Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Part II- ACA Whitewater National Regatta on the Penobscot- Race Time!

Photo Tim Nutt
For anyone who reads this that hasn't paddled whitewater, I want to start by explaining how whitewater is classified, or at least how I see it. If you missed part I where I explain how I got myself into this, you can find it in my earlier post here.

Whitewater class system: Generally, there are 6 classes of moving water. Here is how I very unofficially define them.

Class 1- Moving water. Minimal hazards include some rocks or obstacles and eddy lines easily avoided. No real "white" water, although I've seen lots of canoes flip in class I water.

Class II- Hazards and obstacles include rocks, waves, and eddy lines... both can easily flip a canoe. With a relatively small amount of maneuvering, they can be avoided or paddled safely with correct bracing or bow angles. Rapids that are at the upper end of this difficulty range are designated class II+. 
Class III- More technical maneuvering is required to avoid hazards (strong hydraulics I will refer to as "holes", pour overs, etc.) that will definitely flip a canoe. Additionally, waves large enough to completely swamp a boat are likely and must be avoided. A failed maneuver will likely result in a swim- sometimes a lengthy one- for paddlers. Should only be run by experienced canoeists.
Class IV- In my opinion, class III and class IV are quite similar. The main difference here is about the consequence. In class III, a failed maneuver will likely result in a swim that will carry the paddler through more similar hazards as the ones described above. Self rescue is possible, but a total pain in the butt. Most class IV rapids have a class III line, you just have to stay in it. A class IV swim often means that the paddler will likely be carried into intense, powerful nasty hazards that can cause serious injury. Think Deliverance. Swimming through class IV is a pretty bad idea and your boat will likely be wrecked or banged up.
Class V- Violent, intense rapids where clean lines generally don't exist. Swimming through class V is a really, really bad idea. I've seen it happen, and it isn't pretty.
Class VI- Generally considered unrunnable. If you survive, you are one of the lucky few.

The ACA downriver event we would be participating in covered a 9-mile stretch of Class I/II water with 4 distinct sets of larger rapids. The first rapid was a short Class II+/III- section of whitewater, and the final three were Class III rapids. Prior to the event, Lani and I made practice runs of the entire race course 3 separate times to scout the river, devise a strategy, and get some idea exactly what we were in for on race day. Knowing the duration of the race would be well over an hour, we agreed that those who did well in the race would be the ones who had a solid strategy, stayed dry, and kept the boat upright. With my encouragement, we devised a conservative but smart plan for each of the 4 significant rapids. We agreed that small amounts of time might be bled by choosing conservative, safe lines, but we felt pretty confident that we could make up for our lack of whitewater prowess in the other river sections. After all, we reasoned, the chances that the margin between a podium or non-podium finish was unlikely to come down to seconds.

Penobscot tribal elder Butch Phillips leading the smudging ceremony blessing the river, the land and all of the racers before the first day of racing. Without the passion of the Penobscot Nation, none of this would have been possible. Thank you all.

We arrived on Wednesday night to attend the opening ceremony, which included traditional drumming and singing of traditional Wabanaki songs from members of the Penobscot tribe followed by a smudging ceremony conducted by tribal elder Butch Phillips. Before we knew it, the ceremonies and celebrations were over, Friday had morning arrived and we were making our final preparations at the river's edge for our race.

Boats anxiously waiting for heats to begin on Friday morning before the downriver start (Lani and I are in the center of the photo- red boat and Lani has a red life jacket). Photo MaCRO.

The race began below Indian Island in Old Town. Racers were sent off in heats every 2 minutes by class; ours was the OC-2W class (meaning open canoe- 2 women), the fourth heat of the day. The first rapid, the very spot where Lani and I took a humiliating swim during our first training run, would be only about 400m below the starting line. The entire class of female competitors charged toward the first set of waves, jockeying for position in the fastest water, shortest distance to the first bend in the river, and out of the path of hazards that could slow the pace or put water in the boats. While a few boats broke away from the pack by a couple of boat lengths, the entire pack remained tight and the intensity of race mode was evident in the first few paddle strokes. With two boats on our right side and another immediately in front of us, our plan to run the first rapid near river right was already thwarted. We adjusted to another course and continued through the rapid at a furious pace.

We entered this rapid at the same time as lots of the male OC-1 competitors from
the heats before us. Photo Cheryl Daigle.

