A record seven members of the North Country Men’s Club gathered in Old Forge on the evening of September 7th in anticipation of the 35th anniversary edition of the Adirondack Canoe Classic, “The 90-Miler.”
It was to be Bill and Tom’s 20th race, and they were going to get the Gold Canoe and join Jack in an exclusive club (Some clubs earn their exclusivity by failing to attract a lot of members). Bill and Tom documented their eligibility for paddling’s golden idol by listing the previous races in which they had competed, but they were fairly confident of their submitted verifications, as the NCMC keeps detailed records and reports on its own exploits.
As usual, they had rooms (four of them on this occasion) at the refurbished Clark’s Beachfront Motel right by the start of the race at the beginning of the Fulton Chain of Lakes named for that steamboat guy. Joining the aforementioned three racers were John, who was going for his ninth 90-Miler, and three stalwart members of the pit crew: Bonnie, Jan, and Mary.
They had dinner at Sisters Bistro in Old Forge, which has become a bit of a tradition for the pre-race meal. Bill arrived late because he had to attend a wake, and was shortchanged at the dinner table.
Jack had arrived with the NCMC’s Jensen tandem on top of his car because Mac had asked Jack to bring it to loan to two racers who would otherwise have had to use some crappy, non-Wenonah boat. The Jensen still had a “16” race number on it from some previous competition. Spoiler alert: Jack would not be taking the Jensen back home to Buffalo.
They got their race numbers for the boat, their T-shirts (red with black piping at the neck and sleeves), and their meal tickets at the town office near the start line. Tom had signed the needed waiver for himself and Jack when he had sent in the race application, but had not forged the signatures of John and Bill. John signed for himself and Tom had Jack forge Bill’s signature so they would not have to wait until the next morning to register and get their boat numbers. While signing in as Bill, Jack asked Tom what size T-shirt he had ordered for Bill, but Tom told Jack, “I got you a large, Bill!” and their hoax went unrevealed.
Before dinner, they put the numbers on the boat (their Minnesota 4) to avoid dealing with dewy Kevlar the next morning, and Jack and Tom bought energy snacks and various paddling doodads, including 10 feet of unneeded plastic hose, from the couple who sell that stuff out of their motor home at every race.
They got up at 6 a.m. Friday morning and walked over to Walt’s Diner for breakfast. Walt’s used to be packed with racers for breakfast, but a breakfast for racers is now offered at a fire house near Clark’s, and the NCMC can always find an open table at Walt’s. Walt’s is the Clark’s of diners. The NCMC is salt of the earth.
It was cold and damp for the start of the race Friday morning, but not as cold as the forecast had predicted. They got off to a nice, clean, open water start in a large wave (Wave 3) of 39 boats, all but a couple of which were also C-4s. They got off to that nice start due to their skill, experience, and fitness, but mainly because they were in OPEN TOURING and competing against boats of comparable skill, experience, and fitness, or less. The palpable good mood and enthusiasm in the NCMC boat that comes from a clean start through open water that leaves other boats behind lasts all day long and cannot be overstated (That’s for Jack!).
The water this year was high and they had a following wind, so they made good time down the Fulton Chain.
They paddled down First, Second, Third, and Fourth Lakes and then entered the narrow, dock-lined inlet filled with enthusiastic spectators, some with cowbells, rooting them on. At the end of the inlet and before Fifth Lake they went under a bridge where the NCMC pit crew gets their first view of the NCMC boat since the start of the race. The short trip down Fifth Lake brought them to the first portage of the day, where they cross Route 28 in Inlet and jump into Sixth Lake. At the end of Seventh Lake they reach the long portage through Eighth Lake State Campground, where the pit crew meets them again and is ready to supply snacks and Advil. This year, Mary headed back to Old Forge from the campground to get Bill’s clothes from his car. It was reported that the pit crew’s members were vying avidly among themselves for the privilege of retrieving Bill’s clothes, as he is a favorite among the crew for his good spirits and chivalrous behavior, and his diligence in keeping Jack in line and focused. At the end of Eighth Lake they sped down the woodsy portage to Browns Tract, or Brown’s Tract or Brown Tract (you can find each of these spellings in various documents and on various maps). It should be pointed out at this time that portaging while racing in OPEN TOURING is much less hectic than for the boats in later waves. The early race start for the NCMC among equally mediocre paddling teams means that many fewer boats are attempting to pass the NCMC on the portages, and the NCMC finds itself running up the backs of many fewer boats that it would like to pass on the carry.
