90 Miles of Sore Arms, Family, and Beautiful Water at the 2014 Adirondack Canoe Classic. (Part 2 of 2)
Day 2: Long Lake to “The Crusher”- The River and the Rain
“Wave three: you have one minute.” I snapped out of the daze that I had been lulled into by the twinkling morning sun and the gently undulating water. For the first time on that Saturday morning, I actually felt awake. I started thinking about the long, yet simple day ahead, as well as the potentially nasty weather ahead of us. While my morning the day before had been filled with too many thoughts and nerves, I had gone through the morning in a sleepy haze until this point. The race organizers had announced protocols for severe weather (we were to get off of the water immediately or else face disqualification), yet I didn’t really begin to process this information until we were already on the water. In a way, my lack of mental preparation made me feel relaxed and ready to paddle even as the starter counted down and sent us out onto the course. Day 2 had begun and we were ready.
The second day begins a few miles from the bottom of Long Lake at a private beach. A family of local landowners and friends of the race lent their property — a large plot of grassy fields— to the organizers as a staging area of all of the boats, racers and a few vendors. We then carried our boats down to a small beach and launched out into the lake according to our wave groupings. The route is straight-forward, travelling roughly 12 miles up the lake, under the long Lake bridge, past various islands and into the mouth of the Raquette River. From here, it is around 5 winding miles through the river to the single, 1.25 mile, carry of the day at Raquette Falls. From the carry, the route continues on the river for 16 miles to “The Crusher,” which is a parking area and boat launch located off of route 3. Day 2 is only a few miles shorter that day 1, but it seems significantly shorter and easier due to the lack of portages and the knowledge that we are only paddling on two separate bodies of water. With these factors in mind, we set off down Long Lake, feeling strong and ready to paddle hard.
Passing under the bridge in Long Lake
We paddled hard right off of the start, establishing the same great rhythm that we had maintained the previous day and began to pick out other boats that we recognized that we would be racing with throughout the day. Very shortly, we reached the Long Lake bridge, which is the sole place that spectators can watch the race pass by on Day 2. We passed under throngs of fans and pit crew members, cheering and offering shooting photos, then continued out into the expanse of the lake. After the bridge, Long lake seems so open up and stretch far into the distance. The miles and hours pass quickly, as the endless lake shortens and the looming Seward mountain range draws nearer. We maintained a great pace and reached the mouth of the river feeling strong.
The Raquette is a gorgeous river that winds gracefully through the wilderness. Grassy marshes, fragrant pines and overhanging trees frame the 20 to 30 foot wide river. While we still had to work occasionally to manage the bends in the river, it was a much more peaceful and easier-to-paddle waterway that Brown’s Tract or the Marion River. After a surprisingly short paddle, we reached the Raquette Falls carry just as the expected rain moved in. In previous iterations of the race, Raquette Falls had been a difficult and stressful part of the day. In our two-person canoe, we were usually caught by faster, competitive C-4 pro boats, sea kayakers and war canoes just before the carry. Many of the racers in the competitive classes run through the carries and pass other boats on land in order to get an edge and make up time. On the thin, rocky trail at Raquette Falls this can cause tension and traffic jams. Luckily, we were much faster in our C-4, so we only had to watch out for a few racers who wanted to pass us on land. We all took a minute to go to the bathroom and grab a few cups of water or a Twix bar from the race support volunteers at the end of the carry before setting back out on the water.
The final 16 miles continued on the Raquette, which maintained its measured, snaking character. The rain had drummed the hull of the boat as my dad and I carried it upside down on our shoulders and increased in intensity once we hit the water again. The temperature was in the 60s, which was just warm enough that the rain didn’t completely chill us as we paddled. None of us bothered to take our rain jackets out of our bags, instead choosing to paddle harder and let our physical output warm our bodies. Water dripped from the brims of our hats and down our faces, soaked our clothes, and collected in a thin layer in the bottom of the canoe. In the bow, I simply continued to charge ahead, setting a steady, efficient pace to drive us through the curves and straightaways even as the rain pelted my face. Paddling at a race pace during a rainstorm was hypnotic in many ways as I watched drops fall and hit the water, leaving tiny floating droplets skating across the surface for a few seconds.
Crossing the finish line at The Crusher
Finally, we came around a final bend and saw the familiar orange bulbs of the finish line and saw the mass of cheering people flooding the Crusher parking lot and the concrete dock that projected outward into the water. We came across the finish line strong and took our boat out. We dumped out the sickly reddish brown colored water, formed from the mixture of mud, chocolate Clif Shots and rainwater from the bottom of our canoe and met our pit crew who brought us warm clothes and towels. A tent nearby had various refreshments including one of the most miraculous post-race drinks: chicken soup broth that sent a rush of comforting warmth flowing through my chest and limbs. We drove to Fish Creek Ponds campground for warm dinner and a few celebratory beers with friends and fellow racers. Day 2 was complete and only 22 miles remained!
Day 3: Fish Creek to Lake Flower- A short and sweet finish
Growing up, our family eschewed “normal” vacations to resorts and beaches in favor of wilderness canoe camping trips, hikes and adventures. One of our favorite campgrounds to spend a week of vacation at has always been Fish Creek Ponds. While it does feature amenities like a bathroom and a short drive into Lake Placid or Saranac Lake, Fish Creek is a great spot to camp because of the incredible access to nearby waterway for paddling or hikes in the High Peaks. On Saturday night, after the second day of the race, all of the participants camp at Fish Creek, where we can all relax, spend time around the campfire and socialize. Additionally, day 3 begins at the campground itself, so we are all close to the start in the morning when we wake up. All of the canoes and boats in the race are lined up across 5 or 6 campsites and each wave launches from there into the pond.