The first major rapid would be at the site of the former Great Works dam, about 2 miles downstream. While we hoped to distance ourselves from other boats before the approach into the rapid, instead as we neared the rapid we found ourselves steadily approaching more boats from the men's heat released 2 minutes before ours. Additionally, despite the river being 400 yards wide in places, we found ourselves repeatedly colliding with the black Old Town canoe of Ander Thebaud and Tammy Kelley.  For the most part, I am pretty sure the collisions were inadvertent. Both boats were trying to stay in the fastest moving current while avoiding small obstacles and hazards along the way. As we began to overtake more of the men's boats, however, we found ourselves being pushed into the other crafts by the same black boat, time and time again. After a dozen or more collisions, two of which jammed the pinkie finger of my left hand between the gunnels of both boats, we had all clearly had enough of one another. From here forward, in my mind the black canoe became known as the pinkie-squishing Death Star.**

Other racers navigating Great Works. Photo Tim Nutt

Of all of the major rapids, the Great Works rapid was the longest and most difficult to prepare for, consisting of 3 or 4 drops separated by several holes, large waves, strong eddy lines, cribs and other industrial debris from the former dam. Having run it during our  3 training runs, two things were clear to me- 1) There really isn't a clean, dry line through this rapid, particularly the last drop and 2) The best line down the rapid changes even with small fluctuations in the water level. We paddled furiously toward the rapid in pursuit of the craft of Laurie Spraul and Kathleen Friday, Death Star at our heels, knowing full-well that we would be making decisions on the fly as to how to best negotiate the rapid. While our run through Great Works wasn't completely clean, I resisted my urge to grab onto the gunnels, close my eyes, and scream hoping Lani would paddle me to safety. We maintained our position through the drops while paddling with a quick, strong, clean cadence. In the last drop, we took on a small amount of water from a few large waves requiring some quick attention to bailing before resuming the furious pace set early on by the leaders. Lani and I both gasped for breath from the intensity of the chase, finding ourselves digging deep much earlier in the race than we possibly could have anticipated.
Lining up for the second drop of the Great Works rapid. I think this photo may have been taken on the second day of racing (the Sprint). Photo Tim Nutt.

The next 3 or 4 mile stretch of river was mostly moving water with class I/II whitewater. It was in this stretch where we made our first, and probably only, mistake of the race. Unable to lose the Death Star despite our best efforts, still ramming gunnels (I am pretty sure the men we were overtaking at the time found this pretty entertaining), we seized an opportunity to break off into a channel of water moving down the center of the river while the Death Star chose the flow on river right. With the slightly lower water level from our training run on Wednesday, this proved to be a bad choice. We found ourselves flailing against a swift current rather than being carried by it (not whitewater, just shallow ripples). We emerged a few hundred yards downstream now several boat lengths behind the Death Star. This deficiency we would never make up.

Despite an exhaustive pace, our positions on the river maintained relatively unchanged as we charged downriver toward the class III Basin Mills rapid. Basin Mills is a funny rapid. While short, the consequences of a bad choice are pretty unforgiving. The entry to the rapid consists of a ledge-hole about 100 yards wide in the center of the river (no, 100 yards actually isn't a typo). To the immediate right of the hole, there is a clean line of fast-moving water; however, just below the hole is a nasty, munchy, 6-foot set of curling, frothing, diagonal waves a few feet to the right. While the clean line was wide enough for a boat, an attempt to slide between the hole and the waves would have to be perfect or the consequence would likely be a boat full of water or a swim. During our practice runs, I felt this was the best of all of the options. The idea would be to set up above the waves further to the right than would otherwise seem prudent to ensure our bow was already pointed to the left below the hole. As the waves approached, we would thread the boat between the two hazards.

Here is the MaCKRO arial shot of the Basin Mills rapid. Fro above, it looks pretty small, but for perspective use the trees for reference. Those little ripples are actually big waves! Photo MaCKRO

Probably the hardest thing about the Basin rapid is that from the position on the river, none of the rapid is visible. The enormous ledge pour-over creates a horizon line that almost appears as a low-head dam would. It requires a tremendous amount of trust, commitment, and confidence in whatever approach you choose. As the rapid neared and we dropped to our low position in the boat to allow for better bracing, we were coming in a little further to the left than the from-the-right-approach we had planned. "Where is the freaking hole???" Lani demanded. "Right, further right." I insisted. I attempted to indicate where the hole was, but decided it was best to indicate where I wanted us to go, not where I didn't want us to be. I noted a kayaker further to river right. "Kayaker. The kayaker is on the line we want" I gasped. The Death Star disappeared out of view over the horizon line on river right. Further to the center, the other female boat still in front of us appeared to be headed right for the ledge. While I was certain this was a crazy move, it had also become clear that Laurie and Kathleen were extremely skilled and knew how the river fluctuated at different water levels better than we did. I could see them emerge a few seconds later below the drop, upright, and paddling downstream. If it was possible to run the hole without disaster, I knew it would be faster than the line we planned. It was time to take some risks if we wanted any chance of a place any higher than third.

