On Memorial Day I raced in the General Clinton Canoe Race in NY, a 70 miler (that fortunately is more like 62 miles) which is a canoe version of the Birkie. It is the first race of paddling’s Triple Crown, along with the Au Sable River 90 miler in
Michigan (which starts at 9 pm) and the Classique de Canots in . Paddlers from all across the US and Canada come to race here. I hadn’t really planned on this race, but my paddling friend Shawn asked if I’d like to paddle bow with him. I will confess the idea of doing this was always lurking in the back of my mind since all my paddling friends were on my case to paddle it and add it to my paddling resume. I’d even watched part of it back in 2009 on the way home from visiting my mom. Throwing caution to the wind I agreed to paddle. And then I started thinking about this during the winter. How would I sit for that long? Shoot, I can’t even sit still in a meeting for an hour and now 8+ hours? How painful would this be? “Don’t worry” my paddling friend Steve said, “It’ll hurt for a while and then go numb”. Great. The paddling itself would be ok, after all, I’d just finished a good ski season with 3 marathons under my belt and a youth spent canoeing through Algonquin Park and the Temagami Region of Ontario plus the racing I'd done over the past decade. I knew canoes and I’d paddled all day on canoe trips, but a race? 70 miles? This was going to be tough. Quebec
With the race on Memorial Day that meant no April training let down. Right after my last day of skiing on the local golf course, setting a new
ski record of April 7, I started paddling. Each Wednesday with the local gang, including Wes Denering many evenings, and on weekends, we slowly upped the ante each week and quite frankly, it was uncomfortable after more than an hour, not helped by the fact that I’d tweaked something in that general region and couldn’t skate effectively at the Sugarloaf marathon. Each week I trimmed and tweaked my canoe seat padding and slowly dialed it in. The longest paddle a couple weeks ago was nearly 4 hours on the Andover . I also had to work out the nutrition angle, trying GUs, bars, Fig Newtons, gel Shots, etc. You have to eat something on such a long race but the problem is you don’t want to stop paddling. And your drink system needs to be all dialed in too, and with such a long race you need multiple jugs of fluids. Then the next worry became the utter lack of rain. After a winter with so much snow, the total lack of rain this spring caused all the rivers to drop quickly to mid-summer levels. Shallow water is slow water, known as suck water. Boats move slower, lots slower, in suck water. And, there’s less current to help you. No rain was in the forecast, so we all resigned ourselves to an extra long day on the river. Nashua
Shawn and I had a good warmup race at the Run of the Charles, nailing down first in our boat class in the 19 miler, my longest canoe race. Then the following weekend we raced C1s (single racing canoes) on the Ashuelot in NH, where I came in 2nd and then ditched the C1s and paddled back upstream in his C2, a grunt of a workout. Finally, I paddled the Mystic River Race, 12 miles, the week before, but faded badly the 2nd half. Uh oh. But I chalked that up to graduation parties for Sarah the day before. Marathon week I rested up and on Saturday headed to
Cooperstown, NY, met up with Shawn and headed out on the river where it begins at the end of , a very pretty finger lake. This section, known as The Swamp, is narrow, twisty and on this day, very very shallow. We had to get out 3 or 4 times in shallow spots, we dodged stumps, tree trunks, an appalling number of tires and old, rotted 55 gallon drums. Word was they would open the dam at the end of the lake and it would be much better race day. The shallow water was the talk of the town and photos started appearing on paddler’s Facebook pages of dry gravel bars in the river, obstacles, etc. Otsego Lake
Sunday was an off day and we scouted out the locations of our pit stops, where’d we’d meet Shawn’s wife Monica and their friend John to swap out drink jugs and get any food or other stuff we might need. Think Indy 500. Pull in, swap jugs, pull out in about 20 seconds. Shawn knows this race well, all the good spots for pits, and many of the little secrets about which line to take on the river going through riffles and cut-throughs, etc. I was in good hands. My job…..put my head down and paddle hard all day long…simple!
Our boat class (no age groups, just types of canoes) was off at 6 am on Monday, so we arose at 4 so we’d have time to eat, drive over, set up the boat and all the usual pre-race stuff. 4 am came kind of early, but then again, it always does. I tried to cram down as many calories as I could, which is hard to do at 4. Same as with ski race day, oatmeal and raisins, coffee, banana, bagel, a couple bars on the drive over. We arrive in darkness and a few raindrops and set up the boat under a street light. GUs taped in, 2 jugs each so we will only have to pit twice, cut up Hammer bars and fig newtons in a bag taped to the boat.
