Archives For General Clinton Canoe Regatta

River in the rain.

May 30, 2017 — 3 Comments


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.


The river hates you.

May 28, 2015 — 5 Comments


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.