Stumped on Oseetah
Compared to the grind of the 90-mile Adirondack Canoe Classic, the 10-mile Round the Mountain race is a breeze. Held on the weekend before Memorial Day, it doesn’t start until 10 a.m., so you can sleep in, and you’re finished a little more than two hours after you first dip your blade into the waters of Ampersand Bay on Lower Saranac Lake. For the battle-hardened NCMC, it’s the paddling equivalent of a walk in the park, and the club approaches it without any of the daunting memories that surface when the 90-Miler looms at the end of the summer.
Because the race promises only modest hardship, it looked like the 2002 race would attract a sizeable NCMC contingent. At various times leading up to the race, possible paddling teams included Jay and Vanessa, Jack and Mary, Billy and Kate, and Jan and Tom. David’s and Mike’s names were also raised by Jack. In the end, however, the NCMC provided four paddlers, with Jack and Tom pairing up and Billy and Kate entering the family category. We won’t go into the reasons for the absence of the others. Lack of babysitters were cited by some, and others just didn’t like the look of the weather, or the look they were getting from a spouse.
Where’s the Fire?
Traveling from Connecticut, Tom arrived near Saranac Lake at around 5 p.m. Saturday and took a hike before repairing to the Comfort Inn, where Billy had made reservations for the group. He was given a message by the motel desk clerk for Billy from a Debbie Corcoran, but didn’t read it. He called Mary to learn that Jack and company had not left until 5 p.m., and therefore couldn’t arrive until close to 11 p.m. He ran out to get a burger and upon returning, was hailed from a window of the motel by Dan Corcoran, one of Buffalo’s bravest and the wife of Debbie. The message for Billy that Tom had failed to read was that Debbie and Dan were in the motel. Since no one had told him that Dan and Debbie were doing the race, he had assumed that the message had been from Buffalo.
Tom went the Corcorans’ room for some Labatt Blue light beer. He returned to his room after 10 p.m. and was soon joined by the Buffalo contingent. They had gotten a late start because of trouble with Bill’s van, forcing a switch to Jack’s Volvo. It was later determined that the trouble was due to Billy’s flawed rotation of his van’s tires, which he had performed himself. En route to Saranac Lake, Bill was pulled over by a trooper for doing something like 75 in a 55 and 60 in a 30 in some Adirondack town. Since the readers of these reports know how to keep a secret, it can be revealed that Bill got off by informing the trooper that, although he was not headed for a fire, he was a captain with the Buffalo Fire Department. Those civil servants sure stick together. Because they had a race the next morning, the NCMCers hit the sack a little after 1 a.m. after a couple of Buds (Kate didn’t have any).
I t was 35 degrees the next morning, but only partly cloudy, and Jack and Tom drove to the start of the race to drop the boats off before getting breakfast. Jack and Tom were going to use their 18-foot Jensen, and Tom had brought his Sundowner for Bill and Kate to use. Unfortunately, unlike the Jensen and Bill’s own Sundowner, Tom’s Sundowner lacks a footbrace in the stern, which really helps the stern paddler in a race. Tom had brought along a makeshift brace of his own design made from foam blocks, a section of broom handle and rope. He told Jack he was going to get it from the car and put it in the boat, but Jack told him to forget about it. Tom would have agreed if Bill were racing with Jay against them, but he put his foot down on this occasion and said he would put the brace in the boat when they returned to the start after breakfast.
At this point, Tom had to explain to a doubtful Jack that they had to drive both of their cars back, rather than leave one at the start. When Jack inquired why, Tom explained that if they took one car back, and then drove back to the start with Bill and Kate, they would have no car waiting for them at the end of the race. This point finally sunk in with Jack and they headed back in both cars. They dropped Jack’s car at the finish line and proceeded to the motel for breakfast with Kate and Bill. Tom told Bill about Jack’s slow uptake regarding the cars, which had been doubly troubling because Jack and Tom had been over this same matter on their recent ski of the Jackrabbit Trail (On that occasion, when Tom had asked Jack which car he wanted to leave at the terminus of their planned ski route, Jack had said they should leave his car so that he would be able to head straight for home from that point). Bill wasn’t initially sure why Jack’s uptake regarding the cars was slow, but he soon comprehended the problem and they had a great breakfast to fortify themselves for the race.
Jack visits the bathroom (or the nearest wooded area as the case may be) as many times as possible in the hour before the starting gun of a canoe race, and this race was no exception. Nevertheless, they all made it into the car before too long after breakfast and headed for the start line in Ampersand Bay, stopping briefly at the finish line, where Jack’s car was now parked (I trust we all, at this point, understand why Jack’s car was parked there), so they could pick up a couple of items for Bill and Kate. At this point, Dan and Debbie drove up, and wondered why the others had left the motel without them. Tom thought they had been following him, but he was flummoxed himself by now about any matters regarding cars, and wasn’t sure who had screwed up. Anyway, Dan and Debbie now left their car at the finish and hopped into the back of Tom’s car. The six of them soon arrived at the race start, which was now busy with paddlers unloading boats, and got ready to race. They put their numbers on their boats with duct tape, put their water bags in place and Tom and Jack visited the nearest wooded area. In the usual pre-race confusion, Tom failed to remember to bring the footbrace from the car and put it in the boat for Bill. He had, however, brought his spare graphite paddle for Kate or Bill to use, which certainly more than made up for the lack of a footbrace.
