A first-time racer shares her thoughts on the three-day Adirondack Canoe Classic
By Leigh Hornbeck
The waves are the biggest I’ve ever seen in unsalted water. Each one lifts my canoe and drops it in the next trough with a slap. The shore is a long way away and I’m struggling to keep my boat straight. If the waves hit me broadside, I’ll go over for sure.
“This is like ‘Deadliest Catch’,” I think to myself. “This is the angry ocean in Moana. Where is Dwayne Johnson as Maui? Where is the Little Mermaid?!”
This is Middle Saranac Lake on Day 3 of the 90 Miler. It’s my first long-distance canoe race. I’ve made it through almost 70 miles of challenging paddling on days one and two. Only two carries, a couple of ponds, a stretch of Oseetah Lake and Lake Flower remain.
In the distance I can see other paddlers disappearing into tall grass, like Black Sox into corn.
“That must be the entrance to the Saranac River,” I think. “It must be calmer there. Just get there. Just get there.”
Any marathon runner will tell you the race is run inside your head. It’s your mind you must convince to not give up, to push through the pain and doubt. My thoughts are a swirl of pride, grief and excitement.
The event is called the Adirondack Canoe Classic, but it’s better known as the 90 Miler, now in its third decade. Paddlers in a variety of combinations and watercraft paddle a stretch of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail between Old Forge and Saranac Lake over three days. The course is through the Fulton Chain of Lakes, Marion River, a small portion of Blue Mountain Lake, all of Long Lake, the Raquette River, the Saranac Lakes and Lake Flower. There are numerous portages. There is big water, narrow, serpentine streams and passages with just enough water to float a small boat.
Scenes from the start
Check out a gallery of images from the start of this year’s 90 Miler race in Old Forge, by contributor Jamie Organski
I grew up in boats. My first memory is of the night my father brought a child-sized kayak into the house, laid it on the orange and yellow shag carpet in our living room and placed me in the cockpit. The boat was made from fiberglass and had blue gelcoat. Dad was a boatbuilder, but this was an Old Town, and he likely traded one of his boats for it. I was 3 and years away from paddling the boat myself, but he was already dreaming of the day.
I went on to paddle that little kayak in white water until I outgrew it. I paddled class four rapids long before I could legally drive a car. I followed the same path my father did—he was a whitewater paddler who switched to canoes and quieter water. The boats he designed were for poking around lakes and streams, fishing, carrying supplies while remote camping, looking for wildlife and taking pictures in solitude. I spent my childhood summers doing all those things except the fishing. I could paddle my nine-footer standing up. In my family’s pond, I dumped water in my boat and captured frogs for a makeshift aquarium. When I grew tired of that, I flipped the canoe over and swam around like a turtle – my body submerged, my face warmed by the sun streaming through the Kevlar.
I knew nothing of the 90 Miler until my husband, Josh Trombley, entered for the first time in 2017. I was his pit crew for two years. Each paddler or team relies on someone to move their stuff each night and meet the racers along the trail to hand over snacks and encouragement. My father was at the finish line each day to watch Josh both years he did it, but Dad wasn’t interested in entering the race himself. Neither was I, until heel spurs stopped me from running and I decided I wanted a new challenge. I planned to enter the 2020 race, but it was cancelled because of COVID-19. In December, my father died suddenly. The months since have been full of firsts—the first Father’s Day, the first birthdays, the first spring without him. Paddling brings me peace. Training for the 90 this summer gave me purpose. In the evenings I hurried from my home in Wilton to paddle a nine-mile loop at Spier Falls in Corinth. I raced the sun to the horizon, trying to be out of the water by dark.
I don’t have to wonder how my father would’ve felt about it. He would’ve said little to me but all summer at his boat shop to anyone and everyone: “You know my daughter is paddling the 90. She’s got my boat, my 16-footer. Oh yeah, it’s a tough race—too much for me.”
After hours on the water, I feel like a centaur, part woman, part boat. I curse the wind. I think about how I can describe beauty that surrounds me, and how, after long enough, even the beauty gets tedious. I think about my paddle strokes, and how to make each count. The muscles in my shoulders, core, back and arms contract with repetition of slice, pull-push, switch.
I think about my sons, and how important it is they see their mother take on a challenge. I know they’re going to be at the finish, and my nine-year-old—noted for his capacity for volume since he was an infant—will be hollering, “Mom! Mommy! Yaaaay Mommy! Gooooo Mom, you got this!” The boys were at the finish line day 2 and the start of day 3. I’m not sure anyone else’s cheering squad includes a pair as loud as my 9- and 11-year-olds.
Passing boaters are friendly and chatty. There are 275 boats in the race—teams of two, four, or in the case of a war canoe, seven. Two men glide along on stand-up paddle boards. Everyone teases them. I learn from race veterans that every year is different, changing with the conditions and the weather. This year the water was high, which made the course easier. We commiserate about the chop on Blue Mountain Lake at the end of day one, and I find out multiple boats capsized in Middle Saranac.
On Day 2 I hear the team in the Hamilton College boat singing songs from the “Hamilton” musical. They tell me they are teaching it to one woman in the boat who hasn’t seen the show.
Each day, several people say a few nice words to me about my father as we pass each other on the water. At the Bartlett Carry between Upper and Middle Saranac Lake, a man comes up to me to talk about Dad. I’m jittery with adrenaline and it rattles me when he chokes up. Heaving the boat onto my shoulders, I take a deep breath, look him in the eyes and say thank you.
On Lake Oseetah, another stranger extends some more kindness. My bow is plastered with grass and lily pads and it feels like 10 pounds of drag. I’m already exhausted, wet, chafed, sun- and wind-burned. A man in a C2 canoe scrapes the foliage off with his paddle blade. Relieved, I have a burst of energy. Just one more lake to go. I know my kids are waiting for me at the finish line.
This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine. Subscribe to receive 7 issues a year in your mailbox and/or inbox.