At the end of the tranquil portage, they dipped their boat into Browns Tract (that’s the spelling we will use) and found that the water was about as deep as it gets in that sinuous devil. The water was relatively deep, but its many twists and turns are always a challenge for the NCMC in its long C-4. The big boat is hard to get back up to speed after it is slowed by the need to turn 90 degrees or more, and a number of boats passed the NCMC as they labored on. Perhaps more boat lean on the turns is the answer.
Finally, they reached the end of Browns Tract and slipped under the bridge where their pit crew cheered them on as they entered Raquette Lake. Getting into wide and open Raquette Lake from Browns Tract evokes the same feeling of liberation among the NCMC paddlers as Bogie and Hepburn felt when the rising waters from the rains brought them out of the choking reeds and into the lake in “The African Queen.”
They paddled hard across Raquette toward the Marion River, whose current they would have to wage war against. Lo and behold, as they entered the Marion, they caught glimpses ahead of “Yellow Shirts,” a boat of four yellow-clad paddlers who had beat them off the start, fallen behind them on the Eighth Lake Campground portage (the Yellow Shirts seemed to be uncaring about rushing through the portages), and passed them in Browns Tract, at which point the one woman in the boat had dissed them with a very loud “Woooo” cheer. Yellow Shirts became a nemesis at that point, with Tom thinking they should be their target the next day, when there would be no brutal Browns Tract to navigate. But here they were now in sight on the Marion River and perhaps the NCMC could pay them back on this day. The NCMC plugged along up the Marion, which is very pretty and ought to be leisurely paddled downstream to the Raquette rather than upstream from it. The water was unusually high in the Marion, and the NCMC paddled over a beaver dam rather than having to get out of the boat and haul over the dam. There was a short intense rainstorm in the Marion, and they were pretty soaked when they got to the last portage of the day. As they wheeled down the portage, they came up behind Yellow Shirts. At the end of the portage, they got in their boat before Yellow Shirts could take off. Paddling smartly down Utowana and Eagle Lakes, the NCMC entered Blue Mountain Lake and could see Blue Mountain itself rising up past the lake. They stayed ahead of Yellow Shirts through Blue Mountain Lake and felt fairly good when they finished for the day. It had been cool, and none of the NCMC paddlers had run out of water. They finished fourth in their wave in a time of 6:14, and none of the other boats in their wave had bested the six-hour mark. They had also passed many boats during the day that had started before the NCMC in Waves 1 and 2. Regularly passing boats during the day provides an important psychological boost for the NCMC crew than cannot be overstated, and the cause of the boost is OPEN TOURING (That’s for Jack!).
At the finish line, race organizer Brian McDonnell’s volunteers carried the NCMC boat to a trailer and the paddlers had only a short walk to the pit crew cars, which sped them to the clubhouse on Kimpton Road. Mary dashed to Saranac Lake to pick up a fine lasagna dinner, which they heartily consumed while the woodstove gave off its warmth.
On Saturday, they got up early and had a fine breakfast before driving to Long Lake for Day Two racing. Estimates of how long it takes to drive from Kimpton to Long Lake range from 20 minutes to an hour, and cars left for the race based on which estimate the car’s occupants thought was more realistic.
All NCMC racers arrived at the Long Lake start without mishap, and the team got on the water for their wave. They enjoyed another clean start and made it to the bridge in Long Lake (which is a great vantage point for spectators) ahead of all but a handful of boats in their wave. Conditions were good for the long slog down Long Lake, with what wind there was coming from somewhere behind broadside to their hull. As Bill pointed out, starting early in OPEN TOURING almost always guarantees more favorable conditions on Long Lake than those that are encountered by boats starting in later waves.
Jack did a masterful job of steering and course-setting up Long Lake. They were able to spend a good amount of time riding the side wake of a couple of their rivals. This maneuver, which is more difficult in a C-4 than a tandem canoe, kept them within striking distance of their main competition in their wave, and also produced more separation between them and the trailing boats.
Yellow Shirts (a man and wife team of about NCMC age plus two young bucks from somewhere or other) was ahead of the NCMC when it entered the Racquette River, but Yellow Shirts pulled over for a break on the riverbank, and the NCMC passed them. You have to admire the attitude of Yellow Shirts: good paddlers willing to pause for enjoyment.