"Change of plan." I said. "The hole is a better line." I knew Lani could only partially hear what I was yelling through the increasing roar of the river. "Left. Go left now."
"Are you crazy?" Lani hollered. "Honestly Shelley. Normally, I would never do this" she insisted with a very matter-of-fact tone. Not having said no, I knew she was not going to veto me. I continued paddling forward, now driving the boat towards the ledge drop and straightening it out in the final approach. Anyone who knows Lani and I knows this is a complete role reversal. "Oh, Jesus. You'd BETTER paddle hard" she said, hoping to avoid being flipped by the violent hydraulic directly below the ledge. And paddle hard we did. 

We emerged on the other side of what seemed like a black hole upright, dry, and smiling. The kayaker I had referenced just moments before was recirculating in the eddy below out of his kayak. "This totally sucks" he said, waving the rescue boat away to avoid a rescue-disqualification. With a now smaller margin ahead of us, the Death Star was furiously unloading gallons of water. "Let's get out of here" I announced in my best cliche-Hollywood-action-movie-voice. "We've got some boats to catch." 

Here are our friends Fiona and Emmanuel running Basin Mills during a training run. This photo is not race day- Basin is hard for spectators to access and photograph. Fiona Hamilton photo.

Shortly after the Basin rapid, we moved into second place, slowly gaining ground on the Death Star. The final set of drops would be at the site of the former Veazie Dam. During our training runs, we had chosen a conservative sneak-line on the righthand side of the wing dam that remained after removal of the larger dam. We knew this line would likely cost us 20-30 seconds from a more aggressive mid-river line, but circumnavigating the ledges and large wave trains would ensure that we would keep ourselves in the boat and the water out. We weren't in this to show off, we wanted to be smart. With our limited experience paddling against athletes of this caliber, we had never imagined that seconds would matter. 

Long before we arrived at the Veazie rapids, our well-laid plan was scrapped. In a language of broken sentences, gasps, and desperate grunts we agreed that we were headed for the more turbulent waters and ledges of the main flow of water. We'd figure out exactly what that meant as we went along. Unfortunately, only one time had we run the ledge during our first training run; that day we had found ourselves in a communication stalemate forcing the bow to swing out wildly sending us over the final drop backwards. We weren't hoping to repeat that. 
Veazie rapid. There are several canoes in this shot (they
look like little fish) that add a good frame of
reference. photo MaCKRO.

I selected one of the routes I knew other paddlers had used along the left side of the wing dam. Despite the hard, strong paddle strokes that caused my shoulders, back, and quads to ache (? don't ask- I have no idea why) and now beginning to seize up, paddling down the Veazie dam felt more like paddling in molasses than water. "Don't quit" we reminded one another every few strokes. No matter how hard we paddled, how hard we dug, the Death Star just wasn't getting any closer to us. In fact, throughout the rapid they actually appeared to have gained a few seconds on us, despite our more aggressive line and exhaustive paddling. The rapid came and went, as did the remaining quarter mile of river below the final waves and turbulent waters of the final class III whitewater. We laid it all out there on the river. In the end, we came up 24 seconds short.

Or, you could say, we came in 29 seconds ahead of third. Only eight minutes ahead the last boat. In the past, we have done races where a close margin between 2 boats was 10 full minutes. As we swung into the eddy and laid in the boat to catch our breath, it became clear just how awesome this field of ladies had actually been. Nearly all boats in the field were visible in the small section of river that could be seen upstream of the finish line. Never in my life could I have imagined a race could be so close. Or so hard. Or so fun.

Women's second place in the downriver race! Thanks always to Spandits! and Hammer Nutrition for your support for my adventures. Anti-Fatigue Caps and Hammer Gel at the start and Recoverite at the finish was the perfect combination. 

At some point, for those who are actually interested in the stuff, I'll tell you about the Sprint that followed on the next day (the race was just the Great Works rapid). Spoiler alert: we were second again. I know what they say about second place, but I have to say, I couldn't be more excited or feel more accomplished.

**Note- I mean no disrespect when using the term Death Star. In fact, we actually chatted and joked with Ander and Tammy after the race and they both seemed like really nice gals.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Who Wants to Take up Whitewater Canoe Racing??

"Winning has nothing to do with racing. Most days don't have races anyway. Winning is about struggle and effort and optimism and never, ever, ever giving up." Amy Burfoot- The Runner's Guide to the Meaning of Life.
Arial shot of one of the rapids of the Penobscot paddled in the whitewater regatta. What look like little ripples are up to seven foot standing waves!