The morning was cool and the start was delayed due to a ghostly fog blanketing Fish Creek Pond. The intricacies of the initial sections of the route are technical at times and in a deep fog, boats could get disoriented and risk hitting rocks. We spent time drinking coffee and mingling with friends, while preparing the boat for the final push. I have found that it is a challenge on the 3rd day of the race to approach the final leg with proper perspective. At just 22 miles, we expected that the final day would take us around 4 or 5 hours, which is much shorter than the of the first day, but still a significant amount of time in the boat. Luckily, the longer morning allowed us to find the proper head-space for the day and we paddled to the starting line feeling strong and ready.
The start of day 3 on Fish Creek Pond
From the start, the race was on! On this morning, everyone seemed to be extra excited and we all around us, boats tangled, bumped each other collided in various ways. We continued paddling hard and escaped the wild fray just before we went under the first bridge on the route. We continued through the pond into a narrow channel leading into Upper Saranac Lake. The third day of the race has some of the most gorgeous views of the whole course and Upper Saranac is no exception. Beautiful islands, low mountains and a varied coastline came into view, lit by the increasingly warm morning sun. We paddled hard across Upper Saranac, chasing or passing boats that we were now familiar with after three days on the water.
After just an hour, we arrived at the first portage of the day, the Bartlett Carry. The take out point is surprisingly deep, and when Kelly placed her foot into the water to exit the boat, she sank down unexpectedly and toppled out into the water! Laughing and not realizing how deep it was, my mom started to get out as well until my dad yelled stopped her before the whole boat capsized in the shallow water. We got the boat onto shore safely, with a huge smile across each of our faces and began the carry. The Bartlett Carry begins on a paved road that leads up a short hill before veering into the woods and down to the Middle Saranac Lake. This particular portage is my favorite each year, because upon taking the canoe out of the water at the start of the carry, the haunting notes of bagpipe music from farther up the path begin drifting down and finding our ears. A lone bagpiper has stood at the top of the hill for years, playing for the racers as they pass by on the final day of the 90 Miler. After the exertion of paddling, the spectral sounds seemed to pass into my weary chest and grab onto something deep within. After such a long, difficult journey and such a wonderful adventure with my family, the bagpiper’s songs stirred my emotions and inspired me to contemplate the experience even as we hurried through the carry to the water.
The Bartlett Carry
From the Bartlett Carry, we paddled out into Middle Saranac Lake, which treated us to amazing views of Ampersand Mountain. Middle led to the Saranac River, which took us through a series of perfect S-curves before a short carry around the Upper Locks. From the carry, we headed back in to the river and paddled past a massive rock face next to the river called the Devil’s Pulpit. The old, vague legend that we had heard involved an old American Indian tribe throwing their enemies off of the cliff. After three days of me yelling back to pick the pace up and telling everyone to increase our effort, I joked that they were going to throw me off of the Devil’s Pulpit! Luckily they reasoned that the day might be tougher without someone in the bow, so they decided not to toss me off of the cliff and we continued on in to Lower Saranac Lake.
We paddled a short distance through Lower Saranac before taking right turn and following a highway of bouys through the boulders in First Pond. We paddled under the road and into Second Pond, then downriver again briefly until we reached the Lower Locks. At the Lower locks, we started to figuratively feel the finish drawing near. We only had roughly 40 minutes of paddling left through Oseetah Lake and Lake Flower until we reached the finish line. We had been gradually catching a C-4 that we had passed in Upper Saranac, who had then passed us when we were going to the bathroom at the Bartlett Carry. We made it our goal to chase this boat down before the finish and together we secretly caught fire and picked up our intensity for the final few miles.
Paddling hard on Lake Flower
We moved quickly through Oseetah and into Lake Flower, admiring the beautiful houses and mountain views for an instant before continuing to dig deep into whatever energy reserves that we had left. We finally caught up with our competitors and didn’t let up. I yelled back to my sister and said “the sooner we get across that finish line, the sooner we get to crack open those Heady Toppers.” The prospect of cracking open one of those silver cans at the finish and quenching our thirst with that glorious hoppy flavor was quickly becoming a primary inspiration for the two of us, while my dad looked forward to his favorite Gluten-Free beer. We paddled hard and steady for through the final straightaway, leaving everything we had on the water, until we finally crossed the finish line. Our final time for all three days was 15 hours, 46 minutes and 32 seconds, over 2 full hours faster than my dad and I finished the race the previous year!
Once on land, we all hugged each other and congratulated each other on a successful race. Kelly and I cracked our Heady Toppers while my dad opened his gluten free beer, and we all tapped them together for the most satisfying “cheers” possible. We sat in the warm sun and watched the remaining racer come in, savoring our exhaustion and accomplishment in a relieved state of bliss. Soon, the awards ceremony began. I felt a rush of pride when my mom and sister went up to the awards tent and received their “90 Mile Finisher Pins,” as well as later when my dad picked up his “360 Mile Finisher” pin. As I examined my pin, reading “270 Mile Finisher,” I thought back to the fun and family teamwork of the last 3 days. The 90 is such an amazing event that means so much to me, yet completing the race with my entire family and sharing in the adventure with them was one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences that I have ever had.
The 90 Miler is more than just a race or an event; it has a history deeply tied to the Adirondacks and its people. There is an ever-present spirit that permeates through every carry, river bend and lake, which fills the heart of every person who experiences it. To have the opportunity to share that spirit with the people who I love the most makes me realize just how lucky I am in so many ways, and what a beautiful place the Adirondacks are. I can’t wait to do it all again next year.