After the 2002 Adirondack Canoe Classic, Jay announced his retirement from the 90-Miler. He had hinted at retirement before, but this time, after 10 years of competing in the race, he really meant it (Jay’s resolve was similar to Joey’s ironclad decision not to ride with G.J. on the second day of the race several years ago).
Jay’s retirement left the North Country Men’s Club with three regular participants in the race; founders Jack, Bill and Tom. Tom couldn’t paddle in 2003, so Bill paired with Jack. Jack couldn’t paddle in 2004, so Bill paired with Tom. In 2005, however, all three founders could paddle the race, presenting a dilemma. Tom thought of paddling solo, revisiting a nutty idea he has entertained over the years. He then thought of borrowing his brother’s Wenonah Minnesota 3, and having the NCMC founding trio man that 20-foot-long, three-seated Kevlar hull.
The matter was settled, however, when Bill announced that his nephew, Andy, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was going to race. With four paddlers enlisted, Jack decided to contact race czar Brian MacDonnell and see if he had a Minnesota 4 to rent for the race. The NCMC had seen several Minnesota 4s in the race in the last several years, and were intrigued by the possibility of racing one of the four-seated hulls. MacDonnell, however, had no four-man boats left to rent, so the NCMC entered as two teams. Jack and Tom would use their 18-foot Jensen, and Bill and Andy would use Bill’s and Jay’s 18-foot Sundowner.
Shortly before the race, however, Jack got a call from Brian, who had just added a new Minnesota 4 to his rental fleet. Jack secured the boat for the NCMC, and their entries were merged.
The group rendezvoused in Old Forge the night before the first day of the race, with pit crew leader Jan arriving with Tom from Connecticut and Jack, Bill and Andy driving in from Buffalo in the big Webster van. Remarkably, the Buffalo paddlers arrived before the town had rolled up the sidewalks and gone to bed. They were so uncharacteristically early that Jack for the first time had to wait on line at race headquarters to check in (although Tom had already gotten their race number). They ran into MacDonnell, paddler and race organizer extraordinaire, who showed them their boat. MacDonnell asked Andy if he was going to be in the canoe and, on getting an affirmative response from the strong young man, laughed and told him, “You’ll be carrying the boat!” He apparently meant literally and figuratively. Brian gave them a few tips on paddling as a foursome, such as putting the bigger paddlers (Tom and Andy) in the two middle seats. He also warned Jack, who would captain the ship, that he would be performing an awful lot of steering strokes during the course of the race in the stern. When Matt Conroy had learned the NCMC was going to paddle a four-man canoe, he called it the H.M.S. Cop-Out. Upon seeing the 23-foot barge in person, however, Tom thought it should be called the Exxon Valdez.
The NCMC wasted little time in bringing the canoe into their motel room for some minor customizing. At 23 feet, the boat barely fit into the room, and left little space for the paddlers to maneuver. The boat had tractor-style seats in the bow and stern, but the two middle seats were bench-style with nylon webbing. As MacDonnell suggested, they duct-taped foam padding to the bench seats to make them more comfortable for both sitting and portaging the canoe. The NCMC planned to have two paddlers carry the canoe upside down on the portages, and have the other two paddlers carry the paddles, vests and anything else in the boat. They also padded the boat’s aluminum gunwales with foam pipe insulation, which would spare their thighs, knees and wrists from the frequent knocks on the gunwales they encounter during the race.
With the customizing of the boat completed, they put the canoe on the lawn of their motel for the night. A small herd of white-tailed deer came by to inspect the canoe. Perhaps they had never seen a Minnesota 4 before.
A Faster Boat
They awoke early Friday morning and had a solid breakfast at their favorite local diner and got ready to race. They were one of nine four-man canoe teams and would go off in a wave with those boats and a half-dozen war canoes holding six or more paddlers. They put the boat in the water and paddled it for about a minute to get used to it. Then their wave was called and they were off down the Fulton Chain of Lakes on a foggy, overcast morning. They soon found themselves ahead of all but one of the four-man canoes and wondered why they were doing so well. Only one of the boats, a 20-foot-long Minnesota 3 with a fourth seat added, was ahead of them, but the occupants of that boat looked too thin, muscular, sober and determined to ever be caught by the likes of the NCMC.
