On July 4, 1963, forty-five canoes raced seventy miles from the headwaters of the Susquehanna River to Bainbridge, New York. The winning canoe crossed the finish line in 11 hours and 45 minutes. The same race has been held every Memorial Day since then and the race record has steadily improved to where it stands today at 6 hours, 34 minutes and 34 seconds.
I participated in shorter races held over the annual canoe regatta weekend while growing up in Sidney. I even won a trophy as a member of a winning Boy Scout relay team. I shared my first can of Genesee beer with Tim Barnes after our Grand Prix relay team came in last place four weeks before we graduated from high school in 1978.
Thirty-seven years and one day after that defeat I was back. This time to compete in the 70 mile endurance race with my nephew Alex.
Our day starts at 6:00 AM on the southern shore of Otsego Lake. We arrive early and leave our canoe near the base of the Indian Hunter statue that originally stood on the site of James Fenimore Cooper’s home until it was moved to the Lakefront Park in 1940.
Leaving the starting line, we race out into the lake to a buoy and then turn back to where the Susquehanna River begins. We are overly cautious at the start and are one of the last canoes to leave the lake. The river is narrow, peaceful and beautiful as it passes through Cooperstown.
We carry the canoe around a small dam near Bassett Hospital without any trouble and begin the twenty-five mile stretch that will take us to a second portage around Collier’s Dam. As we head out of Cooperstown the river becomes more challenging, with fallen trees and dangling branches forming obstacles at many of the bends in the river.
We do well at first but eventually capsize after being pushed hard into a half sunken log. The water is cold but the life jackets keep us on the surface. Alex is thrown clear but I struggle a bit to free my left foot that has become wedged below the canoe’s rear seat. The water is flowing fast and we fight to pull the canoe toward the right bank of the river. We stand too soon to try to empty the canoe in swift water. I realize the mistake and tell Alex to float further downstream, remembering the rhyme a Shenandoah river guide drilled into me during an earlier whitewater canoe trip, “nose and toes to the sky, keep you alive.”
We reach calm water, empty the boat and retrieve a bottle of Gatorade and our paddles as they float by. As I climb back into the canoe I realize that this is not like any other endurance race I have ever entered.
In those other races the courses were safe and welcoming. When I ran a marathon, the roads were cleared of traffic and there was food and water at every mile. There were even rock and roll bands playing along the route. The Lake Placid Iron Man course was in perfect condition. The swim course was marked with eight foot high buoys and an underwater cable. The road where we bicycled was re-paved and cleaned with street sweepers before the race began. State Troopers blocked every intersection to keep the course free of trucks and cars. There was even a carpet that ran from the beach to the changing tents a quarter-mile away that made for a comfortable run even in bare feet.
This course is different. You race the river as it presents itself to you. There has been no effort to remove even the most dangerous obstacles or to add water with dam releases. No effort to widen or groom the portage trails to make it easier to carry your canoes around the three dams along the way. There are no aid stations along the course and certainly no rock bands. You bring your own food and drink and are resupplied by friends and family who wait for you on muddy river banks along the way.
Today the river hates us and is full of spiteful contradictions. In one stretch it is too fast, hurtling us towards branches and boulders. In another it is at a standstill. We paddle through empty farmland in blistering sun and then duck below branches overhanging the river as it passes through an overgrown forest. We canoe in deep water and then round a corner and find ourselves scraping along the bottom. It is wide when there is no one around us and much too narrow when other boats need to pass us. No matter which way we turn, we are always in a head wind. At one point the wind blows so strong the river reverses its direction.
The day is long and it saps our spirit. Our pace decreases and we end our thirteenth hour just before reaching the finish line. We float to the dock, climb from our boat and shake hands. There are no massage therapists waiting to rub the knots out of my back. Instead, I stretch out on the grass and watch as the last parts of a Ferris Wheel are disconnected and loaded onto a truck.
Alex has two brothers who also want to complete this race and I know I will be back again.
This river hates you but you love her anyway.