There’s nothing quite like an Adirondack Canoe Classic when it comes to rewarding and punishing the members of the North Country Men’s Club.
There are certainly times during the three-day, 90-mile marathon, both on the water and off, when NCMCers resolve with seeming conviction never again to either enter the race or serve in the pit crew. Yet, as in all the other years, the good-byes the NCMCers offered to each other as they parted company at the end of the 2000 edition of the race included pointed references to assembling again in a year’s time, indicating that the pleasures of the experience outweighed the pain, or that the NCMCers have a penchant for pain.
Although the Editor does not presume to know for certain whether pleasure or pleasurable pain brings the NCMC to the Classic, he nevertheless offers this report, sprinkled lightly with careful analysis, of the 2000 “90-Miler.”
Tipping the Scales
We’ll start two months before the race, when Jack and Tommy hopped on a scale in Guilford, Connecticut. Jack’s digital readout was 186.5 while Tommy pushed the readout to 192.5. There and then Jack resolved to drop to 170 and Tommy vowed to get to 180. It was the first time the pair had ever made a commitment to drop weight for the race, and it signaled that this year they were going to make a push to seriously compete in their class.
As the weeks before the race slipped by, Jack forewent beer, cokes and fries and rode his bike untold miles. Tommy gave up cokes and chips and paddled solo several times a week. Jack dropped weight and Tommy, well, he was happy to hear that Jack was dropping weight. After all, he reasoned, one less pound in the boat was one less pound, and it really didn’t matter whose body it melted off.
Jack, meanwhile, reported that Jay “claimed” to be 185 and said that Billy was “155,” for a total of 340 pounds, or 10 pounds lighter than Jack and Tommy’s goal of 350. It was true that Billy, following Jay’s lead, now shaved his head, but even Billy’s thick hair would not have weighed 10 pounds, meaning the Jay-Billy team had a definite weight edge.
Does Anybody Have a Faster Boat?
A few weeks before the race, Tommy actually began to lose a few pounds and decided that he and Jack should seriously explore getting a faster boat to complement their weight loss and training. It was no secret to the pair that most of the teams competing in the “Standard Men’s Masters” class each year were using 18-foot Jensen canoes, and leaving Jack and Tommy in their wake. How much of it was due to the other paddlers’ strength and skill and how much of it was due to their hulls was difficult to say, but it was certain that the other paddlers believed their Jensens were faster than the Sundowner Jack and Tommy had used every year.
Tommy contacted every outfitter he knew in the Adirondacks in search of a Jensen to rent for the race. Unfortunately, none were available, not even for ready money.
Still trying to determine how much faster a Jensen or, for that matter, a Minnesota II might be than a Sundowner, he fired off the following email to Wenonah:
Could you please advise me on the following: I have an 18-foot Sundowner that I use a couple of times a year for racing, as well as for camping, touring and fishing, etc.
I am trying to figure out how much faster my partner and I might do in a long, flatwater race using an 18-foot Jensen or a Minnesota II instead of the Sundowner. According to your specs, the Sundowner is 80 percent as efficient as the Jensen and the Minnesota II is 95 percent as efficient as the Jensen.
Here’s my question, all else being equal, should we expect to go 10 miles in the Jensen in the same time it takes us to go 8 miles in the Sundowner? Are we going to go 9.5 miles in the Minnesota II in the same time it takes us to go 8 miles in the Sundowner?
We do the 90-mile Adirondack Canoe Classic every year in the Sundowner, and all the boats ahead of us in our class (standard) are 18-foot Jensens. Thanks for any guidance you can give me.”
After a while, he received the following reply:
I must first apologize for my late response, I have been on the road for virtually all of August and am a bit behind. This letter was forwarded to me by one of the customer service staff and I am unsure whether or not there has been a response sent. To begin, the bar graph profiles of each boat are representative. To my knowledge there is no statistical data to support the percentages you suggest. The bar graph is a tool for people to get a visual reference as a rough comparison. Most of the ratings are assessed by side to side comparisons, experience and personal “feel”.
With that said, the 18′ Jensen is definitely faster than the Sundowner. The Jensen not only has sleeker lines through the water but is also cut lower making it less wind affected and allowing the paddlers easier access to the water.
It also depends how “equal” all things are. If the two boats have the exact same layup (probably the ultra-light Kevlar with a skin-coat) the Sundowner is still approximately 3 lbs. heavier.