As with the rest of the racecourse, the Racquette River was swelled by the summer rains and the NCMC made good time for two reasons: faster current and less need to turn the boat. They reached the long portage around Racquette Falls sooner than they expected. The NCMC doesn’t bring the wheels in the boat on Day Two, as the rocky, up-and-down portage around Racquette Falls is not conducive to wheeling the boat. They thought it was cheating not to use the wheels each day, but it turns out that the requirement that wheels must be in the boat each day or no days only applies to boats that are not in OPEN TOURING. With two paddlers carrying the C-4 upside down and with two paddlers carrying the paddles and vests, etc., they made decent time on the difficult portage and were back in the river quickly. The Racquette River from the falls to “The Crusher” takeout on the way to Tupper Lake can seem endless, but the NCMC, always fearful of being overtaken in the river by a boat in their race wave, kept up their good pace down the river and even caught sight of a boat in their wave (two young men and two young women) that was ahead of them. They did not catch that boat, but made up time on it in the river. They also saw their pit crew at Axton Landing. The racers weren’t as spent as usual when they finished for the day, and they never saw Yellow Shirts again following that boat’s rest on the riverbank. Their Day Two time was a speedy 5:12, and they were third that day among the boats in Wave 3.
It’s a short drive from The Crusher to Kimpton, and the paddlers soon revived from the day’s exertion. In fact, Jack and Bill felt so good that they rolled Jack’s Wenonah Sundowner down the road to the Semler put-in on Upper Saranac Lake and paddled out to a campsite that Bill had been at in August. He had left a nice grilling grate at the site and hoped to retrieve it. They found the grate, but it was being used by some campers from nearby Paul Smith’s College and Bill asked them to drop the grate at the nearby boat launch at the end of their camping trip.
On the morning of Day Three of the race, a great pancake breakfast prepped them for racing, and they had the benefit of a short drive to the start of the race in Fish Creek Campground. Fish Creek has a much narrower starting line than the ones featured on the first two days of racing, and the NCMC wondered if they would get a third straight clean start at the gun. Mac (Brian McDonnell) was wondering the same, as he cautioned the racers about all the crushable Kevlar that was gathered in close quarters at the narrow start and that would also have to navigate the narrow channel under a bridge a short distance from the start. The NCMC concerns proved to be unwarranted. They put their boat in a good starting spot, and powered off the start, with Jack threading the needle among the 39 boats. They quickly separated themselves from most of the boats and zipped under the bridge ahead of more than 30 boats in their wave. They kept their edge through the turns that brought them out to the open water of Upper Saranac Lake and Jack had them on a good line down the open lake to Bartlett’s Carry, including a line that produced some wake riding with their main rivals. The wheels were back in the boat this day and they got them on quickly at the portage and were nearly trotting along the boat as they moved down the carry to Middle Saranac Lake. Yellow Shirts had been ahead of them to the carry, but again that boat tarried on the portage and fell behind the NCMC.
Middle Saranac Lake was calm and serene, but they were passed by a boat from their wave with an older gent in the stern keeping up a constant stream of encouragement and instruction to the three young paddlers sitting in front of him.
From Middle Saranac Lake, the NCMC headed along the Saranac River and portaged around the lock taking them into Lower Saranac Lake. From there they traveled under the Route 3 bridge and on to the last portage taking them into Oseetah Lake and the home stretch of the 90-Miler. It was on this final portage, which also travels around a lock, that they passed the boat with the loquacious stern man. As they got back underway after the portage, high water meant little concern for rocks, stumps, and other obstructions. Toward the end of the 90-Miler, it is always great to make the right turn around a bend that reveals Lake Flower Avenue in Saranac Lake, with cars going by the various buildings. A left turn in Lake Flower reveals downtown Saranac Lake and the finish line buoys. The only fly in the ointment in 2017 was that they were nipped at the very finish by Yellow Shirts. When they had made the left turn to the finish line, Tom had asked from the bow if anyone was trying to overtake them, but heard nothing. We will never know whether it would have made any difference if Yellow Shirts had been spied sooner by anyone in the NCMC boat. Nevertheless, the NCMC beat Yellow Shirts overall. The woman in the Yellow Shirt boat razzed them a little at the end, and the NCMC deserves credit for being good sports about it. Tom was about to mouth “F@#$ you” to the Yellow Shirts, but thought better of it and said, “Good job!” Jack even fraternized a little with them when they were all off the water.
The NCMC polished off Day Three in a rapid 3:39, good for fifth place for the day in their wave. They were fourth overall in their wave with a time of 15:06, and were faster than all the boats in Waves 1 and 2. They were 23rd out of 57 C-4s in the race.
They also finished 41st out of the 248 boats competing in the 90-Miler. Not too shabby.
