The 90-Miler

Karrie Thomas and Russ Ford take on the three-day paddling race

The thing that surprises me the most as I recover from paddling my first 90-Miler canoe and kayak race is that my quadriceps are the only muscles that hurt. My arms and shoulders and core muscles that propelled the boat for as many as seven hour a day are fine, but the legs that held my body glued to the boat are screaming at me.

For those who have not heard of it, the Adirondack Canoe Classic (or 90-Miler) is a three-day paddling race in the Adirondack Park that starts in Old Forge, passes through Long Lake, and ends in Saranac Lake. It more or less takes place on the first 90 miles of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Like the NFCT, it is the center of a remarkable and supportive community, an inspiration and a serious challenge to anyone who would choose to undertake it. It attracts about 250 boats (canoes, kayaks, guideboats & SUPs) and 600 paddlers annually.

I joined NFCT volunteer extraordinaire, section paddler, and expert stern man Russ Ford in his Mad River Horizon for the event this September. It was our second time in a boat together, and my first serious canoe race (Missisquoi Paddle Pedal aside). We had help from Russ’ wife Charen, who served as our capable pit crew, and my friend Ethan, who shared his cabin in Lake Clear with us. Everything came together great during the race, and we were able to beat Russ’ previous time in a tandem boat, finishing third place for our division (C2 Stock Mixed Masters). I was thrilled to lighten my paddle from my usual wood T grip Bending Branches Expedition to a Bending Branches Black Pearl II.


Russ Ford and Karrie Thomas paddle in the 90-Miler. Photo by Mike Lynch
Russ Ford and Karrie Thomas paddle on Fish Creek Pond during the 90-Miler. Images by Mike Lynch Photography

Despite the fact that 250 boats were hurtling themselves through this stunning landscape, we had two of the closest wildlife encounters I have ever had: the first was with a young bear cub who was trotting along the shore about 25 yards from our boat as we passed between Third and Fourth Lakes; the second was with a pair of loons that we passed within 10 yards of on Utowana Lake. It was my first time paddling on the Fulton Chain and Raquette Lake, and while I can imagine enjoying it more at a slower pace I was thrilled to tick another section off my NFCT list.

Contributing to the management of this corridor has been a part of NFCT’s stewardship work for over a decade. I was very glad of the work we have done on the Raquette Falls portage as I jogged through the sharp steep corners, and thought perhaps it was time to bring the crew back for a touch up!

Credit for the success of the race goes to organizers Brian and Grace McDonnell of Mac’s Canoe Livery, who have run this event for nearly two decades. In addition to their hard work, the contributions of local organizations, such as the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Central Adirondack Association, play a huge role. And, of course, we can’t forget about the volunteers. They do everything from staffing official pit stops (thanks NFCT volunteers Mary Duk and Susan Storch, Debra Wright and Randall Saumier) to directing traffic at the put-ins and take-outs.

The most heartening aspect of this race is the people. Every size, shape and age participates. Each day we started in the same group and moved through the waves, meeting most of the same boats each day. Recognizing each other day after day and sharing words of encouragement and camaraderie makes the miles slip by faster. I was in awe of a number of “Veteran” racers (over 50 or in reality over 70 or even 80) who showed their age on the portages, but flew past us demonstrating the power of experience on the water.

As I hear stories of thru-paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, each one tells of digging deep and finding out that people really can do a little more than perhaps they thought they could. My sense after paddling the 90-Miler is akin to these feelings of accomplishment and pride: I do have it in me. And even after the particular exhaustion I felt upon finishing 35 miles on day one, I had fun. I think I will do it again!

Paddlers make their way down Long Lake on day 2 of the 90-Miler.
Paddlers make their way down Long Lake during the 90-Miler.


A crowd is gathered at the 90-Miler finish line on Lake Flower in Saranac Lake, New York.
A crowd gathers at the finish line of the 90-Miler.