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Annual Guide 2000

The Arms Race

Pulling through three days of the Adirondack Canoe Classic

EVERYBODY HAS THESE REVELATIONS. Things are moving very fast and there’s lots going on, a kind of happy, muddled chaos. Then comes a sudden, parenthetical moment of quiet when everything comes into focus and you think: “How did I get myself into this? What the hell am I doing here?”

In my case, it’s a cool, overcast September morning and I’m sitting in my canoe looking out from the public beach at Old Forge. There’s a crowd of several hundred people on shore, but I’m mesmerized by the long stretch of water that trails away to the northeast. The Fulton Chain of lakes and its five portages once served as a highway into the central Adirondacks. Today it will take me most of the daylight to cover thirty-five miles, past the town of Inlet, across Raquette Lake to Forked Lake. And that’s just my first day.

The Adirondack Canoe Classic, now in its eighteenth year, is one of the premier flat-water boating events in the country. People come from all over the world to compete. For three days the race becomes a world unto itself, a community of paddlers and rowers that winds its way slowly over the ninety-mile course into the heart of the mountains.

To say that I’m woefully unprepared for this odyssey would be an understatement. The course we’ll follow punches through some of the most rugged country in the Northeast. There are huge bogs, coiling streams, steep portages and wide, windswept lakes. I’m out of shape, inexperienced, not so much a paddler as a dabbler. But it’s too late now for any of that to matter. The water is a shade of blue-gray just slightly colder than the sky, as the starting gun echoes against the low hills.

The start is a beautiful, tumultuous sight. Some 250 boats—everything from high-tech carbon-fiber racing canoes to traditional wooden guideboats—surge forward in frothing waves. Most move swiftly and easily up First Lake. Even the war canoes, each manned by eight or ten people, have a kind of grace to them. Their chanted cadences fade into the morning as they pull away, leaving me behind.

In some cultures slowness is revered. Things are valued because take time. In such a culture my canoe-craft would be legendary; I am, in a word, glacial. All through that first morning, I creep from lake to lake, meandering drunkenly over the portage paths. It’s a painful, meditative crawl, but by early afternoon I reach Browns Tract Outlet. The long, low, sinuous marsh is golden and gray with autumn. A great blue heron flushes and dances away.

It’s late when the wetland opens into Raquette Lake. The sky has a dusky quality, and I can see lights starting to flicker on along the shore. The view is expansive and gorgeous, but the lake is an ocean to be measured one stroke at a time. I tell myself it’s a Zen koan, a riddle that has to be solved with patience and determination. Or maybe I’m Sisyphus on temporary leave from his rock.

Meanwhile, my canoe is passed by everyone, by senior citizens and little kids, by people who seem to be drifting along without paddling at all. There on the flat calm of Raquette Lake, I know moments of real despair when I seriously contemplate chucking my paddle and escaping overland to the nearest tavern.

But finally, after ten hours, we stragglers slip into Forked Lake. We make a final push for the campground at the east end. It’s the idea of respite that beckons, the chance to pause, unhinge aching backs and shoulders. A chance, also, to take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone in my suffering. Up on shore, fellow first-timer Dominic Watowski, from Albany, laughs and shakes his head: “Wow. It was good. Reaching the finish line was a heck of a feeling of accomplishment, put it that way.”

“It was a little rough,” agrees Kimberly Reed, a novice paddler from Dallas, Texas. “Actually, thoughts crossed my mind of not finishing it, but we decided to go on and I think we can do it, so I’m pretty excited.” Feeling pretty stupid myself, I can’t help but ask: “What got you to do this?”

“It’s my twenty-first birthday,” Kimberly says, a little ruefully. “I wanted to do something with my father and I chose this. My sister chose to go to a dude ranch and I chose to do this.”

“I guess you wish you were riding a horse right now?”

“Yeah.”

 

IT’S DAY TWO of the canoe classic and things are looking up. I paddled solo the first day, from Old Forge. Today I’m partnered with a friend from Saranac Lake. But he’s a greenhorn too, and now we’re both looking at the water, at the fourteen-mile reach of Long Lake.

“We’ll paddle the length of the lake,” announces race organizer Brian McDonnell, talking cheerfully through a bullhorn. “Then we’ll head into the Raquette River. Please be aware that there are very shallow spots, where you’ll probably need to pull your boats.”

