conor in the party).
Fortunately, Tommy had brought a large tarp and a long rope, and they rigged it up leanto fashion and arranged their Thermarests and sleeping bags underneath. There was really nothing else to do, for even if they could get to Jack’s van, the keys were locked inside it along with the keys to Tommy’s Subaru, which was parked alongside the van in the parking lot of an ice cream stand in Old Forge. Jack remarked that there really had been no point in his locking his keys in the van, but that, in fact, was the case. Jay, however, had other ideas. The redoutable Dan Corcoran and a big and gregarious fellow firefighter named Spence were heading in someone’s car to Old Forge to get Spence’s motorhome, and Jay planned to go as well. Billy, Jack and Tommy urged Jay not to go, since he would be unable to get the tent, and would miss the good dinner in Long Lake. Jay thought, however, that he might be able to unlock Jack’s car using a coat hanger or other device.
If only Jay weren’t so resourceful
Jay headed to Old Forge, and the other three paddlers headed to dinner. Upon returning from dinner, the three bedded down under the tarp, whereupon Jack discovered he did indeed have a spare key to the van in his pocket, which he could have given to Jay. Tommy did not think much of it. True, if Jay had headed off with the key, Tommy could have told him to bring back his car, with all his gear and beer, along with the tent from Jack’s van. But so what, he thought, Mary and Vanessa would be bringing his car up the next day anyway. The important thing was that he wouldn’t have to go back to Old Forge after the race.
As the three paddlers dozed off under the tarp, Jay returned, with the tent and …. JACK’S VAN! It turned out that one of Jay’s fellow travelers to Old Forge happened to have a Chrysler key with him, so they tried it in the van’s lock, and it worked! Tommy was stupefied. Since he had not thought for a second that Jay would ever actually get into Jack’s van, he had never said, “Hey, Jay, if you are able to unlock the van, and you decide you want to bring back a car, would you please make sure that it’s my Subaru? Thank you.” The result was that Tommy had to ride back to Old Forge after the race with the Semlers, and then had to drive home via Interstate 90 from lovely Utica, New York.
The rookies fall for an old trick
Yes, it had been quite a first day of the race, without even considering the race itself. As for that part of the day, it had been a beautiful day to paddle; relatively calm water and not too hot. Tommy and Jack got off the starting line smartly and before long established a lead over Jay and Billy that was large enough to make them unworried but small enough to keep them from getting complacent. At one point they passed Dan and Spence (Dan had completed the race two years earlier with Jay and had sworn he was never coming back, but here he was, serving as bowman for a paddling novice and first-time Classic participant). Jack, noting that Dan and Spence were using straight shaft paddles, offered them the spare bent shaft paddle in his boat. Tommy remained silent, although he knew this could be a bad idea. In general, he was opposed to fraternization during the race; he thought it slowed them down and got them off course. The two boats merged and Jack threw the spare paddle in the general direction of Dan and Spence. The paddle plopped in the water and quickly drifted behind the firemen’s hull. Showing the good nature for which firefighters are universally know, Dan and Spence stopped and turned back to retrieve the paddle, joking that Jack had tossed it errantly on purpose to slow their progress. Since the two Buffalonians, like all firemen, were built like brick shithouses, Tommy was relieved. He noted, however, that now his boat was without a spare paddle, and that there had been occasion when his boat had indeed required a spare paddle during the Classic. But on this day it turned out that the only thing they had lost was the weight of the spare blade.
Out of the loop
While Day One of the 1999 Classic was more eventful off the water rather than on, the reverse was true on Day Two. The four NCMCers made it to the start on Long Lake without incident, and there were none of the usual last-second trips to the portable toilet by Jack or Jay just as the starter is calling for the standard men’s masters to get on the water. This need to “go” just before the start of the race has always been exacerbated by the fact that the restaurant-lodge that hosts breakfast on Day Two lacks a large enough public restroom to accommodate the many paddlers’ needs (Tommy recalls one year when he passed the time waiting for Jack to use the restaurant’s bathroom by watching Princess Diana’s funeral on television in the bar area. Tommy thought the funeral and the television coverage were a bit overblown and told Jack as much when he appeared. “It’s not as if Mother Teresa died,” he said to Jack. “She just did,” was the reply, underscoring the fact that canoe racing in the Adirondacks often leaves one unaware of breaking news). Jay conquered the bathroom problem in 1999 with a stroke of genius. Ignoring the line to the downstairs restroom, he ventured into the upstairs lodge area of the place, wandered the hall until he found a vacant room, and availed himself of its unoccupied bathroom. It is unknown whether he startled any of the hired help.