I haven’t done the 90 miler, yet. I have been racing off and on for about 15 years and hope to get out there some year! I am not as familiar with the different class restrictions, but 18′ is typically the cut-off for “standard” boats. The Minnesota II may put you into another class with its 18’6″ length. There are all sorts of things to consider when trying to optimize your speed and efficiency: technique, trim, training, weight, strategy, timing, and a whole host of others. But, as a racer, I hate being ‘outclassed’ because of equipment! I hope this has been helpful. If you have any other questions feel free to ask. Keep paddling, John Radel”
Jack, meanwhile, was also involved in the search for a Jensen, and he spoke to Oak Orchard Canoe near Rochester, where Jack, Tommy, Billy and Jay had all purchased Wenonahs.
Here is his subsequent email:
The plot thickens. I talked to Todd at Oak Orchard. He has paddled Sundowners, Minnesota II’s and Jensens. He says the latter two are almost equivalent and about 10% faster than the Sundowner if paddled at high speed. He cautioned that their speed advantage is only realized when traveling at higher speeds. He gives the edge to the Minnesota II due to versatility and ability to handle rough conditions (Middle Saranac or Raquette Lake). He cautioned, though, that some races might not let 18.5′ boats in Standard Class.
Now, on the financial side: he’s willing to fork over $1000 for a Sundowner in good condition if the Minnesota II is purchased. Additionally, he has a Jensen 18′ in stock with the black metal trim. What to do?
Hmmm. It was not an easy call, and they had not even consulted yet with Mary and Jan, although they were certain that those two canoe-savvy NCMCers would enthusiastically ratify a reasonable investment in a faster hull.
Tom then mentioned to Jack that he had seen a posting on an on-line canoe message board from someone in upstate New York trying to sell a used 18-foot Jensen for $1,200. The selling price was described as “firm.” Jack offered to call the seller and Tom told Jack to offer $1,100. Jack called back to say the offer had been accepted. The seller was from Utica, he was going to paddle solo in the race and he would bring the boat to Old Forge to make the transaction! “I guess he wasn’t that ‘firm’ after all,” Tommy said.
Old Forge via Buffalo
They now had a boat and believed they were in pretty good physical shape. But what about the competition? A detailed analysis of past race results had revealed that the over-40 “Masters” category they paddled in was tougher than the under-40 class. They had finished 11th out of 18 boats in 1999, but would have finished eighth out of 16 boats if they had entered the under-40 “Open” category. For 2000, 25 boats were entered in the Standard Men’s Masters class. There was no way of knowing how experienced or fit the other paddlers would be. They would find that out soon after the start of the race.
Tommy arranged to fly to Buffalo the day before the race and drive to Old Forge with Jack, Billy, and Jay. Jan would arrive in Long Lake Friday, in the evening following the first day’s racing. This arrangement would mean that they could drive home together.
Tommy flew to Buffalo and was picked at the airport by the three NCMCers in Jack’s van. Atop the van were two Kevlar Sundowners. They then drove to pick up pizza in Clarence before heading to the Adirondacks, at one point passing Conor tooling around in the Miata with the top down.
On the Water or Off, Wenonah Beats Old Town
They then headed for the North Country for which their famous club is named, carbo loading on pizza and Bud en route. Heading east toward Utica on the New York State Thruway, they passed a tractor trailer carrying, of all possible freight, Old Town canoes. As they passed the Old Town truck, Jack thought he was at the exit. He cut close in front of the truck to make the ramp, but Billy and Jay yelled to him that he was not at the right exit. Jack swerved back onto the highway in front of the Old Town truck, which honked long and rudely as it moved left to pass. It was not known if the truck driver’s anger was exacerbated by the fact that he was looking down on the two Wenonahs atop the van.
Soon after the incident, of course, they again passed the Old Town truck. As they went by, the driver, wishing to show his loyalty to Old Town when being passed by a car carrying Wenonahs, held his hand out the window with a single digit extended to demonstrate which canoe maker was number one.
They Put Their Money on a Jensen
Miraculously, the group made it to Old Forge before 10 p.m. and picked up their race numbers and t-shirts. They then went to their nearby motel and found John Dunlop, the good chap from Utica who was selling the Jensen. The Jensen proved to be in great condition and the NCMC took possession. Jay and Billy were somewhat non-plussed by the purchase. They had only become aware of the secret plot during the car ride, and it was unclear whether they thought it was a great extravagance or a great advantage. A subdued Billy, however, did classify the purchase as a “coup” at one point. Nevertheless, Jack and Tommy affixed number 135 to the bow of their previously owned Jensen and hauled the boat in the dark to the starting point of the race, which happened to be behind their hotel.
Friday morning promised good weather as the NCMCers went to breakfast. After eating, they spotted Spence’s 36-foot motor home tooling around Old Forge and put their gear aboard. Their plan was to camp at Lake Eaton with Spence and however many other Buffalo firefighters were on hand for the race.