I get myself mentally prepared to be crammed in the bow with little space to move my feet or knees. I’ve trimmed the sides of my old running shoes so they’ll fit better, there is padding for my knees and I have two layers of padding on the seat with holes for my butt bones in the top one. Food and liquids are set, time to get down to business.
|Fluids for a long race|
A very short warmup paddle to the start line where we are joined by about 60 boats, including the C4s, four person canoes that put up a heck of a wake. BAM! Suddenly, way too quickly, we are off shooting for the turn around the pontoon boat a few hundred yards out. It’s a friggin sprint at 6 am and I don’t sprint so well at that time of day. My coffee hasn’t even kicked in yetd! The C4s shoot out in the lead and Shawn and I are in the mix with 3-4 other C2s. A smoothly carved turn around the boat (that’s one thing I know how to do!) and we are duking it out with 2 other boats as we head for the 1st portage that will take us into the
. People are cheering from shore as we pull into the portage in 1stfor the C2s and immediately get passed by a rather burly pair (father and son team) with another team hot on our heels. It’s a race! The other boat pulls out a bit quicker than us and we settle into 3rd in their wash. Perfect, right where I like to be. We move into 2nd when the boys from Sesquehanna River make a mistake. The burly guys, Shawn now informs me, are grinders. They just grind away, especially in the 2nd half of the race. The son, in the bow, is a big guy and dad in the stern has a rug on his shoulders. But I notice a weakness. They aren’t as good on the corners as we are. We settle down. Then we make a mistake and the Minnesota boys (the guy in the stern is over 70 and was 4th in his age group in the Korteloppet skate race at the Birkie) scoot by us. Damn! If this goes on all day I’m going to be cooked by 15 miles! We trade places again and now I suggest to Shawn we just sit on Burly Boys for a while and the race settles down. Monica and John cheer us on at the 1stbridge. We’re moving well and in back in 3rd as we sweep by. The river has lots more water since they removed the flash boards at the lake and all is good. We are clipping along at around 7+ mph. Near the end of the swamp we sneak by Burly Boys into the lead and push on to a sharp left bend where there is an old tree in the water, but next to shore it looks like you could sneak through with the higher water. If so it would be way shorter. However, I suggest we stay safe and go around. We sweep around nicely and then BAM, the sound of carbon fiber rings in the air! I look back. Burly Boys had been seduced by the siren call of the short cut. Now they are sitting on top of a tree and the stern man had his foot out, desperately trying to get them off the tree. Minnesota followed us and settles in behind and not too far back another boat has joined the fray, Ontario Boys, joining the party as we sweep downstream. I think we are about 45 minutes into the race and we’ve been busy! A bit further along, on another tricky corner, we take the inside line to edge out Minnesota , who whacks our stern almost turning us sideways, and then disappears out the back. We see no more of them. Now its just Minnesota Ontarioand us as we head toward our first pit stop and and portage #2. Pit Stop 1 goes smoothly thanks to Monica as she swaps out 1 jug for each and we are off. Our pit has given Goodyear Lake the lead. Just like a Grand Prix race! But then they make a wrong move as we enter the lake and we reclaim 1st. The grind begins as we head to the portage. People are out on their docks as we paddle by, cheering. Kinda nice! Ontario
On the portage, the
boys are quicker and get right behind us, getting in the water even and pulling out first. They go left at the cut, the long way around and we chance “the cut” since there is more water just below the dam. Not enough water though and we have to hop out on a gravel bar. We pull back into the main channel river…..even with Ontario but they are in quicker water and pull slightly ahead as we fall in, chasing. We are now 3 hours into this thing and with all the action I haven’t even thought about my butt! Ontario
|Nearing the end of The Swamp|
The next section of the river is pretty wild with fast water, some standing waves and tricky corners.
makes a mistake and gets stuck and we move back into the lead. Its nice to be hitting 8 mph here and there. Then the exciting water eases off and the grind to the 3rd and last portage, in Oneonta, at the half way point commences. We try to cram in some calories. Slowly we catch back up to Ontario , passing somewhere. We maintain 1stto the portage but I make a bad selection of where to put in, hopping out again on a gravel bar. Ontario takes the longer way around in faster and deeper water and moves back into the lead. Back to chasing. Ontario
It was a good race and a good day on the river. It had all gone much better than I’d expected, we’d had a really fun race and we each won these ridiculously giant trophies. Turns out
comes with some serious credentials, having paddled the Yukon River Quest which is a 450 mile race, so we feel even better. Paddling on the Charles doesn’t carry quite the cachet as the Ontario after all. I have not yet answered the question of whether I’ll sign up for next year…….. Yukon
Many, many thanks to Monica and John for giving us great support and encouragement through the day. John took some great photos of our day.
|Giving chase to Ontario|
|Carbon fiber beauty. I wonder how many ski poles that would be?|
|On the home stretch, finally|
|The finish line!|
The General Clinton Canoe Race (or Why Does My Butt Hurt)
4/ 5Oleh Bernadine Pickett