For the past six years, I have been involved with the Adirondack Canoe Classic. From 2007 to 2009, I worked the race as the head timer and since then have covered it as an Enterprise reporter and photographer.
This year, I decided to try it from a new perspective and entered the race with Enterprise Sports/Features Editor Morgan Ryan. Although neither of us had been in a canoe race previously, we entered the C-2 stock men's open racing class.
To prepare for the race, Morgan and I paddled together about eight times this summer, including two 6-mile time trials run by the Adirondack Watershed Alliance on Upper Saranac Lake and one test run of the 34-mile first day. We also watched a video made by longtime 90-Miler paddler Marc Gillespie and read excerpts from a marathon canoe racing book.
Mike Lynch (stern) and Morgan Ryan, in boat no. 229, start the final day of the 90-Miler on Square Pond at the Fish Creek Campground on Sunday.
(Photo — Ariel Lynch)
Here's my take on the three-day adventure that started Friday in Old Forge and finished Sunday in Saranac Lake.
Old Forge to Blue Mountain Lake
34 miles, 3.5 miles of carries
Of the three days of the 90-Miler, the first day is normally the most difficult. It's 34 miles long and contains 3.5 miles worth of carries.
For Morgan and me, it would also serve as our first big test and would determine where we fell in the whole scheme of this race. At dinner the night before the race, l said our goal should be to finish day one in 6 hours and 45 minutes, basing that time on what I had seen in our training. The biggest question marks in my mind were how we would handle the transitions from water to land, the carries themselves and the last third of the race.
As it turned out, our transitions were clumsy. Our carries were slow and awkward, but I thought we had good energy and pushed hard on the water for the entire day, especially the last third.
One thing was clear early on. We weren't going to win our class. We fell behind the faster boats from the outset. Most of the them were more experienced at racing; others were simply better athletes than us.
Quite honestly, we're just not in the athletic class of someone like Bill Frazer, who was the top local finisher in the Lake Placid Ironman in 2011. Frazer and Big Slyde drummer Dusty Grant, both of Lake Placid, wound up taking fifth on day one, four spots ahead of us.
Seeing Frazer and Grant on day one was actually one of the highlights for me. We listened to a CD by Big Slyde, an acoustic band from Lake Placid, throughout the weekend. It was fun to see one of their band members in the race.
Frazer and Grant, who got a late start on day one, went whizzing by us on Sixth Lake. Frazer was pumping hard in the bow, and Grant was doing everything he could to keep up with him. The team was passing boats as if they were standing still, yet they were zigzagging down the lake as if they were in the Benny Hill show, an English slapstick comedy TV sitcom that ran from about 1950 to 1990.
In addition to the long miles and tough carries on day one, the other challenge was staying hydrated. The waters were perfect for paddling, but the sun was relentless. I wound up drinking about six liters that day. It helped, though, because by the end of the day I still felt strong.
In the end, we finished in 6:54, a time I was happy with based on the 6:45 goal I set the night before. We were ninth out of 11 boats in our class but an hour or so faster than most of the non-competitive open touring class paddlers.
Long Lake to the Crusher on the Raquette River
33 miles, 1.25 miles of carries
Conditions on day two were the complete opposite of day one. It was cloudy, windy and a little cool, especially toward the end of the day.
In the early morning race meeting, Race Director Brian McDonnell told all of the paddlers that it was mandatory to wear life jackets on Long Lake due to windy and choppy conditions. Normally, they just have to be easily accessible, which is the law in New York.
I was more than happy to be wearing a life jacket as we battled gusts the entire length of Long Lake. At times, waves were 3 feet high, and the wind was strong enough to turn the nose of the canoe 90 degrees.
I heard reports that 20 to 25 canoes tipped over this day, and numerous people dropped out of the race. We continuously passed overturned boats as we headed down the lake. But all were very close to shore because paddlers had been told to stay on the right side of the lake where safety boats could keep an eye on them. Because of this strategy, those we saw that tipped didn't appear to be in much danger.
Having paddled in these conditions before on places like Lake Champlain and lakes in Maine, I felt comfortable. I just knew we wouldn't be going as fast as we wanted. I sacrificed speed for staying dry.
One paddler in a sleek racing canoe told us on the Raquette River that his team tipped four times on Long Lake. Ray Morris, who has been in all 30 90-Milers, told Enterprise reporter Chris Knight on Sunday that this was one of top three most challenging days he's experienced.
The worst waves seemed to be at the northern end of the lake. It was at this point that we saw 75-year-old Glen Vandewinckel, who was attempting to finish his 25th race.
He was sitting with his legs over the gunwhales of the canoe and his feet hanging near the water.
"You're really earning your money today," he said as we passed.
I was told later he was doing this because he had injured his shoulder. He didn't complain on the water, though.
Luckily, the very end of the lake was calm, and we were relieved to get into the Raquette River. The winds weren't too bad from this point to the Raquette Falls carry.
On the 1.25-mile Raquette River carry, considered the hardest carry of the route, we moved along pretty well. We were startled, though, when a man ran up to us asking for a medic. Apparently, a paddler had become ill.
