Two Good Starts Out of Three Ain’t Bad
The course of the Adirondack Canoe Classic stretches 90 miles from Old Forge to Saranac Lake. It’s the same distance from Albany to Utica. More on that later. For the third year in a row, the North Country Men’s Club entered a four-man team in the paddling race and, for the second year in a row, Jack, Bill, John and Tom were the crew. It was also a different boat for the third straight year, as the NCMC, which used a 20-foot-long Minnesota 3 last year, traded it in this year to race czar Brian McDonnell for a 23-foot Minnesota 4. How Jack steers such a monster barge from the stern is a mystery (sometimes even to Jack), and it requires a loud “Hut!”, particularly in traffic, for the bow man to hear the command to switch sides.
Bob Goger, who did an exemplary, first-rate, top-notch, super-duper, bang-up job last year as pit crew (Too many superlatives, you say? Well, you never know when he might be needed again, regardless of whether he sets up tents and cooks), was succeeded by long-time pitter Jan, who drove with Tom to Albany, where they met John and proceeded north, stopping for traditional hearty fare and brew in North Creek at the too-fancy-for-that-part-of-the-Adirondacks Copperfield Inn. From there, it was on to Old Forge, where they registered for the race, picked up their 25th Anniversary 90-Miler T-shirts (navy with glittery silver lettering!)and affixed the No. 8 stickers to the boat (Tom put one sticker on upside down, so it’s a good thing it wasn’t a number that wouldn’t work both ways, like 11). They then headed down the road to their motel, which this year wasn’t their usual accommodation right behind the race course. This farther-away site had the benefit of preventing anyone from bringing a boat into a hotel room for last-minute tuning. Jack and Bill were coming later from Buffalo, as it was Erin’s birthday, so Tom went about barricading the door to his room so that the late arrivals would not try to awaken him from his pre-race sleep.
Bill and Jack did eventually arrive and the next morning the five of them got up at 6 a.m. and went to a modest restaurant for pancakes or French toast or eggs and home fries. Bill got the Lumberjack breakfast (and he’s okay), which had a bit of everything. They then went back to the motel to get their race faces on and find their paddles, sunscreen, water systems and hats. As they went in and out of their rooms, three deer appeared near their doorways and stood there expectantly. At one point, the racers heard a racket and came out to see that one of the deer had stuck its nose in the back of the Subaru wagon and had knocked a package of Budweiser out of the car. Several of the cans pssstttted as they rolled around on the asphalt and had to be destroyed.
All Men Overboard
There’s no use in crying over spilt beer, so it was off to the start of the race. Remarkably, they made it in plenty of time to ditch Jack’s car, find their boat and get in the water for their wave of four-man boats. The gun went off (actually, Brian said, “Ready, set, go!” or something like that) and they were off. Amazingly, they got off as straight as an arrow at the start and were going so fast in the initial seconds that there was nothing but calm, open water in front of them, rather than the sterns of the other boats and the chop and waves that they produce. Tom was marveling at this surprising prospect and thinking that they just might do well this year, when he saw the bow of boat No. 17 careening at ramming speed at a 45-degree angle to a point just aft of John, who sat in the number two seat of the NCMC boat behind Bill in the bow. Just before impact, Tom noted that the bow person in the offending boat was doing nothing to avert the collision. She sat frozen in the bow with her paddle pulled off the water. “We’re going over,” Tom thought as the bow of No. 17 slammed into their hull. Boat No. 8 titled sideways just to the rail and Tom thought for a second that it might rebound upright, but it went down a little more and water started pouring in and over they went. As he went out of the boat, Tom grabbed the near gunwale of the offending craft with both hands and said to himself that he might as well take its occupants with him into the water. Surprisingly, as his weight began to tilt the other boat over, he relented and let it go. Now the four NCMC paddlers found themselves treading water around their overturned canoe and thrashing about to grab paddles, life vests and other gear that was floating off. Tom glanced at water level toward the other four-man canoes that were merrily heading down the lake and adding to the NCMC’s deficit. Help for the NCMC came in the form of Grace McDonnell, who quickly took charge of the rescue effort from the stern of her four-man canoe. She explained that they were going to take the capsized canoe over her canoe upside down to get the water out and place it upright in the water. They accomplished that task and then put the righted boat parallel to hers. Grace and her team held onto the gunwales of the NCMC boat so the NCMC could lift themselves back in one at a time from the other side of their boat. They did so, with John boosting the others ahead of him. They were soaked, but it was warm and the sun was coming out, so they felt okay as they headed off after the rest of their wave of canoes. They still had more than 34 miles to go in their day.