As they paddled down the Fulton Chain during the first couple of hours of the race, it became clear to the NCMC that the four-man canoe was faster than a traditional tandem canoe. The boat weighed 65 pounds, which was only about 20 pounds heavier than a two-man Kevlar Wenonah canoe, so the number of canoe pounds that had to be moved through the water was less per paddler. Also, while the boat was longer than a tandem canoe, it was virtually no wider, so the boat “fattened” from the ends to its greatest width amidships over a longer distance, making it a bit sleeker for parting the water. One presumes, also, that four paddles in the water at once rather than two tend to keep the boat at least a little bit straighter because the work of no individual is going to place a turning force on the boat equal to what one paddler might as part of a two-man team.
On they paddled through the numbered lakes of the Fulton Chain until they reached the portage leading to Brown’s Tract, a sinuous channel through reeds and other riparian flora to the open water of Racquette Lake. With its many sharp turns, occasional beaver dams, and relatively shallow water, it is the most fatiguing and technical section of the race. Getting it over with is cause for celebration. Paddlers enter Brown’s Tract via a narrow boardwalk at the end of the portage. The boardwalk acts as a bottleneck, and paddlers line up on the boardwalk and wait their turn to enter the water. During his pre-race remarks at the start line, MacDonnell had reminded the racers about the boardwalk and the mandate that they wait in line. The NCMC queued up at the boardwalk with the other boats. While they waited, a couple of jerks in boat 230 decided that waiting was for everyone but them and slogged past a dozen teams of paddlers to jump in the water. The NCMC and members of other boats dressed down the two jerks, whose only response was slimy smirks. Tom resolved to file a protest about the idiots after the race.
The NCMC did a good job of winding their giant canoe through Brown’s Tract, with Jack coordinating the switching of paddles from side to side and calling for turning strokes from the bow as the turns dictated. They finally reached open water and felt like Bogie and Hepburn getting out of their watery maze with the African Queen.
Passed on a Portage
Ahead of them was a trip across the bottom of Raquette Lake and passage upstream on the Marion River to the day’s last portage. Quite tired, they reached the portage and got out of the boat. They slowed here due to the call of nature and an irksome pebble in Jack’s sandal. These distractions allowed the closest four-man (actually two elderly men and two women) boat behind them to pass them on the portage and begin paddling away. They tried to catch up, but they were pretty much spent once they got back on the water. No doubt their fatigue produced the dissension that erupted on the last part of that paddle, during which Bill and Tom told Jack that he was off course and Jack pointed out that he was well aware that the tricky winds were making steerage a challenge, but that he was working diligently on the problem. It should be pointed out that no one was interested in replacing Jack at the helm. Yelling at oneself for poor performance is much less satisfying that admonishing someone else. It was at this point that Jan managed to see the paddlers on the water for the first time since the day’s racing had commenced (Jan, after dropping their gear at the campground where they would be spending the night, had missed them at several points along the way. She had been too late for the speedy NCMCers, which no doubt amazed her after years of waiting patiently for the NCMC racers to get to some point or other where spectators could view the racers). She called out encouragement to them, but the paddlers never heard it. Jan, on the far shore from where the racers were toiling down the lake, could clearly hear some boat bickering over the water.
The NCMC finished up at Blue Mountain Lake 35 miles and six hours and 27 minutes after they had started, ahead of six of the other eight four-man canoes and ahead of two of the seven war canoes. Not bad at all.
Failure to Communicate
Tom went to the finish line to protest boat 230’s cheating, but the race officials looked to be too busy monitoring the times of the all the boats that were coming in, so he changed his mind. The team was driven to their campground by Jan, who had earlier secured a waterfront site with an excellent view of Lake Eaton and the sunset. Bill and Andy somehow had the energy to drive back to Old Forge and retrieve Bill’s van. There had been some garbled discussion about whether Jay was going to come up for the weekend, and whether he would pick up Bill’s van en route, and whether he was coming that night or the next day. In any event, Bill and Andy decided they had better go get their van. They returned two hours later and joined Tom, Jan and Jack for burgers, dogs and beer. They also sat around the campfire for a while before turning in.
