SARANAC LAKE - The Adirondack Canoe Classic once again lived up to its name.
The 30th anniversary of the three-day race featured the usual spirit and camaraderie, two days of sunshine and one day of challenging weather, all of which combined to make this year's 90-Miler, which wrapped up in Saranac Lake on Sunday, Sept. 9 one to remember.
"We've had everything," race co-organizer Brian McDonnell of Mac's Canoe Livery said around noon Sunday at the finish line next to Lake Flower. "Today is fantastic. Friday was picture-perfect. Saturday threw a bunch of classic struggles at them. All in all, it's been a phenomenal weekend."
The Scajaquada Canoe Club crosses the finish line on Lake Flower in Saranac Lake on the third and final day of the Adirondack Canoe Classic.
Photo by Chris Knight
A total of 275 canoes, kayaks and guideboats - 25 more than previous years - started the race Friday morning in Old Forge and raced 35 miles over generally calm waters to Blue Mountain Lake. Organizers say day one went smooth, with no major issues.
But the weather changed dramatically by Saturday morning when participants began day two of the race, a 30-mile route across Long Lake and down the Raquette River to a boat launch just outside of Tupper Lake.
"The second day was very windy, very gusty," said Julie Harjung, a forest ranger with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which helps coordinate the race. "We had somewhere between 20 and 25 boats flip on Long Lake in several different spots where there were crosswinds. We had a significant amount of trouble there, probably the worst they've had or close to the worst they've had on Long Lake."
Paddlers interviewed by the Enterprise described the conditions as "brutal" and "hairy."
"There was this gust people were talking about," said race co-organizer Grace McDonnell, who paddled in a four-person canoe. "If you were not in the right spot at the right time, that's when a lot of the boats went over."
"The swells were 3 feet high and tremendous winds," said Rodger Dempster of Saranac Lake, who was paddling in his 20th 90-Miler. "It was a crapshoot. When one class got started, it might be OK. When the next class goes, it picks up. It was wild."
Other seasoned paddlers said the conditions were some of the most challenging they've ever faced.
"Maybe not the worst ever, but it was in the top three," said Ray Morris of Glens Falls, who's paddled the race each of the last 30 years. "During the worst of it, we were on the Raquette River, the high winds blew us to shore, blew us in the bushes. There were torrential rains; you couldn't even see."
Although roughly two dozen boats capsized, Harjung said there were no serious injuries, just a lot of cold boaters, some who were mildly hypothermic. Two people were taken to the hospital for precautionary reasons, she said.
Of the 275 boats that started the race on Saturday morning, Brian McDonnell said 250 finished. Ten of the boats that didn't finish rejoined the race Sunday in the open touring class, so they could paddle the last 22 miles from Fish Creek to Lake Flower.
The last day of the 90-Miler featured sunny skies and more favorable conditions. A large crowd stood along the Lake Flower shoreline to cheer on the canoes, kayaks and guideboats as they crossed the finish line.
By 2 p.m., the park was a sea of people and boats. Some paddlers, exhausted from the three-day race, laid on their backs and slept; others cracked open a beer and shared stories with their friends, family and fellow paddlers.
"Look around," said Grace McDonnell. "There's so many families that get together, and there's friendships that are formed. We all know each other and have watched our children grow up around this race."
"It's like a class reunion type thing," Dempster said, when asked why he's done the race so many times. "Then they have the pins, and you start collecting little mileage pins, and it becomes like an obsession. That's the best way to describe it. It's an end-of-the-summer big blast."
It was just as special for first-time participants like Jamie Darmody of Old Forge.
"It's just cool to see the scenery," she said. "I lived here my whole life, and there's not a lot that I had seen. As we were going along, I was saying, 'This is cool; I didn't even know this was here.' And everybody bands together, too. Especially Old Forge people seem to flock to each other."
Among those sharing hugs at the finish line with family and friends were Chris Dyer and Kathy Mixon, the son and daughter of former Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce director Sue Dyer, who organized the first 90-Miler 30 years ago. They competed in a guideboat that Chris Dyer had built for the race from a kit. The pair said they had to pull out on Saturday due to the high winds on Long Lake, a decision that Dyer called "heartbreaking." But they rowed in the final leg on Sunday and said they were just glad to be here.
"It's the 30th anniversary, my mom started it, we love Saranac Lake - we just had to do it," said Dyer, who lives near Cleveland, Ohio. "This is amazing. People I haven't seen in 20 years are coming up to me. What an incredible event."
"Our mom was very excited," said Mixon, of Albuquerque, N.M. "She's been in touch every day along the race; we're texting back and forth. She's down in the Dominican Republic. She almost came, but she decided to stay."
Harjung said the 90-Miler has gained its own momentum and its own history since it was launched 30 years ago. She said that's why so many people keep coming back, year after year.
"It's competitive, there's phenomenal camaraderie, and it's just good fun for folks," Harjung said. "It's very much a family atmosphere. Even days like yesterday, I heard people saying they really enjoyed the challenge. One guy said he flipped four times and he just kept going."