I didn’t know what I was getting into…
My brother-in-law said “hey you want to enter a canoe race?” An excuse to paddle down river in early spring sounded like a great idea. He recruited my father-in-law and I recruited my brother and the four of us entered the All-American Quinebaug River Race. They were #30 in a 14 foot green Old Town canoe, and we were #31 in a battered blue 12 foot Lincoln canoe.
I was unaware that this canoe race had class II rapids.
At 11:30 am my brother Ben and I watched canoe #30 gracefully slide over the first small patch of white water and then disappear around the river bend. We never saw them again until the race was over. After one minute had passed it was our turn to start the race.
We tipped over right after we launched, directly in front of everyone cheering for people starting the race! We weren’t even in the canoe for 30 seconds. We hit that first little patch, and bobbed through, but the back of the canoe caught the water and twisted us. The little blue canoe was not meant for whitewater, and any wave over the side easily swamped us. The canoe began listing and suddenly water was flowing over the side. I thought, “this can’t be happening already!” and then we tumbled over.
The icy water took my breath away. I was up to my chest. I held on to the canoe as we were swept down river. Eventually we got onto the side of the river, emptied the canoe and started paddling. We were soaked, and we had over an hour on the river in front of us. Then it started raining. Did I mention I didn’t know this was going to be a whitewater canoe race? I thought we’d just be paddling hard down river and enjoying the day.
We rounded a bend and hit a tree. This moment was captured on video by the local paper and posted on youtube for posterity.
(My father-in-law and brother-in-law are the first canoe in this video)
After what seemed like forever we ported the canoe at the Old Sturbridge Village dam. Back on the river the rest of our family cheered us on from a bridge in their rain gear. We waved and paddled on.
Here was the nice stretch of river for easy paddling on a nice spring day. Unfortunately it was raining and we were chilled to the bone. We paddled quickly to keep us warm.
At the next set of rapids we fell out again. This time the river was shallow, but moving so fast we couldn’t stand up. I was in the front of the canoe, and again I grabbed the canoe and held on as I was dragged over the rocks. I felt like I was going over a giant washboard. My brother had it worse because he didn’t have the canoe to help break the impact of the rocks. I couldn’t see anything but white water and rocks. Where was Ben? I yelled and he responded. The current had a strong grip on the canoe. We tumbled down the river like this, bouncing off of many many rocks, for quite a distance. Eventually I saw a small island with a large flat rock jutting out of it in the center of the river. I aimed the canoe towards it. The canoe smashed against a large rock at the start of the island. My brother aimed himself at the island and joined me against the rock.
We tried to empty the canoe, but the water was rushing against us so hard that when we began lifting the canoe the water would suck it downward. We maneuvered around the rock and on to the island where we were able to drain the canoe again. As we went to get back into the river I found my water bottle on the shore of the island. It had washed out of the canoe at the start of the race. We got back into the canoe, freezing cold and soaking wet, and headed down river.
Much further along the river we suddenly heard a roar and rounded the bend to see that the river disappeared over the edge of a dam ahead of us. Another canoe racer was passing us. “Do we get out and port the canoe here?” “Nope!” they shouted back as they launched themselves over the edge of the dam. We followed after them.
Our little blue canoe’s bow pointed straight downward and stabbed the raging water on the other side of the dam, yet somehow no water came over the sides. Ben and I cheered. We made it over the dam without falling out! But someone was yelling at us “Go to the left!”. A man from the shore was yelling and waving his arms. We looked up at the giant rocks in front of us, bobbed up and down and were thrown over the edge of another drop and out of the canoe again. There were many people along the shore cheering. A fireman in a dry suit was in the river. He waded into the deep water, took hold of my arm and yelled “Grab your boat!” The water was so deep the canoe was somewhere down by my waist. I clutched the side and Ben held the back of the canoe. The fireman in the drysuit pulled us to shore. Once again we drained the canoe and got back on the river.
As we pushed off I glanced back at the giant wall of rocks and water we had just tumbled down. And on the shoreline I saw my blue water bottle spinning in the current.
The final leg of the race was miserable. It was raining again and we were both shivering uncontrollably. The canoe was shaking. I held in my mind this image of my wife handing me a cup of steaming coffee at the end of the race.
Eventually we went under a bridge and rounded a corner to see the finish line. We pulled out our canoe and our family met us. Ben and I stripped down to our waists. My wife handed me a dry coat. Ben had a trashbag tied to the canoe that somehow survived untorn. He opened it up and his completely dry fleece jacket was inside. I pulled from my right pants pocket a zip lock bag containing my wallet; it was completely dry. I pulled from my other pocket a ziplocked back containing my cell phone; it was full of water.
My brother-in-law and father-in-law had finished the race ten minutes earlier. They had fallen out of their canoe at the final rapids.
We went back to the car and changed into dry pants. After that we went to Dunkin Donuts and got some hot coffee. I slept really well that night and can’t wait to participate next year.
The old blue Lincoln’s days going whitewater canoeing may be over however; when loading the canoe onto the car we noticed that the front bow now has a large gash in it and the sides have stress cracks. We will repair it, but this canoe was designed for gentle padding and its not the kind of canoe you want to take through rapids. That would be crazy.