Pulling Up the Rear
Tommy found it extremely pleasurable that all four NCMCers were easily on time for their heat, which was the 11th to go off. The four paddlers got off to a good, clean start, but so did the rest of the boats. In fact, to the NCMCers dismay, they found themselves blown away at the start by almost all the other boats.
Whether this circumstance was troubling to Jay, or something else was going on, Billy reported that, about 15 minutes into the race, Jay said that if he could walk on water, he would get out of the boat and head to shore. As he couldn’t, he continued to plug away, as did the other NCMCers.
It was a beautiful day, and although it was clear that they were going to finish back in the pack of standard men’s masters, they enjoyed the paddling and the setting, and were able to pass plenty of boats in other, slower classes that had started before them.
No Raquette for You
Indeed, Jack and Tommy felt that they were going at a good clip on the water and, uncharacteristically for them, were portaging efficiently and quickly. Having started at 9 a.m., they paddled up the Fulton Chain of lakes, made three portages, took what proved to be their only bathroom stop of the entire three days on the water, and wound their way down Brown’s tract to the bridge leading to Raquette Lake. They reached the bridge at 1:10 p.m., only to be informed that high wind and waves on Raquette had forced race officials to cut the race off at the bridge. Ambivalent about not having to paddle another dozen miles or so, they hauled out their boat and took a van to Forked Lake, which would have been their final destination for the day.
Jack had had the foresight to put a soft cooler of Bud on the gear truck, and they immediately located the cache upon reaching Forked Lake. They had a Bud or two, took a swim, and watched those canoes come in that had entered Raquette Lake before it was closed for the day. Since the winds tend to kick up on Raquette in the late afternoon, it is not uncommon for some boats to paddle the entire 35-mile course on Day One of the race, while other boats are stopped. On this occasion, about 70 of the 250 boats in the race covered the full course. As Jack and Tommy stood at the finish line, they heard what they expected to hear; paddlers who had suffered through Raquette were miffed that it had been in vain. Whatever time by which they had reached the bridge entering Raquette was to be their time for the day. That being the case, Jack and Tommy were not unhappy that they had not been fast enough to enjoy Raquette Lake that day.
Jay and Billy soon arrived at the finish line by van, and the four NCMCers then took the van to Lake Eaton, a nearby state campground where they planned to spend the night.
The Pit Crew Arrives
They set up camp with the Buffalo firefighter contingent and Jack and Tom borrowed a car to get to the race meal in Long Lake. They ate with two seasonal state forest rangers, one of whom told them that he once spent a day eluding scores of FBI agents who were training to find fugitives in the woods. The ranger, who had to wear red clothes, said he just listened for the G-Men and kept still as they walked by him in the woods. He proved to be so elusive that the FBI accused him afterward of leaving the area he was required to hide in.
That night at Lake Eaton, the four NCMCers were joined by four more club members; Jan arrived from Guilford, and Vanessa, Kate and Lucky arrived from Buffalo. Jay, by the way, spent considerable time sprucing up prior to the arrival of his red truck from Buffalo. There was some discussion about Lonesome Dove that evening, and Jack, Billy, and Tommy concluded that Jay was remarkably similar to Deets in his approach to the outdoors.
They awoke to thick fog Saturday morning, causing a one-hour delay in the start of the race. Again, the NCMCers found themselves behind almost all the other boats right from the start, but they kept plugging away up the 13 miles of Long Lake. One important development on Long Lake was that Jack and Tommy began for the first time to explore wake riding, in which one canoe gets an extra push by riding along on the wake made by another canoe this is slightly ahead. It is somewhat similar to a bicyclist drafting behind another rider. Wake riding allows paddlers to save energy without losing time on the water, but it can be difficult to keep one’s boat in the proper spot relative to another boat, and thereby gain the advantage of the wake. Nevertheless, Jack and Tommy could easily discern the push from the wake when they got it, and were surprised at how strong it was.
At the end of Long Lake, all the paddlers entered the winding and slow-moving Raquette River and paddled down to the one carry of the day; a mile-long haul around Raquette Falls. It was in the river below the falls that the NCMC and some firefighters encountered difficulty.
Remarkably, Jack’s and Tommy’s problem on the water was a result of their improved paddling. They were going so well that one of the boats in the racing category decided to silently sneak behind them and ride their wake. They were finally discovered by Jack, who jokingly told them that he should be charging them for the ride. A short time later, Jack reached to move a water bottle out of his way in the bilge and the NCMC boat turned just a hair. This caused the trailing boat to ram its bow violently into the NCMC stern, turning the latter boat violently sideways and sending it zooming into the sandy riverbank, where it became stuck bow first. Tommy stepped out of the boat to push it off, but the water was deeper than he thought and he capsized the canoe! It was filled with water to the gunwales and they had to turn it right-side up near shore. Tommy looked downriver to see the villain racing boat paddling merrily away. “Thanks a lot, buddy,” he yelled (or perhaps it was something a tad harsher, but well-deserved. It is a major faux pas in racing to hit another boat from behind, especially when you are intentionally riding its wake).