The race began on time, with the starter admonishing the paddlers to “stay on top of the water” because of the cold air and cold water. Bill and Kate went off in the first heat, while Tom and Jack, and Dan and Deb, went off in the second heat. The paddlers faced a good headwind as they moved down Upper Saranac Lake. Overweight and undertrained, Jack and Tom soon found themselves struggling behind their rivals in the under 50 class of men in standard canoes (Watch out next year when they reach the half-century mark!). After a while they spotted Bill and Kate ahead of them and paddled alongside to exchange pleasantries, which required yelling over the wind. Bill complained about both his lack of a footbrace and his lack of water. Whatever Jack said, it was not sympathetic. Tom and Jack moved on, but couldn’t catch any boats paddled by men, and they themselves were passed by many racing boats that had started in the third heat. Some of the paddlers in these boats would not doubt fail a drug test, the cheaters!
He Didn’t Know What Hit Him
After paddling south down Lower Saranac Lake, they turned east toward the lock between Lower Saranac and Oseetah Lake. The lock is the location of the one short portage in the Round the Mountain. As they approached the lock, Tom told Jack that he would leave his Platypus water bag for Billy with a race official, so he and Kate could drink. It was a selfless decision on his part, but there were no race officials at the portage, so he couldn’t give up his water for Bill. Jack dropped the boat on the portage, costing them precious seconds, but they carried around the lock and jumped back in the boat and were off again.
They headed into Oseetah Lake and were going at a good clip when the boat slammed into something or was slammed into by something. Sitting in the bow, it was unclear to Tom which was the case, but the boat was turning over quickly onto its right side and he knew he was going swimming. As he began to fall out of the boat, he saw the problem; a huge black tree stump whose top was about three inches below the surface. He went under and came up next to the upside-down canoe. The water was about chin deep, at least where he was standing, but the bottom was mushy and he was sliding around. Jack looked higher up, as he was apparently standing on part of the stump. The water was quite cold, but not brutally so. Jack pointed to his paddle floating away and Tom swam a couple of strokes to retrieve it and returned to the boat.
Jack was looking around for assistance, but none appeared to be forthcoming. There was no way they could get back in the boat where they were, and towing the boat to shore did not seem like an option. Jack began to get irate that there were no race officials to help, and that other paddlers weren’t rushing to their aid. He suggested that it would be a good idea for them to get out the water before too long. Tom agreed wholeheartedly. The first thing to do was to empty the boat, which was now upright, but half-filled with water. It was surprisingly hard to turn the boat upside down and empty it, but they managed to do that just as a passing fishermen in a motorboat came up to help. He pulled his boat broadside to the canoe and held a gunwale down while Jack climbed onto the stump and crawled into his stern seat. They then backed the boat so that the bow was next to the stump, and Tom crawled aboard at the bow by the same method.
United Nations Relief Effort
At this point, Jack saw Billy paddling right by them with his eyes averted. Jack began to give him heavy grief for ignoring their plight, referring to him as the guy in Shackleton’s “Endurance” expedition who wasn’t a team player. Figuring that the best defense is a good offense, Billy retorted that Jack foolishly expected a major United Nations relief effort to be launched just because he fell out of his canoe, for chrissake, and that, anway, he hadn’t seen their plight, no doubt because he was looking down at the spot in the stern where a footbrace would have been if the boat had had one.
This back and forth continued as Tom and Jack got back in the race and began paddling again as the snowflakes fell. After a few miles of unpleasant paddling, they crossed the finish line and stumbled on half-frozen legs to Jack’s car and its life-saving heater.
Bill and Kate, looking as strong as they did at the start, crossed the finish line moments later in overdrive, and just missed winning hardware in their class. The Editor bets that a check of birth certificates would show that some of the other “kids” paddling with their parents in the “family” category were older than the age limit of 16. This fraud could no doubt have been overcome if Bill’s boat had been equipped with a proper footbrace. Dan and Debbie also did a good job in the challenging conditions, although Debbie reported that Dan pretended that he could not hear her complaints in the first miles of the race.
As for the capsize and Bill’s apparent indifference, there is no doubt in the Editor’s mind that if Billy ever comes upon Jack’s and Tom’s boat floating upside down, and sees their hats and paddles floating nearby, he will no doubt mention it to some officials at the finish line and suggest they may want to look for them if they don’t show up before too long. Readers must also be reminded that when Jay and Bill capsized a few years ago in the 90-miler, Jack and Tom came to their rescue, despite having been bumped by Jay and Bill at the race’s start on that day. It should also be noted that Billy joked at the end of the Round the Mountain that his earlier claim not to have seen Jack and Tom in the drink was the equivalent of Clinton’s claim that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”
After the race, the six paddlers assembled at the Blue Moon Cafe on Main Street in Saranac Lake and had a hearty lunch before heading home. They will no doubt reconvene in the Adirondacks in September for the 90-miler. When they hit Oseetah on Day Three in that race, the Editor advises Jack and Tom to stay in the marked channel, rather than hope to avoid the lurking black stumps outside the channel’s safe passage. It’s the stern paddler who determines the canoe’s course, isn’t it?
Gallery: 2002 Round the Mountain