Many paddlers in the 90-mile Adirondack Canoe Classic find that the three-day event offers more than enough challenges.
But for a select few endurance paddlers, the 90-Miler route from Old Forge to Saranac Lake offers another opportunity. This trip is often referred to as the "Cannonball" or "Outlaw 90-Miler."
The Cannonball is a continuous paddle of the waterways between the two Adirondack villages. It differs slightly from the 90-Miler race route, which is set up so the start and finish lines are easily accessible by cars, among other reasons.
From the front of the boat, Paul Repak, Lorraine Turturro, Holly Crouch, Celia Evans, Kerry Newell, Jon Vermilyea and Tiffany Kivlen. This crew paddled the Cannonball on June 23 in “Slenda Glenda.”
Over the past 11 years roughly 30 paddlers have finished the trip, said Adirondack Canoe Classic organizer Brian McDonnell, who lives in Paul Smiths.
McDonnell himself was part of one of the first teams to complete the entire route. That came in June of 2003, less than a year after the first paddlers completed the first Cannonball. The first team consisted of experienced paddlers from Old Forge and included Dan Tickner and Jim Kiefer.
When McDonnell completed the journey, he did so with a team of seasoned veterans.
"Putting the crew together was easy," McDonnell stated in an account penned shortly after the trip. "I was looking for 'mature,' endurance paddlers with mental toughness to match their physical endurance. From the bow, the team would include Chad Kennedy of Saranac Lake: pound for pound the strongest guy in the boat. Chad would set us a quick consistent pace. Bruce Kennedy from Plattsburgh, the workhorse: powerful stroke, keen wit, unflappable. Me, and in the stern Gene Newman of Canton: an extraordinary helmsman. Gene would control the power, work for maximum efficiency, pick lines and naturally feel where the boat needed to be."
Together those four men powered a 23-foot-long kevlar boat from start to finish in 14 hours and 34 minutes. This is believed to be the fastest Cannonball time.
Those who do the Cannonball obviously have a love of paddling and endurance sports. They are drawn by the physical and mental challenges of completing such a trip. Many also use it as a warm-up for the some of the marathon canoe and kayak races held elsewhere, including the 460-mile Yukon River Quest and the 1,000-mile Yukon 1,000 Canoe and Kayak Races.
Completing the Cannonball takes some strategy. One of the first decisions that has to be made is when to do it. June is considered by many to be the best time. That's when the weather is warm and the days are long. Many choose to do it the weekend before or after the summer solstice.
Another consideration is water levels. Usually in June, they are still high on the river and streams. They often dip in July and August.
"You pick the water levels, and you really can't fix a date to say you're going to do it on this date," McDonnell said. "All the things really have to align to make it a good experience."
The time of day to start is another big part of the equation. Leaving in the early morning hours, sometime between midnight and 3 a.m., is considered advantageous. At that time, the lakes are often free of wind and motorboats. The flat surface makes for easy paddling. Plus, getting to see the sunrise from the water is a source of inspiration.
Tiffany Kivlen of Paul Smiths completed the Cannonball on June 23 of this year for the first time. She recalled coming through Brown's Tract, an inlet to Raquette Lake, as the sun began to show itself.
"When we got to the other end (of Brown's Tract, the sun) was just starting to peek up," she said. "It was just perfect."
Kivlen was in a voyageur canoe owned by Kerry Newell, who has completed the Cannonball and Yukon 1,000 twice each. That crew started from Old Forge at midnight at the urging of their bow paddler Paul Repak of Boonville, another Yukon 1,000 veteran.
Repak said he likes to start at midnight so he arrives at Brown's Tract when the sun is rising.
Actually, Repak said this is one of his favorite sections on the 90-Miler route, in large part because of the challenge. The 2.5-mile stream is full of beaver dams and sharp turns that test the skill of paddlers.
"I love Brown's Tract," Repak said. "As a bow paddler, I kind of set the line along with the stern paddler. We work very close together, but I go independent. Rather than going on crew huts, when I get into a place like Brown's Tract, when I feel like it's time to switch to do a draw, then I do it. And everyone behind me understands it."
Other challenges of doing the Cannonball include paddling that long distance without much sleep. Kivlen recalled that when she paddled it this summer, she was awake for 43 straight hours due to her work schedule. At one point, she said she began to nod off.
"At one point, I'm pretty sure I was asleep because I jolted awake and I apologized profusely," Kivlen said.
Apparently, though, her body stayed the course because she said Newell told her she didn't stop paddling while dozing.
For those who do the Cannonball, these moments are just part of the challenge. But there are often many highlights.
Grace McDonnell, who is married to Brian McDonnell and co-organizes the 90-Miler, recalled that when she did the Cannonball with a team consisting of four women in 2006, her group received a present along the way from a friend.
The crew was paddling on Eighth Lake when a floatplane piloted by friend Mike Mitchell landed on the water.
"He brought us warm chocolate chip cookies," McDonnell said. "It was awesome. He kind of flew around all day to check up on us. That was pretty fun."
Of course, not everyone who starts the Cannonball completes the trip. Many succumb to fatigue. The trip can take longer than 20 hours and wear people down, both on the water and on the many long carries.
Brian McDonnell said there is big key for those who do finish it.
"The secret is, the boat never stops," McDonnell said.