90 Miles of Sore Arms, Family, and Beautiful Water at the 2014 Adirondack Canoe Classic. (Part 1 of 2)
Day 1: Old Forge to Blue Mt. Lake – A Surprisingly Good Start!
From the moment that I arrived in Old Forge, my emotional state could be described in a word: tense. I had begun to feel stressed as I packed the night before, as an uncertain forecast complicated my efforts to choose the right layers for each day. Once I arrived in Old Forge and met my family at their RV, we had to finalize our hydration systems by modifying Camelbak hoses and choosing which Nuun tablets we wanted to use, as well as plan our daily nutrition regimens. In addition to these preparatory tasks, the physically demanding, long first day was on each of our minds. While the 2014 edition of the 90 was my third race and my dad’s fourth, my mom and sister, Kelly were novices and we had no idea how they would handle the grueling experience. While my dad and I tried to pass on as much helpful information as possible to them and give them realistic expectations about how tough the race would be, we went to bed on Thursday night nervously anticipating tomorrow’s section of the race and hoping we could make it through the first day fairly smoothly.
Team Snyder, ready to race on Day 1!
Yet, on the beach in Blue Mountain Lake after the first 37 miles, all questions and doubts were quickly dashed. We were all surprised and pleased by how well we worked together as a team, as well as how strong and positive my mom and Kelly were throughout the day!
Day one starts on the calm waters of Old Forge pond. We ate breakfast at a charity event at the firehouse near the boat launch, then started prepping the boat for the day. We were renting a Wenonah Minnesota 4 canoe, which is a 4 seat or “C-4” variant of the popular Minnesota II. It features the same clean lines, fast hullspeed and tight tracking as the Minn. II, but in a 23 foot length and with 4 seats distributed efficiently throughout the boat. We each set to work on our own personal zone in the boat, padding our seats with cut up Therm-A-Rest Z Lite and Ridge Rest sleeping pads, taping Clif Shots, GUs and Shot Bloks to the inside of the boat and situating our backpacks so that the hydration hoses were easily accessible. We were in the third wave, so we had time to greet friends, lather ourselves in sunscreen and do some stretching as the first two open touring waves set out on the water.
After the second wave launched, we carried our boat to the edge of the water and eased out into the middle of the bay with the other 50 or so boats in our wave. The soft morning light shimmered on the water among fingers of steam that rose in ghostly wisps. We sat silently in the water, fidgeting with our black, carbon fiber paddles as the announcer performed a roll-call of the heat. Finally, the words “wave three: one minute” echoed out over the bay and all around us hands gripped paddles, racers sat upright and a wave of silent, electric excitement passed through us all. “On your mark, get set, GO!” yelled the starter and we were off!
Paddling to the starting line on Day 1
Immediately, we all began executing quick, efficient paddle strokes, which are ideal for establishing momentum and speed quickly. As the paddler in the bow seat, it was my job to set the pace. The rest of the paddlers in the boat matched their strokes with mine, so that all of our paddles hit the water in a synchronized motion. Roughly every ten strokes, or whenever necessary due to wind, water conditions or obstacles, my dad would shout a clear “HUT!” from the stern, signaling the rest of us to switch sides. The stern paddler has the most difficult job in the boat, as he or she is charged with steering the boat and keeping us on track. My dad is a very experienced paddler and had manned the stern of our two-seat Minnesota II in each our two previous 90 milers, yet he was relatively new to steering a four-man boat. The weight, length and increased speed of a C-4 requires an advanced level of skill and diligence to control. Lucky for us, my dad came ready to work and quickly adapted to the nuances of the boat.
We reached a great rhythm as we traveled through “the Narrows” into First Lake and found ourselves in the first 1/3 of the pack. We recognized friends in some of the boats around us and tried to keep them close as we moved across the connected waters of First, Second and Third Lakes. We paddled through a short channel and into Fourth Lake, which is the longest single body of water on Day 1. We took in beautiful views of the cliffs of Bald Mt. and took turns eating, which provided us with an important lesson for future races: always be sure to taste the energy foods that you plan on eating before you get onto the water! Kelly learned, after just one mouthful, that she hated the taste of Clif Shots, while my mom realized that she couldn’t stomach her water system full of Nuun tablets. We were able to adjust and trade some snacks, but next year we will all be sure to sample our food and drinks before we rely on them for energy over such a long race. Finally, we paddled through a bending channel packed with cheering spectators including Brad, a college buddy of mine who was pit crewing for some friends. He provided all of us with a much needed boost of motivation and pumped us up as we paddled the final few hundred yards on Fifth Lake before the first portage across route 28 into Sixth Lake.
Through the channel and into Fifth Lake
After the portage, which allowed us to go to the bathroom and stretch our legs, it was a short jaunt though Sixth and Seventh Lakes before a mile long carry on the paved road through Eighth Lake Public Campground, where we met up with our pit crew and refilled our hydration systems and munched on some bananas.
We launched once more into Eighth Lake, which signified roughly halfway and we felt strong. Our pace had not slackened through the day and we were all in great spirits. My mom and Kelly were both extremely positive and resilient, yet my Dad and I knew that the first real test lay ahead with both the longest carry in the race at 1.5 miles as well as a brutal, 2.5 mile section of snake-like switchbacks and narrow corners called “Brown’s Tract.” This section of the course is incredibly strenuous and post-race we all agreed that it was the hardest part of the entire 90 miles. The tight corners required precision steering from the stern, quick acceleration and periods of paddling without switching, as well as a powerful, energy sapping draw stroke from myself in the bow. We got up to speed quickly and I initiated a draw stroke into the first tight turn while my dad ruddered and the ladies continued the quick pace. To our surprise, we were able to navigate the tight turns of brown’s tract effectively, even passing a few other C-4s who we knew were faster than us on open water. We were able to power-through turn after turn without becoming tangled in tall grass or stuck on a banks of the river. The looming hulk of Blue Mountain came into view and motivated us to keep our intensity level up and stay positive. As we passed under the bridge at the end of Brown’s Tract to the sound of cheering spectators and cowbells, we all relaxed and breathed deeply, while transitioning into slightly longer, deliberate strokes to give our arms a rest.
Launching after the Eighth Lake portage
After Brown’s Tract, we were all mentally and physically drained. We got back into our rhythm and focused on remaining hydrated and eating enough as we paddled quietly across Raquette Lake and into the Marion River, which culminated in a final 0.25 mile carry into Utowana Lake. We followed the shoreline across Utowana Lake into Eagle Lake, occasionally looking back at a few C-4 boats from our heat that were close behind us. These small races within the race were exciting and gave us a thrill whenever we could pass or outlast a boat that we had chased throughout the day and a small pang of defeat when we were passed.
Before long, we went under a bridge and into the final stretch through Blue Mountain Lake. I yelled back to the others “alright guys, let’s pick it up and finish out strong,” then sped the pace up in spite of my tired shoulders. We put our heads down and paddled hard for the last twenty minutes, not letting up for a second until we had passed the two giant floating orbs that represented the finish line. We had finished the first, toughest leg of the Adirondack Canoe Classic faster than we expected and in much better form than any of us could have predicted. We pulled our boat onto the shore amid throngs of pit crew members, spectators and fellow racers; all smiling and exuding the special kind of euphoric aura generated by strenuous endurance activity. My dad and I each cracked a beer and shared a “cheers” with other tired friends. Day 1 was finished and the same nervous excitement crept back into my chest, yet the tension and uncertainty had evaporated completely. Tomorrow would be another long day, but we had paddled well and I knew we would have fun!
Paddling into shore after crossing the finish line in Blue Mt. Lake