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.....

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