Accidentally on purpose
The mistake Jack and Tommy made at the start of the 1999 race on Day Two was to start near Jay and Billy, who bumped them in the first 100 yards, sending their bow crashing into a third boat amidships. “Learn how to steer the f#$&ing boat!” was the shouted admonition from the sternman of the third boat to Tommy, who said nothing in reply. Jack quickly put their boat back on course and they were able to gain some ground on Jay and Billy. As they settled into their rhythm, however, they heard the big splash of a capsize behind them. Without turning around, Tommy said to Jack, “Tell me it isn’t them.” “It is,” was the response.
Jack and Tommy turned their boat around and headed back to rescue their friends/rivals, who were hanging on to their upside-down Sundowner. Two other boats had already stopped to assist, and one of them even helped Jay and Billy right their boat and held it steady while Billy climbed aboard. Billy paddled the boat to shore by kneeling in the middle as the next wave of racers came storming by. Meanwhile, Jack and Tommy towed Jay, who made a fine anchor, to shore.
While Billy and Jay collected themselves, Jack and Tommy resumed paddling. Tommy felt relieved of a great weight. “This is great,” he said, realizing that since their chance for a good time on that day was lost, they could enjoy the kind of leisurely paddle they experienced on the first day they had ever raced in 1993. He said as much to Jack, but Jack said they might as well paddle hard and get the day over with anyway so that they could start drinking beer. Tommy found Jack’s logic to be impeccable and continued to bury his blade in the water up to the shaft. It was perhaps an hour or so later that they caught sight of the boat they had rammed at the start. Tommy told Jack he was going to tell them that they had stopped to rescue their friends and still hadn’t learned how to steer the f#$&ing boat, but they nevertheless were going to kick their butts in the day’s racing. He thought better of it, however, and they steamed by the other boat in silence.
Neither at the time of the capsize nor since have Jay and Billy offered an explanation for their U-Boat maneuver. Perhaps they simply invoked the code of silence that forbids a paddler from informing on his partner. Generally speaking, a capsize should bring the sternman under immediate suspicion. Only he can see his partner, and therefore adjust to a dangerous move by a bowman in time to keep a boat from tipping. Also, what may seem like a modest lean or weight shift on the part of a sternman can be enough to pitch his unwarned and unsuspecting bow partner overboard. Tommy, a well-regarded bowman who always keeps his upper body centered over his seat, has remarked that on many occasions during the annual races he believed he was very close to going over the side because of some unseen and no doubt slight weight shift by Jack, who often wiggles about to take the pressure off his bad hip. Accidents, no matter how seemingly inexplicable, can happen, but there is a darker possibility that the Editor would be negligent not to put before his readers. To speak bluntly, AN INTENTIONAL CAPSIZE CANNOT BE RULED OUT. Consider the following scenario: Jay and Billy finish Day One well behind Jack and Tommy. Having given up hope that “this year will be different,” they decide on the morning of Day Two to angle near Jack and Tommy at the start and “accidentally” bump them hard in the hope that they force a capsize. They would then help rescue Jack and Tommy to cover up their foul play, making it appear that the crash was the kind of unavoidable accident that often occurs during the chaos of the start. They figure that a despondent Jack and Tommy will now slack off and just go through the motions, ending the competition between the two boats and turning the remainder of the race into an easy social cruise with no “winner.” They bump Jack and Tommy, but fail to force a capsize. Seeing their rivals beginning to pull away, they activate Plan B, which is to capsize themselves, safe in the knowledge that Jack and Tommy will be too good-hearted to ignore their distress. Although they themselves capsize rather than Jack and Tommy, the same effect is presumably produced — Jack and Tommy take it easy the rest of the day and the rest of the race.
A farfetched explanation? Perhaps. A foolish presumption on the part of Billy and Jay? Absolutely. Could Jay and Billy easily capsize without trying? Certainly. Keep in mind, however, that desperate circumstances call for desperate measures, and those boys may well have been desperate. One last point: JAY WAS WEARING HIS PERSONAL FLOTATION DEVICE AT THE TIME OF THE CAPSIZE. This is the same libertarian fellow who does not wear a bicycle helmet and who has complained repeatedly about the race regulation that allows race officials to order the wearing of vests if they believe conditions warrant. Indeed, while racing during a previous year, Jay did not even have his vest in his boat, and was forced to beg, borrow or steal one before he and his partner could enter a windy Raquette Lake. Very interesting, to say the least.