Aside from the capsize, it was a fairly typical day on the water. The slower boats had gone off in the five waves of canoes before their own, and the NCMC passed dozens of boats, including some of the 19 other four-person canoes, as they worked to regain water (They passed Grace McDonnell’s boat at one point, and this allowed Jack to retrieve his hat, which someone in Grace’s boat had plucked from the water at the time of the capsize). The NCMC has not been known for its alacrity on portages, and there are four carries on the first day, including two long ones, so they sometimes passed a boat twice, as a passed boat would in turn pass the NCMC on the portage, and then be passed a second time on the water by the NCMC. They did a good job navigating the devilish Brown’s Tract, a narrow stream lined with lily pads that winds its way with U-turns through a vast swamp before emptying into Raquette Lake. Eventually they could see Blue Mountain in the distance and knew that the lake with the same name, which held the finish line, was not far off. Tom’s water system malfunctioned after the capsize and he was pretty dry toward the end of the race and was flailing a bit with his paddle, but his teammates brought the boat home.
Jan was waiting at the finish and carted them off to Lake Eaton, outside of Long Lake, which is the traditional camping spot after Day One of the race. Jan had secured a waterfront site looking toward the late afternoon sun and the paddlers took a swim to remove the day’s grime. Jan had also set up the tents, and was profusely praised by the paddlers for doing that chore, particularly because some of the tents seemed to be too big for one person to erect. While Jan basked in this praise, a man from another campsite sauntered up to the NCMC and informed them that the tents had blown clean off the campsite during the afternoon in the heavy breeze coming off Lake Eaton and that he and a companion had retrieved them and used their own tent stakes to secure them. (At this point, Jan’s grade for the day dropped from an “A” to a “B+). It was quite windy in camp and they had to shelter the stoves to cook their dinner of tortellini. Cell service was spotty in camp and Jack went off in the Subaru to see if he could phone Mary, who was heading to Lake Eaton from Buffalo. He returned having contacted Mary and learning she was not far away. He had also had to get a jump start because he thought the car battery was dead. In fact, he hadn’t been pushing the cranky clutch in far enough to allow him to start the car. Also en route from Buffalo were Jay, Isaac and Levi. Jay had retired from paddling several years ago after having completed a bunch of 90-Milers, but he was coming to assist the NCMC.
Mary and Samantha arrived after a bit, and they hung out for a while before turning in. Sleeping was difficult because the wind was howling non-stop and rattling their tents’ flies and poles. At on point, Tom awoke and peered out the window of his tent and saw the glow of a flashlight that was no doubt being wielded by a member of the late-arriving trio of Tillotson men from Buffalo.
Long Lake and the Raquette River
Tom got up at 6 a.m. and emerged from his tent to see that Jack’s and Bill’s tents were pretty much caved in from the overnight pounding of the wind. There was no major damage, however, and the occupants of those tents were able to crawl out. They went to breakfast at the hotel in Long Lake and then back to camp and then to the starting line. They got off well at the gun and started on the long haul up Long Lake to the Raquette River. Day Two is usually a good day for the NCMC as there is only the one portage, and teams that do well on portages have just that single opportunity to put time between themselves and NCMC. They passed a lot of boats heading up the lake and kept passing more as they entered the river, which was quite shallow for this year’s race due to the dry summer. They actually had to get out of the boat at one point and pull it over a shallow section of the river. Sometime after the long portage around Raquette Falls, as they paddled the endless turns of the Raquette River, they came upon and passed one of the other four-man boats. This was a squad of three young men and one young woman who was no slouch. They were quite pleased at having overtaken this team. Much to their dismay, however, the young folks overtook them just before the finish line and beat them by a few seconds. It had been a good day nevertheless and they repaired to the Semlers’ house for a swim in Upper Saranac Lake, hot showers and an energy-restoring dinner prepared by Mary and Jack.
