Monday, April 21, 2014

Carnage at the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race

One thing can always be counted on at the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe race : Chaos. Photo Laurie Lizotte.
I am not a paddler. I have very little business even sitting in a canoe, never mind at a competitive level. My role in a canoe race involves providing dead weight in the bow of the boat to help trim it out so Lani, who is a professional canoe guide, can glide it down the river smoothly. I don't mean to sell myself short; I am make a decent motor for someone willing to tell me what to do and have enough experience as a whitewater kayaker to be a little dangerous to myself. With that said, competitive canoe racing is not exactly in my comfort zone. As Lani always says to me "if you're gonna be stupid, you'd better be strong". And so we headed off for another round of the insanity of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe race.

In the usual style, the Kenduskeag began with a little insanity and a whole lot of fun. Competitors dressed in wetsuits, costumes, denim, or next-to-nothing flooded the tiny town of Kenduskeag for the race start. Boats ranged from whitewater kayaks to 10-man war canoes and everything in between, although most were 2-person recreational canoes (recreational means no Kevlar race boats). Water craft were sent out in waves of 5 boats every 60 seconds until the entire field of 407 boats were launched down the 15.5 mile course to Bangor (the course had to be shortened this year due to high flooding and high tides at the usual take out). The river was swollen with nearly twice the volume of water passing between its banks of in a typical year. Trees rose from the middle of the river like statues creating swirling eddy lines and brush normally on the river bank created some snotty looking strainers even in the middle of the river. Having looked at a few of the rapids the night before, including the class III multi-drop rapid at Six Mile Falls, I knew the word of the day was going to be carnage. Although we were hoping not to be casualties ourselves Lani and I decided that while the rapid was big and mistakes would not likely be forgiven, we were going to run the falls. We agreed we'd rather go down with the ship than portage. It was certainly runnable with a good amount of skill, a little luck and a whole lot of courage. Did I mention I know nothing about canoe racing?

Lani and I had bib #207, which meant we would be starting in the middle of the madness. We were in the first wave of the women's C2-W field (canoe 2-person- women). At the line, Lani and I darted out in front of the field with a quick pace that no one could match. For a short while, we could hear the calling of another team as they synchronized their paddle strokes and exchanges from left to right, but their calls became more and more distant as we pushed the pace a little harder. We settled into a strong rhythm passing dozens of boats, staying in the fastest moving water we could. I navigated while Lani steered and we both felt strong, fast and light. The first 10 miles or so of the race would be a mix of flat water, gently moving water and small rips but no whitewater to speak of. The whitewater would begin at Six Mile and we knew that we needed to use the flat water to our advantage if we wanted to be competitive. About two miles in, we could hear the voices of another all-female boat making ground on us from behind, presumably the voices we heard at the start. We couldn't believe that we hadn't dropped these girls with the blistering pace we had set- but alas, the voices were getting louder, not more distant. Soon, two young ladies appeared at our side, despite our best efforts to hold them off. Their craft a beautiful Wenonah canoe that eclipsed our Dagger Passage in efficiency, their strokes were flawless, their cadence unmatchable. As they started slipping ahead while we paddled furiously, we pushed. They responded. We pushed harder. They again responded. For the next eight miles, we would pass back and forth, pushing ever harder and harder trying to break them. I may not be the most skilled paddler, but I do know a thing or two about pushing. This was not going to be an easy day for any of us.
Whitewater of the Kenduskeag. Even if you don't flip, the river has a nasty way of taking hostages....
Charlie Smith Photography

In the approach to the big drop at Six Mile Falls, chaos was in the air. In the distance, I could already see a large war canoe wrapped around a tree near the entrance to the first drop of the technical river left route we had planned.
What not to do when the river takes you as a victim. Note the legs attached to the seat in the stern of the boat.
Bill Knight Photography