Emptying their boat was a tiring chore, compounded by the fact that Jack and Tommy had an initial disagreement about which way to flip the boat over. Eventually, however, they got back on the water and continued downriver. They never did get the number of the offending boat, which was more guilty for showing zero remorse than for hitting them.
Meanwhile, firefighters Dan and Spence followed a racer rowing a guideboat on a wrong turn in the river and found themselves reentering the race course farther upstream than where they had left it. How much time this cost them is hard to determine, but they maintained it had cost them a great deal. They complained about their plight, but other firefighters maintained, with a hint of sarcasm, that navigational skills are part of what is required of the paddlers.
Despite the misadventures, the NCMC and their friends eventually crossed the finish line, and rejoiced to be done with the 33-miles of Day Two. The NCMC pit crew, which now included Mary, ferried everyone to Fish Creek campground, including Kevin and Don from Utica, who are stars in the recreation class, which requires a 55-pound boat.
Saturday night is the best night of the Canoe Classic. The worst of the race is over, and with only 22 miles looming on the last day, the NCMC and like-minded paddlers tend to relax a bit. The celebratory mood was enhanced in 2000 by the presence of the two George Semlers. Jack’s elegant father, and “GJ,” his older, and significantly taller, brother drove to the Adirondacks to join the group around a roaring campfire near the Lake. After swimming in lieu of showers, the score of NCMCers and firefighters had an excellent meal of spaghetti and meatballs. George Senior mixed potent old-fashioned after potent old-fashioned, with Jack being his best customer, and the “tents were rigged alright.”
Kate, who had taken an evening paddle in a Sundowner will Lucky holding down the bow, again expressed her conviction that she was going on the next winter camping trip. It certainly wasn’t the beer talking, so maybe she was right. Tommy confided to Jack that he would weigh 170 for next year’s race. That certainly was the beer talking, but who knows?
A word here about the NCMC pit crew members. Jan, Mary, Vanessa and Kate performed yeoman duty breaking down and setting up camp in the various locations, ferrying paddlers to and from the starting and end lines, shuttling cars and reprovisioning the group as needed, and showing up at various points of the race to voice encouragement and take pictures. They are the unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes who blah, blah, blah and so forth and so on. Lucky, however, did next to no work. Yes, she is charming, but charm only goes so far and, except for weighing down the bow of a canoe so Kate could paddle from the stern, was a bit of a shirker. By the way, unlike a pit crew member for some other paddlers, the NCMC pit crew did not do anything silly like drop a quart Nalgene water bottle off a high bridge in the direction of canoe. Such a bomb weighs about four pounds and could easily break the fingers of any paddler attempting to catch it, and perhaps do serious damage to any canoe whose bilge it might rocket into from above. Fortunately, the bomb-thrower missed her mark on this occasion.
In the Market for a War Canoe
Sunday morning brought good weather for the third straight day of racing. Despite no hope whatsoever of moving up in the pack, the valiant NCMC paddlers gave it their all as they glided through the Saranac Lakes. Approximately four hours after the start, the paddlers crossed the finish line in downtown Saranac Lake. Although the Editor has never experienced it, it must bring powerful feelings to the NCMCers when they make that turn on the final day of the race that at long last reveals to them the shoreline of the village of Saranac Lake, and cars moving along the lakefront road. As they paddle a bit farther, they can begin to hear the general rumble of life in the village. Next, they make one more turn, and laid out before them is the finish line, marked by bright orange buoys, and flanked on the shore by the tents, trucks and hundred of animated spectators.
At the end of the 2000 race, they ate, drank and talked and began to load canoes on the various cars. Jack was entrusted with the care and storage of the new 18-foot Jensen, which Tommy had unfortunately allowed to be steered into one submerged rock and one submerged tree on the last day of racing.
A group picture was taken of what Spence described as the “firemen and people who love them,” and the paddlers and their supporters dispersed for home.
Some of the last talk at the race’s end was about trying to secure a war canoe for the following year’s race, so that all the firemen and NCMCers could suffer together in a single boat and have the opportunity to offer biting critiques of the character and skill of a dozen paddlers, rather than just one’s bow or stern partner. The Editor has one question: Do they make 12-man war canoes in Kevlar?
Gallery: 90-Miler 2000