On Day Three, Jack and Mary were up at dawn making pancakes and coffee, and the NCMC was well fortified for the last day of racing. They again got off to a clean start and remained in the middle of the pack of four-man canoes on Upper Saranac Lake and across Middle Saranac Lake. The low water made the Saranac River (the Saranac Lake Chain is actually the Saranac River drainage, and the river connects the lakes) a chore of navigation. For those unfamiliar with the science of canoe racing, shallow water makes for very slow going even if the paddlers have enough water to bury their paddle blades. For the paddlers, it feels as if they are laboring against a current. That’s because the water pushed down by their canoe bounces back off the bottom of the lake or stream and pops up in front of the boat, forcing the paddlers to “climb” over a constant wave.
Despite these conditions, the NCMC did well and, as the day progressed, they again overtook and battled the four-man boat that had edged them out the day before. This time, the NCMC got past the other boat on the last portage. The other boat hit the portage first, but the NCMC carried out a plan to carry their loaded boat upright over the relatively short portage rather than emptying the contents and carrying it upside down. This tactic allowed them to get back on the water first and, thanks to a take-no-prisoners stroke rate set by Bill in the bow, they never relinquished the slight lead they got the rest of the way.
Because of the low water, they stayed in the marked channel after the last portage all the way to the finish line at Lake Flower. It was raining at the finish, so they didn’t linger after wolfing down the post-race meal with Jan and Mary. For the record, they finished fourth out of the seven four-man boats and ninth out of the 20 four-person crews. It’s fair to say that sixth place overall would have been theirs without the capsize on Day One, which was not their fault. It was irksome, however, to lose again to those darn elderly Munsons (even though they had a ringer), as well as to the Paul Smiths College boat of young upstarts that beat them by NINE SECONDS over the three-day race, and picked up that winning margin by taking a short cut in the latter part of Day Three. Overall, the NCMC finished 71st out of 242 boats in the race.
It was the 13th 90-Miler for Jack (1,170 miles), the 12th for Tom and Bill (1,080 miles each) and the second for John (180 miles). That’s 39 90-Milers for the crew and 3,510 miles. It’s an experienced team that could do better in the future if they can work out enough to offset the ravages of advancing age. John, Tom and Jack will be 55 at the 2008 race, and Bill will be just short of his 55th birthday.
The Editor tends to remain dispassionate, but to paraphrase Bluto, I suggest the NCMC go into the 2008 race with a kick-ass attitude:
“What? Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! And it ain’t over now! ‘Cause when the going gets tough…the tough get going! Who’s with me? Let’s go!…What the %*&!+$ happened to the NCMC I used to know? Where’s the spirit? Where’s the guts? Huh? This could be the greatest three-day canoe race of our lives, but you’re going to let it be the worst. ‘Oh, we’re afraid to go with you, Bluto. We might get in trouble.’ Well, just kiss my ass from now on! Not me! I’m not gonna take this! Wormer? He’s a dead man. Marmalard? Dead! THAT BOAT FULL OF YOUNG PEOPLE? DEAD! PAUL SMITHS COLLEGE? DEAD! THE TICKNORS? DEAD!! THE MUNSONS? MOST DEFINITELY DEAD!!!!!
After the race, John, Tom and Jan headed south to Albany. After a couple of hours into their trip, Jack called them on his cell because, on his way to Old Forge in Mary’s car to pick up his car, he realized that his car key (or whatever new-fangled gadget he uses to start his car) was still in the Subaru carrying Jan, Tom and John. He had given the key to Jan at the start of the race on Day One, perhaps on Tom’s advice. We won’t get into how the key (or keyless gadget) for Jack’s car did not get retrieved. The solution, after Tom noted that the invention of the cell phone was not without its downside, was for Jan and Tom to drop John in Albany, and then head west to lovely Utica to meet Jack and give him his key. They actually met in Remsen, a small, one-gas-station village a little north of Utica (As of the census of 2000, there were 531 people, 202 households, and 136 families residing in Remsen). Here, the transfer of the key was executed and Jan and Tom then headed off to Connecticut. Jack, Mary. Bill and Samantha headed back to Old Forge to get Jack’s car, and then head home to Buffalo.
It would not be a 90-Miler for the NCMC without some sort of excitement that would not have been in the plan even if the NCMC actually made plans. A capsize and the key mishap ensured that the 2007 Adirondack Canoe Classic would not blur quite as fast among the NCMC annals of the race.
Gallery: 90-Miler 2007