As it happens, Long Lake is literally a breeze. A following wind pushes us along, and by early afternoon we slip into the first coil of the river. It’s glorious country, narrow and intimate, threaded with oxbows. Some of the heavier boats struggle in the shallows and we hear rumors that one of the war canoes has had to pull out.

But the real obstacle today is the tortuous overland detour around Raquette Falls. Purgatory Portage is half a mile straight up, then half a mile straight down. When we reach the takeout, it’s like something out of an old World War II film. Racers are bent double under their loads as they stumble up the rocky path. Everything—boats, paddles, gear—must go on tired shoulders. My partner and I join in the clumsy parade, like a pair of ants carrying an oversized crust of bread. My own frumpy canoe was built for day trips with the family and it carries like a coffin.

On the far side, I meet Ruby Levesque, from New York City, who is racing in a solo kayak. “It’s been hell at times,” she says, “but other times it’s been really great. But it’s been hell two-thirds of the time. My boat is too heavy to carry, so I need a set of wheels and these wheels are useless. I mean, they’re okay on flat ground, but some of these portages, where it goes up and down with rocks and roots—ugh! I mean, it’s embarrassing.”

It’s lucky, I guess, that I don’t embarrass easily, as Ruby soon leaves us far behind. As we pick our way down the last miles of the Raquette to the pullout off Route 30 we find that we’re the last boat. Not almost last, but absolutely last. A woman on the dock, seized by a moment of wit, waves a checkered flag as we limp in.

And you know, as we head to Tupper Lake for a steak and a beer, I realize that it’s been glorious. It’s been—a perfect day.

“All the turns and twists in the Raquette were splendid,” my partner says. He shakes his head, worn out but satisfied. “We saw the silver maples on the shore. We saw an otter and two common mergansers. We saw a turtle on a log. Those were all good things. . ..”

 

DAY THREE, THE FINAL DAY, I’ll spare you my inventory of bodily dysfunction, but thank God for ibuprofen and caffeine. I’ve got a new partner today: Bill Burris, a retired math teacher from Maryland, and a skilled paddler. With his dog Sam as ballast, we get ready to head for home, for Saranac Lake, twenty-five miles away.

For those racing to win the Adirondack Canoe Classic, this is a day for sacrifice. The true athletes eat on the run, like they’ve done from the start. To save time they urinate in their boats or on the jog while crossing the portages. They paddle until their hands bleed, run until they can’t stand up. From the back of the pack I watch this ritual with a feeling of—what? Awe, I suppose. Envy at times.

Then, on the far side of Bartlett Carry, there’s a canoe waiting. It turns out that Bill’s wife, Khaki, and his sister-in-law Jackie are also in the race. They’re middle-aged women, strong and patient and laughing. Through the morning they’ve been making up haiku, poems about wind and porcupines and the ubiquitous PowerBars that racers chew between strokes.

“A swimming chipmunk crosses the Raquette, then shakes,” Jackie recites, “then blends into the fall.”

“Beast sleeping in tree,” Khaki says. “Too early to wake up yet, but she shows us quills.”

“Here’s one appropriate for the paddling experience,” adds Jackie. “Adirondack wind roars or whispers, but blows the boat. Sometimes foe, oft friend.”

It’s there at Bartlett Carry, miles yet from the finish line, where the point of all this starts to come halfway clear. Part of it is the place—the demandingly beautiful Adirondacks—and the satisfaction of saying you did it. You paddled ninety hard miles in three days. Then there’s the camaraderie of the race, the kind words spoken breathlessly between hard-driving boats and the camp life that springs up in the evenings. But there’s something more, something ephemeral and fine.

What I find, looking out at the caravan of boats trailing up the Saranac River, is that the journey itself has assumed its own meaning. There’s a gypsy, nomadic connectedness tying together all the accidental parts and pieces. There have been times, of course, when I would have loved to be stronger, in perfect control of my boat, up there in front chasing the lead. But now I find myself wishing I’d gone slower, lingered longer in any of a thousand places, talked a bit more with the people who made the trip with me.

As we turn into Lake Flower and see the crowd on the shore, I ask Bill what he liked best about the day. He thinks a minute and says, “Rocks and outcroppings and water lilies. But then you come out into the lakes and see the mountains off in the distance. It was all great. All wonderful. I’d be glad to do it again.”

Sore and weary and humbled, I say, “Exactly.”

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