In September 2013, Heidi Kretser joined paddlers in an 8-person Voyageur war canoe in the Adirondack Canoe Classic (a.k.a. 90 Miler), a 3-day race held every year since 1983. The team “Canoeing for the Kids” raised $4,100 for Northern Forest Explorers, a youth program dedicated to getting North Country kids paddling on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.
Day 1. Old Forge to Blue Mountain Lake via Fulton Chain of Lakes, Brown’s Tract, Raquette Lake, and the Marion River
Most of the team camped out on the side of road but in my advanced age, opted for a hotel with another friend in the race. I appreciated that decision even more when I awoke to a temperature of 27 degrees (the second and third night I stayed at my house). Fortunately the sun shone brightly as the 260 boats plus 500 some racers assembled at the beach near First Lake. We paddled the largest boat in the race so we found it easily among the C-2s, C-4s, guideboats, kayaks and other war canoes.
The seats were completely covered in frost. After scraping the frost with our paddles we assembled our camelback bladders and a variety of GU snacks and chocolate covered almonds (yes I contributed the real food) for easy access during the race then set off on our maiden voyage with the full 8-person team. With a boat so large, we had to balance our weight and practice our switches prior to the start. Without being quite satisfied with our progress, we determined we had another 90 miles to figure it out and made our way to the line.
Fortunately we started after the guideboats and had the luxury of watching them take off in the fog of each beautiful Adirondack morning. Completing that race alone, while rowing backwards, would be quite a feat. Some clearly well-seasoned guideboaters wore headbands and hats with little rear-view mirrors.
For the first time we saw our competition, some looked very well-practiced with efficient strokes and perfect cadence. I could think only of my son Owen’s comment when he learned I’d be paddling a war canoe, “Mom will you have guns and canons?” and I secretly wished we had all brought water guns to make things a little more lively! Others looked more like us, in it for fun. Only, I guess the rest of my team wanted to place, but I didn’t quite realize that until later…
We lined up, the start gun blasted, and two of the war canoes shot ahead and disappeared within a few minutes. The rest of us stayed as a pack for the first two lakes and I marveled at the wakes these big boats create from pure human power. Eventually we realized our race was for third place with two other boats. We lagged behind until the first carry, then not surprisingly my all male canoe team verbally prepped to takeover on the carries. Despite a few near misses with other racers on the landings (braking was not our forte), we had good wheels for our boat and so easily dragged the canoe and outran the other war canoes on the 3.5 miles of carries on day 1.
The meandering Brown’s Tract tested our turning ability as we maneuvered our large boat passed guideboats and made way for C-4s to pass us. Energy from onlookers stationed on docks, over bridges, and along the carries spurred us along throughout the day and I think I did not stop smiling the entire time.
Minus a battle with the blackberry bush (for which I still have scars) and fall in water up to my waist at one of the put-ins, my body survived the 35-mile Day 1 as we came in to Blue Mountain Lake in a solid third place for our class. NOTE: I loved watching the professional paddlers in the C-4 class fly past us all three days. In fact one canoe with some of the top paddlers in North America shattered the course record this year. See this article written by my teammate and reporter Mike Lynch: http://www.canoekayak.com/photos/four-play/.
Day 2: Long Lake to the Crusher
Long Lake is a 14-mile or so lake that is well-known for large waves. Last year a crazy wind storm resulted in over 25 boats tipping on Long Lake during the race, so we were all a little jittery going into the day. At the last minute we changed our seating arrangements and once again had to shuffle the weight distribution and practice switches. Fortunately the weather could not have been better, overcast skies with a gentle breeze, thus being a little disheveled in the smoothness department worked out ok. We had some waves but as you can see by some of these start photos, the lake remained relatively flat even toward the north end going into the Raquette River.
On Day 2, we had only one carry – the dreaded 1.5 slog around Raquette Falls with boulders and steep ups and downs. Again our wheels made all the difference. We were fast! But not faster than the C-4 racers who literally knocked us aside and drove their wheels over Walter’s back. Notwithstanding any major injuries we continued our paddle along the silver maple lined Raquette River, one of the largest wetland complexes in the Adirondacks, if not the Northeast. Did I mention that Bryne Dairy gave out a free chocolate milk to every racer at the end of each leg? That was one of the best parts of the weekend!
Day 3: Fish Creek to Lake Flower via Upper, Middle, and Lower Saranac – Home Sweet Home!
I never thought a 25-mile day in a canoe would go fast but alas, with an 8-person boat, it was fast. The wind and cold arrived on Day 3. In fact we took on a bit of water during the race due to waves and it all pooled around me and the mouthpiece of my camelback – fortunately I think my gut is already hardened to any possible threat of Giardia or other water-borne illness.
As we had mastered the carries by day 3, two of us employed the carry and bail system while jumping roots and avoiding trees. From the start of Day 3, one of the really fast war boats (full of Hamilton College racing students) lagged a little behind which helped us keep up the pace throughout the day. Once again we employed our strategy to overtake the competition on the carries, but with shorter carries, we ended up in a neck and neck paddle across the waves of Middle Saranac and through the river – this became quite exciting with two big boats attempting to out-maneuver each other on the tight turns with tall reeds and shallow water – not to mention the stand up paddle boards, guideboats and C-4s desperately steering clear of all the war boats and the wakes.
We never did pass the Hamilton College boat, but we stayed in an exciting race across Lower Saranac and nearly all the way to Oseetah with another canoe. On the last carry, we finally pulled ahead and cruised home through Lake Flower for the big third place finish with a respectable time of 14 hours and 58 minutes (by comparison the really fast war canoe that we saw only at the start line each day finished an hour ahead, Hamilton college maybe 25 minutes ahead).
A couple of local organizations provided a yummy and warm post-race meal and we had a great time watching the awards and pin ceremony – every year paddlers receive a pin for the number of miles they’ve completed in the 90-miler. One person who was 80 or some similarly amazing age close to that had completed 31 races. I particularly loved seeing the family boat awards that sometimes had three generations represented.
So bottom line, I’m hooked.
I’ll be there next year and hopefully every year after – call me if you want a paddling partner! Thanks for supporting the Northern Forest Canoe Trail – paddling really is the best way to see this beautiful landscape.
The team – Walter Opuszynski (fearless leader and NFCT organizer), Mike Lynch (the stern and oh captain my captain), Noah Pollack (fellow Cornellian – great school), Scott Van Laer (our ranger representative), Joe Bledsoe (pacesetter in the bow), Dylan Shaw (entertainment provider), Sterling Ford (an intrepid 14 year old – wow), and Heidi Kretser (adding gender diversity).
Special thanks for the photos to Nancie Battaglia, Michale Glennon, Andy Keal, Katrine Kretser, Walter Opuszynski, and Jason Smith.