But let us return to the race. Day Two, as participants know, is brutal. You paddle 20 miles down Long Lake and into the Raquette River before the day’s only portage, a mile-long up-and-down slog around Raquette Falls. You then paddle 13 more miles down the winding river to the finish. Because you are on the river, rather than traveling from lake to lake, you have little clue as to how much progress you are making. You travel around bend after bend after bend, despairing that any one of them will ever reveal the finish line. Despair turns to sullenness, with occasional bursts of anger at oneself for not being able to deduce one’s position, and for entering the stupid race in the first place. “Where the hell is it,” you complain of the finish. But the finish of Day Two is all the more gratifying because you cannot believe it has, at long last, finally come. Dare we say that finishing Day Two brings more relief that finishing the race itself? Does the pope make big potty in the woods?
It should be noted that in 1999 race officials changed the official distance of Day Two from 30 miles to 33 miles and shortened the distance of Day Three from 25 miles to 22 miles. This change certainly seemed reasonable in light of the universally perceived brutality of Day Two. The Editor also believes that an analysis of race times would indicate that the revised distances are more in keeping with reality.
Thank God it’s over
After Day Two the tired but intrepid paddlers removed themselves to Fish Creek to camp with Mary, Vanessa and Kate. With a mere 22 miles to go on the morrow, the NCMCers enjoyed a relaxed evening sitting around the campfire and trying to figure out the relationship between the prisoner and his visitor in the “brother and sister I have none, but that man’s father is my father’s son” riddle. Tommy even slept in a short bed in Spence’s comfortable motorhome so as not to break up the conjugal visit in Jack’s or Jay’s tents. The next morning the racers could walk to the nearby starting line. Jay and Billy again bumped Jack and Tommy at the start, with Jay grabbing their thwart to pull his boat ahead. Overcoming this minor setback, as well as running aground at the start, Jack and Tommy cruised through the day, and once again encountered the old kilt-wearing bagpiper on one of the portages. For the third time, they beat 4:10 on Day Three, but could not, like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, turn in a sub four-hour day.
To their credit, Jay and Billy whipped along nicely themselves on Day Three, showing signs that they may one day be a team to be reckoned with, a team that calls switches (and obeys them) on a timely basis, a team that plants its paddles in the water simultaneously, a team that capsizes neither intentionally nor by mistake, a team that could only do better if it peed while running down a portage. A team, in short, that can keep Jack and Tommy glancing behind them from time to time to see if they are in sight and, if so, pick it up a little.
An unplumbed mystery
There is little more to say about the Adirondack Canoe Classic (Yes, I know you thought that a long time ago). It should be noted that Dylan performed admirably in the 1995 race. As with his brother and winter camping, once was quite enough. If only their father and his friends were so wise.
Jack and Tommy have an enduring goal of a top 10 finish in their Classic class. It would probably require an 18-foot Jensen and a cumulative loss of 20 or so pounds of excess fleshy baggage by the paddlers, but it is not impossible. As for Jay and Billy, graphite paddles are the next logical progression, along with Jay moving permanently to the bow, if only so Billy doesn’t get permanent scars on the outside of his knees.
The four of them, of course, could in the future figure out when their class is going off on each day. Since the only one that this uncertainty creates great angst for is Tommy, perhaps he should be assigned that task.
At this writing, the Editor does not know if the Thermarest issue has been resolved. As best can be determined, Tommy went home with his fat turquoise pad, Jay went home with two of his untold number of pads, and Jack was stubbornly holding Billy’s Thermarest hostage until his Thermarest was produced.
The Adirondack Canoe Classic has much to recommend it. As with real estate, its three most admirable attributes are location, location, location. The racers are, except for the jerk who made the steering comment, a fine group of outdoorsmen and woodswomen. It is certainly an incentive to get in shape and you get a nice pin for completing the race. It is a three-day workout of great challenge.
It offers, ultimately, a chance to annually explore the deep mystery of how in God’s name to move a canoe through the water in the most efficient manner. Yes, it is clear why the racers with their flat stomachs and ropy muscles, their narrow boats, graphite paddles and water hoses, their portage running and portage peeing, and their early-to-bed and no-beer philosophy have good race times. But what of the others who do well and always leave the NCMCers shaking their heads in bewilderment? What of the old man and his granddaughter who seem to barely dip their paddles? What of the pair of mature women who cannot be overtaken? What of the pair of out-of-shape guys in the short, wide and heavy canoe? Why in the world do their canoes move along so well with what appears to be indifferent effort on their part? What, pray tell, have they figured out? Whatever it is, it is eluding the NCMCers. Or maybe it just the beer and the bickering keeping them from triumph on the water. If so, so be it.