Jay, Vanessa, Isaac and Levi did arrive at the campground late that night, and perhaps some members of the NCMC heard them drive by their site as they briefly drifted out of their sleep. The next morning the Tillotsons joined up with the paddlers, and Jay reported that he had spent quite a while the previous evening searching for Bill’s van in Old Forge. What we’ve got here, as Strother Martin would say about Paul Newman, is failure to communicate! Tom decided he wasn’t going to breakfast in the hotel at Long Lake, claiming they didn’t have time, so Jack, Bill and Andy went for breakfast and were back in plenty of time to prepare for the second day of racing. Off they went to the start line on Long Lake. At breakfast, Jack had recounted for MacDonnell the episode of the day before at Brown’s Tract, but didn’t recall the offenders’ boat number. Later, in his pre-race remarks, MacDonnell boomed over his microphone that he wasn’t going to put up with such shenanigans and that if he got a boat number of a miscreant, said miscreant would be gone from the race. The assembled paddlers clapped and shouted their agreement.
An Evil Boat
The NCMC got off to a clean start on Long Lake and began the long haul down the lake to the Raquette River. They steamed along at a good clip, passing dozens of slower boats that had started ahead of them in earlier waves. They were again in second place among the four-man boats. They even overtook a war canoe and crept up behind another, riding wake now and then. Feeling good, they were suddenly dismayed to see that damn boat with the two mature couples overtaking them about 10 miles into the race. Like other boats that befuddled them with what looked like a great inconsistency between perceived paddler effort and speed over the water, the passing paddlers looked to be lilydipping and having a grand old time as they left the NCMC in their wake.
Once again in third place, they stroked along, getting to the outlet of Raquette Lake and passing Jack’s shiny pontoon party boat. Jack had loaned the boat to the race as a pit stop vessel, getting the Minnesota 4 for free in return, rather than for the $300 weekend rental fee (Now that Jack is an Adirondack resident, he has entered the barter economy of the region).
The NCMC left Raquette Lake and entered the endless Racquette River and headed for the long portage around Raquette Falls. They disembarked above the falls, and it was Tom’s and Andy’s turn to portage. They slogged up the long hill of the carry and down the other side. With most of the portage done, they turned the boat over to Jack and Bill so they could drop some water weight. They got back in the water below the falls and headed downriver to the finish line of Day Two. Not far from the finish, the wave of racing boats finally caught them, including boat 230. They offered a few negative observations to the offending paddlers, and pointed out that the only reason they were still on the water was because the NCMC had not turned them in. They received some less-than-kind comments in return. As they were passed, Bill, in his best Captain Call, sternly told the cheaters that he “hated rude behavior in a man.” (By the way, take those guys out of their fancy carbon racing boat and put them in a normal canoe and they ain’t passing the NCMC. Ramming speed!)
Hangin’ at the Clubhouse
Not long after the encounter with evil boat 230, the NCMC crossed the finish line in just under 5:22, a pretty good time for 30-plus miles. Jan greeted them at the finish and drove them, not to the Fish Creek campground, but to the new NCMC clubhouse recently purchased by the Semlers! (The clubhouse is for rent to non-NCMCers when it is not being used for club activities.) They hooked up at the house with Mary and the Tillotsons, and had a wonderful dinner thanks to Mary, who had suffered a massive spill of maple syrup in her Civic on her drive from Buffalo. Jay joked at one point that he felt great, which was a reference to a comment made by Dan Corcoran several years ago. Corcoran, also a Buffalo firefighter, came to the race one year as a spectator after having paddled the 90 miles in an earlier year. Jack, staggering out of the boat on a hot day after completing the first 35 miles of the race, asked Dan how he felt about not having paddled. “I feel great,” Dan said with a laugh as he sipped a cold beer in the sun and surveyed a panting, sweat-stained Jack. “How ’bout you?”