After the race they had their meal of a barbecued chicken sandwich (they don’t think it’s barbecued) and potato salad and baked beans. “I wonder what it will be?” Jan asked sarcastically about the meal as they stood on the food line.
John and Bonnie wisely left for Vermont and a nice hotel before Mac’s mileage pin ceremony. Mac asked the members of the Gold Canoe Club to give out pins, so Jack joined that elite group and handed out pins with a hearty handshake. There seemed to be an extraordinary number of first-year paddlers, perhaps 80 or so. Jan picked up John’s pin for nine races and 900 miles, giving air kisses to Jack and she accepted the pin. The number of paddlers going up to receive their mileage pins shrank as Mac called out the higher years … “10 90-Milers, 900 miles ..” etc. Finally, 20 years was reached and Mac announced Bill and Tom’s names as well as the other newly minted Gold Canoe Clubbers. Jack received his pin for 23 races and more than 2,000 miles. He did his first race in 1993. The NCMC’s time of 15:06 was the second-fastest in club history. Not bad for a boat of three actual and one soon-to-be 64-year-olds. Here are the fastest NCMC times over the years and the age at which they were achieved:
(58) 2011 Jack, Bill, John and Tom (4-man) 15:04
(64) 2017 Jack, Bill, John and Tom (4-man) 15:06
(61) 2014 Jack, Bill, John and Tom (4-man) 15:14
(59) 2012 Jack, Bill, John and Tom (4-man) 15:17
(52) 2005 Jack, Bill, Tom and Andy (4-man) 15:27
(53) 2006 Jack, Bill, John and Tom (4-man) 15:37
(60) 2013 Jack and Tom 16:04
(51) 2004 Bill and Tom 16:12
(62) 2015 Jack, John and Tom (3-man) 16:14
(57) 2010 Jack, Bill, John and Tom (4-man) 16:15
(45) 1998 Jack and Tom 16:16
(48) 2001 Jack and Tom 16:22
(49) 2002 Jack and Tom 16:43
(50) 2003 Jack and Bill 16:47
(46) 1999 Jack and Tom 16:56
(56) 2009 Jack and Bill 17:26
The total number of 90-Milers completed under the NCMC banner, including participation by Jay, Dylan, and Andy, is now a whopping 82.
What next? Bill suggested that next year the NCMC switch off from the C-4 routine and go back to a couple of tandem canoes.
Tom vigorously rejected the idea initially, but since then the concept has grown on him. Among the advantages of ditching the C-4 is that it would relieve Jack of spending all his time in the stern of a very long boat that doesn’t allow him to take a stroke off lest someone else in the crew start to complain about the course he is steering. Heck, Jack wouldn’t even have to take the stern of one of the tandems. The change would also do away with the dreaded third seat in the C-4, which is an uncomfortable spot with a difficult reach to plant a paddle. It’s a sucky seat for any race, let alone a 90-mile one.
Carrying the C-4 over the Racquette Falls portage and a couple of other carries is also no fun, while a lighter tandem is fairly easy to portage, wheels or no.
On the other side of the ledger, the paddlers in tandems would be spending another hour or so in the boat over the course of the race, but that’s only about 20 minutes more per day of paddling. And, come to think of it, one is perfectly free to spend two more hours in a two-man boat and proceed as leisurely as one wants over the water or on the carries. What’s the rush, right? With a start in an early OPEN TOURING wave, maybe even Wave 1, two paddlers taking a moment here or there to ship their paddles and have a snack and a drink and enjoy the scenery would still finish at a decent time of day. There would also be a shorter wait for the mileage pin ceremony and no line for the post-race meal. Also, the NCMC could rent, not loan, the C-4 for the 90-Miler. We could tell Mac that the C-4 can be used in the race for $50 a day, cash on the gunwale. The NCMC already has a couple of Sundowners and the aforementioned Jensen for tandem paddling. Tom brought the Jensen home to Connecticut, so I guess that’s the boat he would be using. Serendipitous!
Finally, can one say enough about the pit crew? NO!!!!! They were there from start to finish, providing timely transportation and food and snacks for the racers, as well as preparing the fine and restorative meals offered at the NCMC clubhouse on Kimpton. Bonnie was even seen hauling a big load of wood for the fire. They also took all the great photos during the race and enthusiastically cheered the NCMC at various race vantage points, including Axton Landing, with its dangerous muddy quagmire that took a woman’s shoe. In addition, they made sure the racers had every little doodad they needed in the boat each day. They are really the unsung heroes, blah, blah, blah, of the race, and richly deserve their pit crew T-shirts and all accolades they receive. And they can find their grade for the 2017 race here: