I learned to canoe in 1972 at Crumhorn Mountain Boy Scout Camp.
Jim Davidson was in charge of the waterfront and taught me the importance of the buddy system and other lifesaving skills. He also taught the canoeing merit badge class. He showed us how to use the paddles in a way that two people pulling on opposite sides of the boat could work together and travel in a straight line. Most importantly he taught us the importance of life jackets and how to help other boaters in trouble.
I loved that camp and spent my high school summers working as a member of the Crumhorn staff, first teaching basic camping skills, then in my last years before college working for Jim at the waterfront.
Two years ago, my nephew Alex asked me to partner with him for the 70 mile endurance race from Cooperstown to Bainbridge. Last year I raced a second time with his brother Tom and this year it was Matt’s turn. Three brothers, three regattas. That was the promise I made in 2015.
Every year at the canoe regatta has been different. With Alex the water was extremely low but the weather was beautiful. Tom‘s year, the water was higher, but so were the temperature and the humidity. This year it rained almost the entire time Matt and I were on the river and the water was high and fast moving. The starting point was moved a few miles up Otsego Lake and by the time we reached the river inlet our boat was already filled with a few inches of water. We would have to empty the rain water from it several times during the race.
Matt and I paddled well together with little wasted effort and were on schedule to meet the cut off times: Milford’s bridge by 9:30, the Oneonta south side dam portage by 1:00; Wells Bridge by 4:30 and reach the finish line before 8:00.
We capsized once at a tricky turn under a railroad trestle. The water was deep and cold but our life jackets kept us afloat as we struggled in our rain jackets and long pants to swim the canoe to shore. We lost some time getting around that turn and made the first checkpoint with only 15 minutes to spare.
We lost a little more time getting to the second checkpoint and probably were a bit late, but we made up the time and reached Wells Bridge ahead of schedule.
The rain stopped but the river was moving very fast in parts. As we rounded a bend just upstream from Unadilla, Matt and I saw a paddler clinging to a limb from a tree that had fallen in the middle of some rapids. We canoed by him and stopped at the shore where the water slowed. His kayak was wrapped around a submerged log and destroyed. His life jacket, tied to the seat of his boat, was underwater and unreachable. His name was John and he was a bit shaken as he stood on his mangled kayak holding on to the tree branch that had destroyed it.
I took my paddle and waded as close as possible to John and the tree branch. We spoke a bit and he agreed to let go and let the river carry him. He slumped into the water and started to rush by me. I reached my paddle to him, just as Jim Davidson taught me years before. John grabbed it and I pulled him out of the current and we walked to the shore together. He thanked us and called his wife for a lift back to Bainbridge.
Matt and I headed back downstream, found John’s paddle a few hundred yards away and crossed the finish line with about ten minutes to spare.
As we loaded the canoe on the car top, I remembered that when I started this blog I first wrote about another lesson I learned at Crumhorn. As I get older I realize more and more just how much I learned during the summers I worked there. Scouting taught me to respect both the beauty and the dangers of nature and not to be afraid to take action to help others. I put those lessons to good use late yesterday afternoon standing in the middle of the Susquehanna with a canoe paddle in my hand.
It was another rewarding day on the river and I extend my sincerest thanks to Matt, Tommy and Alex for spending three long Memorial Days canoeing with me from Cooperstown to Bainbridge, and to their parents and their friends who cheered us at every boat launch and bridge along the way.
I had a blast with you guys and will never forget our adventures together.