With some wine and beer to loosen their tongues, there was a spirited discussion among the NCMCers about Andy and what doing the race was going to earn him in terms of NCMC standing. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that he would now be a member of the NCMC with his name in caps, an honor that technically only goes to someone who has gone on a backcountry camping trip with the NCMC. Vanessa wondered if that was appropriate, and it was decided that the matter would be addressed in a closed-door executive session of the founders (check the membership page to see the upshot).
You’ re Not Going to Beat Us All Three Days
Ah, Day Three. More than 65 miles completed and less than 25 to go. Only a quick paddle of less than four hours to the finish line at Saranac Lake. That’s the thinking of the NCMC on the last day of the race, and probably why Andy noticed a substantial consumption of wine the night before. There was one lineup change for Day Three; Tom was going to switch to the bow, and Billy would take his spot. Two days of sliding around on a bench seat as he switched his paddle from one side of the boat to the other had left Tom with a severely irritated posterior, and Bill was kind enough to give him the respite of a non-abrasive tractor seat for the last day of racing. Tom made a note to wear padded bike shorts next year.
They had a little bit of trouble at the start on Day Three. It’s a tight start with shallow water on the sides, and the NCMC got turned a little sideways in the commotion and was headed for shore before getting righted. Despite the little mishap, they found themselves in second place among the four-man crowd. With their archrivals behind them, they had good incentive to work, with an occasional fearful glance over their shoulders. At the first portage, Bartlett’s Carry, they met Mary and Jan. It was the first time they had ever seen their pit crew at this spot. They were also relieved to see the familiar bagpiper in his kilt playing a funeral dirge on the carry. He’s an older gent, and it’s a toss-up whether he or the NCMC will be the first to miss a race.
Jack and Bill zoomed along the portage with the boat and the NCMC was soon back on the water and heading across Middle Saranac Lake (perhaps the most scenic passage of the three-day race), Lower Saranac Lake, Lake Oseetah and, finally, Lake Flower, which takes them to the finish line in the town of Saranac Lake. They finished the day in 3:37, the fastest Day Three in club history. They also beat their friendly rivals by a minute on the day, and ended up losing to them by just six minutes overall. Their overall time was 15:27.20, the lowest ever for the NCMC and the first time the club came in under 16 hours. For good measure, they also beat two of the war canoes.
If You’re Giving Out Trophies, We’ll Take’em
Most significantly, their third place finish earned them hardware! Actually, it was a wooden plaque with the race logo on it, but the NCMC will gladly accept whatever accolades and free beer are offered. One attraction of the C-4 category is that there are no subdivisions based on age or gender. You race against all the other C-4s, whether their crews are men, women, children, the elderly, dogs or any mix thereof. It is a prime category for exploitation by those who train little and plan to imbibe and stay up late during the race, and the NCMC can exploit with the best of them.
The one fly in the race ointment was the fact that Jan had inexplicably scheduled meetings at work on the Monday after the race and therefore could not stay over at the clubhouse that night. It has always been Tom’s dream not to drive back home after the race, but to hang out in the Adirondacks for another evening. Maybe next year, or at least after retirement.
And what of next year for the NCMC? Will Andy return? Asked what Bill had told him, or failed to tell him, about the race during whatever conversation had led to his enlistment, Bill said he had informed him that it was a “bit of an ordeal.” To what degree Andy found that to be truth in advertising is not known. Will the NCMC acquire a four-man canoe and enjoy the faster finish it affords? They did beat 58 of the 60 boats in the open touring category, as well as all the guideboats and 19 of the 20 recreational tandem canoes. They even beat 70 percent of the two-person teams in stock or standard canoes, the type they have used in past races. It might be difficult to return to the plus 16-hour finishes that are a given in a tandem canoe.
And what of other challenges? One only has to look at Brian MacDonnell for inspiration. First, the guy does the 90-Miler in ONE DAY because his duties as race czar keep him from paddling. Then, he travels to the Yukon this past summer and completes the world’s longest canoe race, 460 miles, in 48 HOURS, finishing second among the canoes. Upon learning of that feat, Jan observed, “Well, that’s impossible.” Perhaps nothing is impossible for the NCMC, except for everyone staying over the night after the race.
Gallery: 90-Miler 2005