Lani's husband and daughter overtook us (from a 5-minute deficit at the start) as we entered the rapid and I noticed our of the corner of my eye that our battle companions had opted to take the safer option and portage the Six Mile Falls rapid on river right. If there was ever an opportunity to go up in flames, this was it. As we dropped into the first set of holes and waves, it was clear that this run was not going to be the one we had planned. Sunken crafts, the ever changing nature of the water level and obstacles made the line we scouted impossible. Fortunately, Lani and I always make a plan "B" and plan "C" and even plan "D" for this rapid.
Plan A thwarted by capsized boats everywhere in the left channel in the
first few ledge drops. Charlie Smith Photography.
We didn't, however, put them in such an order. As we dropped into the first hole, Lani hollered "draw, draw!" I crossdrawed still fixed on making the original line. She then yelled "now crossdraw. DO it." As you might have guessed, I drawed. "Jesus Shelley, paddle!" I looked down and my left hand was clenched to the gunnel of the boat. Argh, I thought. I knew it, I messed up. This would be the only time we would break rhythm the entire race. I quickly fixed my left hand back on the T-grip where it belonged, dug in and we boofed a couple of ledges, dodged the remaining pour overs and by the time we hit the final 7-foot man-eating ledge drop, I was back in the game. Taking the final drop, we could see the Wenonah putting back in at the bottom of the falls. We bailed the excess water and paddled with abandon the final miles of the trip.  Lani's rhythmic chant of "one-two-three-four-five-hup" seemed to be on repeat as she kept me on pace as we dug deeper and deeper. The gals chasing us would have to work as hard as we were if they wanted to catch us again.
Chip and Czari (Lani's husband and daughter) in the final drop of Six-Mile-Falls. The look of horror and thrill on Czari's face is priceless. Photo Bill Knight Photography.

The stretch from Six Mile to the improvised finish line is relatively steady class II. Navigating waves, hole ducking, and avoiding capsized craft was the game. Despite the whitewater we took chances, found the fastest paths and charged down river while the sounds of the other women faded further and further in the distance. My shoulders ached for a moment of rest. I regretted tossing a water bottle in the boat rather than wearing my Camelback as thirst was becoming intolerable, but there had
Me bailing after Six Mile. Note that I am NOT drinking the water.
Photo Bill Knight Photography
been no moment to grab a sip from a bottle since the start. I later learned Lani and taken several swigs of grungy river water as she bailed from the rear of the boat. Somehow this didn't surprise me. As we approached the final stretch to the finish, we realized that we were uncatchable with nearly a 30 second lead. We approached the final small drops with a little more caution, a little more confidence, and crossed the line. As we swung into the eddy at the takeout, I inhaled all 16 oz of my Hammer Heed and Endurolyte electrolyte mix like it was the first water I had seen in weeks (oh, the irony).
Lani and I headed into the 7-foot drop of Six Mile Falls.

Our moment of triumph never came, however. About 30 seconds after we pulled into the eddy, our new rivals crossed the line. It was only then that I actually saw their bib- it was #212. Although competitors were supposed to have a bib on the bow of the boat as well as the person in the front, their # was visible only on the left bow of the boat, which we had not seen. This meant that they were not, in fact, the boat that we had heard in the beginning and dropped near the start. This was a boat had started in the wave 60 seconds behind us. Our 30 second lead turned into a 30 second deficit and we would lose in the narrowest margins of all categories (despite being one of the top 15 of nearly 300 recreational canoes at the start).

A hard fought second place at the Kenduskeag.

Taking a loss when you had allowed yourself to believe that you had won a tough battle is always a tough pill to swallow, but it is also one of those lessons in life that we all need. Humility, sportsmanship, and attitude are essential components of sport. Sammi Nadeau and Kailey Schmidt earned this victory. These two girls are tough and they had us in their scopes from the start of the race. Turns out, they have one heck of a paddling resume to boot as the 2013 C2-W National Champions. Next time girls, we aren't taking anything for granted.

Kailey and Sammi winning the National Championship on the Nantahala in the 2013 season. They are both cute and sweet. Did I mention they are only 18?

Chip and their 17-year-old daughter Czari raced to a commanding victory in the C2-Mix category. It was wonderful to see Chip in his element have Czari baptized into this madness, although it was evident when the 5-Hour Energy wore off that Czari would sleep well that night.

Chip and Czari after their victory. Chip won this race with his father, Warren Cochrane 40 years earlier. Pretty cool.
Special thanks to Charlie Smith Photography and Bill Knight Photography for allowing me to share some action photos from the race.

Thanks to Hammer Nutrition for your amazing sponsorship and also Reload Fitness! If you are interested in learning about Hammer Fuels, please contact me and I'd love to chat about them.

And here is a cool article about Chip and Czari from the front page of the Bangor Daily News.

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