We told him to go back up the hill to where forest ranger Pete Evans was stationed. He apparently did this because I heard later from Lt. Forest Ranger Julie Harjung that Evans had carried the man on his back the rest of the way down the hill. The sick man turned out to be OK, last I heard.
I was once told by a DEC employee who was instrumental in the agency's early involvement with the event that the DEC got involved in the 90-Miler so it could react quickly to emergency situations. That totally made sense this day.
From the falls to Axton Landing, the conditions were pretty good. But once we got down river a few miles, the winds picked up again and the trees danced along the shoreline. Then we were pounded by driving rain that put more than a few gallons of water in our boat.
But like everyone else still on the course, we pushed through the rain and wind, though it was more difficult to stay warm because the temperature was dropping.
The storm was part of a cold front that had been coming from the west and caused two tornadoes in New York City and a tornado watch in our area.
Finally, we finished up the last of the 33 miles, pushing hard on the last few miles to the finish line. When we got on shore, the first thing I did was rip off my wet shirt and grab my lightweight soft-shell jacket from a small dry bag. I hadn't brought it with me on day one, but knowing the cold front was coming and there was a chance of a storm that could force us to shore on day two, I brought it with me this day. I immediately started shivering after putting it on.
My friend and 90-Miler volunteer Rusty Knobel offered me a seat in his warm car, but I decided to get some of the hot chicken broth instead. After finishing it and getting calories back in my system, I felt fine, just a bit worn out. Morgan seemed to feel about the same, maybe a little worse because his back tightened up in the cold weather. Once he ate and warmed up, he appeared back to normal.
My wife Ariel, who had helped us tremendously during the race as our pit crew, spent-one-and-half hours under an umbrella in the rain waiting for us to come in. After watching the finish line action, she commented that the 90-Miler appeared to be a "well-oiled machine."
That definitely seemed to be the case this day.
Fish Creek to Lake Flower
22 miles, 0.6 miles of carries
For me, the 90-Miler seems to mark the end of summer and beginning of fall, and this year was no different. Day one was sunny, and everyone was feeling warm, energetic and optimistic. Day two marked a transition between seasons and is always a turning point in the race when you have to push hard to prove you're ready to get to the final stage.
Then Sunday, the final day, it always seems cold in the morning and there is a rugged excitement. Paddlers, organizers and volunteers all look a bit worn. The boats are nicked up, clothes are dirty, fingers blistered and muscles sore. People look tired but tested and realize with confidence that they are up for the challenge.
Then the race starts and it goes quickly. The final 22 miles are long by normal standards but seem short in this event.
For me, it was exciting to be paddling on the Saranac lakes, and I especially enjoyed the section from Middle Saranac Lake, with Ampersand Mountain high in the distance to the right, to the end of the race.
As we made our way down the route, I felt like I knew exactly where to paddle in the shallow river sections between lakes, what lines to take when crossing lakes, how deep the water would be when exiting my boat at carries. This was familiar territory, and it felt good.
We weren't going to win any awards with our finish time, but I didn't really care at this point. Our goal now to get better each day. By the final one, we had improved our transitions and moved faster on the carries. We passed one boat that had been beating us in our class and moved closer to the others.
You'd have to have extreme tunnel vision to only do this race for a fast time. There's so much more to it. The route provides flatwater paddlers with just about every type of waterway you could want in the Adirondacks: large and small lakes, rivers and even small winding streams with beaver dams. Along the way, you get views of Blue Mountain, the Sewards, McKenzie Mountain and countless small hills and mountains.
Plus, for me, it was great to see people I knew along the way. I felt like around every turn, I'd run into someone I hadn't seen in a while. Many of these people were volunteers who I had worked with in past 90-Milers or had seen race. It's not just a cliche, the 90-Miler really does have a strong community feel to it.
I remember when Harjung did the race a few years ago. Now she was overseeing some of the action for the DEC. I loaded plenty of 90-Miler boats with Gary Valentine who is the caretaker at Raquette Falls. It was good to see him Saturday at the beginning of the Raquette Falls Carry where he was keeping tabs on the races to make sure everything was going smoothly.
On Upper Saranac Lake, Pete Evans, who we saw every day and is a good friend of Morgan's, gave us a motivating holler that helped propel us past a few boats.
As we got closer to home, things became more familiar. And finally, after a short carry around the lower locks on the Saranac River, we were in the final stretch. Here, we used our last bit of energy to make a final push. It hurt but it didn't matter much anymore. In a mile we would be feeling fine.
Finally, we crossed the home stretch, after three hours and 54 minutes of paddling that day. Overall, it took us a little under 17 hours to complete the 90 miles. We finished nine out of 11 in our class.
At the finish line, we were met by Ariel, Morgan's parents and friends. After hanging out for a while, we joined a large crowd of first-time 90-Miler paddlers who were called to the center of a circle of a couple thousand people.
As we were standing in line, I saw Brian McDonnell give me a look; then he went out of his way to walk to the bag of 90-Miler mileage pins, which are given out to paddlers who complete the race. Year one you get a 90 mile; year two you get a 180-mile pin. He grabbed one of the 90-Miler pins and then walked back over to us and handed to it me. It was a nice gesture and a fitting end to a great three days on the water.