It is safe to say that I find whitewater intimidating. Very intimidating. Back in 1997, I had my first real encounter with whitewater when I learned to kayak at the School of Hard Knocks. My well-intentioned now-husband Dave introduced me to paddling, and often swimming, in big water in Idaho. For the most part, it didn't go well. Having swam through violent whitewater, enormous crashing waves, and the churning pour overs and holes of both the Selway and Salmon rivers during our summers in Idaho, I was forced to master the art of self-rescue in class IV rapids. Needless to say, long ago I learned to develop healthy respect for what the power of moving water can do to the human body. Upon moving back east in 2000, I turned my whitewater kayak into a flower pot.

So, fifteen years later, it is clear the logical thing to do would be to hop in an open canoe and sign up to race through whitewater. At Nationals. Seems about right.

The Whitewater Nationals Regatta is a 4-day event put on by the American Canoe and Kayak Association that is held annually on various rivers throughout the nation, most recently being the Nantahala River in North Carolina. When Lani and I heard that the event would be making a return to the state of Maine, we were curious about the possibility of registering a boat to see how we might fare. Besides the caliber of canoeists who would be competing in the ACA Whitewater Nationals, one of the more exciting aspects of this event was the fact that the race was to be held on a stretch of the Penobscot river that has only recently been open to paddlers. The waterway has been home to the Penobscot Indians for thousands of years and was used by tribal members as a travel route until the 1800's when the river was blocked by two large dams. In the last three years, the Penobscots have purchased and decommissioned the dams, returning the waterway to a free-flowing state that hasn't existed for hundreds of years. For the paddling community, the restoration work of the Penobscots and the class III whitewater that now stands in the place of these dams has been a much appreciated gift.

A training run on the third drop at the site of the former Great Works dam. I am pretty sure this is our friend Fiona paddling. -with Fiona Hamilton.

We knew that without a doubt we would compete against paddlers with years (or decades) of experience that we lacked in whitewater canoeing. We also knew that our inexperience working as a paddling duo would not work in our favor. Nevertheless, our desire for a new kind of adventure surpassed any real common sense that would otherwise dissuade us from registering. We immediately signed up and made our training plan.

The physical conditioning was the easy part... actual on-water training time? Not-so-much. Schedules, families, work, and sheer distance to moving water from our homes made it difficult for us to get together more than a dozen times from April to July to come together on the water to prepare ourselves for what was to come. When we couldn't paddle together, we made time on the water separately.  During our on-water outings, we worked on cadence, paddle strokes and technique, reading whitewater, and most importantly, communication. Having been close friends for years who have talked about just about anything imaginable along our adventures, it would seem that this would be where Lani and I would have an advantage. For anyone who has canoe-raced in a tandem boat, you must know that we were terribly mistaken. Instead, we were in for a steep learning curve. If we were going to survived this event, here are some things we would need to consider...

1) Who is in charge of making decisions? Who picks the line? If one person wants to go right around a hazard and the other wants to go left, the compromise is going straight over it. That kind of compromise is bad for everyone. Don't ask me how I know that.
2) How do you execute the plan once you have it? Who makes the corrections? Draw from the bow while the stern maintains forward momentum, or are correction strokes made from the stern? How do you make these adjustments while maintaining speed?
3) Here is my favorite one. "Left!!". What does that really mean? Does that mean to go to the left of a hazard, or watch out for what is on the left? Should I keep the hazard to my left, which would really mean to go right? I can't begin to tell you how many hours we spent working that one out.
4) Decisions in canoe racing are made on-the-fly in split seconds, involving more than one brain to execute a plan, albeit sometimes a questionable one. How do you keep both teammates in synch? How do you learn to trust someone else?

Our little team. A finely tuned machine....

So after some experiential learning, we determined that from he position in the bow, I would pick the lines. I would find the safest, fastest water on the river at all times. Lani learned to trust me (which I know was probably difficult, especially in the beginning). I would make the call, Lani wouldn't question or argue. From the stern, Lani was otherwise the captain. I learned to respond to commands like "draw", "cross-draw", "brace", "PADDLE HARD", "lean back", and "goddammit Shelley!" like a golden retriever waiting for a ball. And thus, our little team was born....

Once the preliminary training work was done, we headed over to Old Town to pre-run the race course, build our confidence, and make final adjustments as needed. Turns out, adjustments were much needed. Within about 400 meters of the 9-mile downriver route, we were out of the canoe and in the water. Swimming. 

From the looks of it, Lani and I weren't the only ones figuring things out as we went along. - Photo Tim Nutt.

Coming soon.... Part II: The Regatta.....