By Susan Bibeau
Every September since 1983, paddlers of all ages and abilities have been gathering with boats of all different shapes and sizes to take part in a quintessentially Adirondack event.
Beginning in Old Forge and ending in Saranac Lake, the Adirondack Canoe Classic, commonly referred to as the Ninety-Miler, leads participants through some of the most scenic waterways of the Adirondack Park. The three-day race encompasses all kinds of water, from big lakes to narrow streams, and requires more than five miles of carrying.
After fifteen years of living in the Adirondacks, I decided it was high time I give the Ninety-Miler a whirl. Last fall I entered the race with my friend Allison Warner and we were one of the 250 teams (over five hundred people) massed at the start along with hundreds of volunteers, race organizers, pit crew, and spectators on the southeast end of the Fulton Chain of Lakes in Old Forge.
We have a long drive to Old Forge, so we awake before 4 a.m. My good-natured husband, Jeff Oehler, watches as we load our gear into the vehicle, working by headlamps. Jeff was supposed to be our pit crew, but because of a broken collarbone, he will be able to do little but drive us and cheer.
We make it to Old Forge Pond in time for the 8 a.m. start. Every manner of canoe, kayak, and guide boat is on the grassy beach. There are sleek racing canoes, enormous war canoes that fit up to fifteen people, standard touring canoes, home-made kayaks, and even a stand-up paddleboard.
Allison builds guide boats for a living. She points out the details of each design. There are gorgeous older boats that have been lovingly restored as well as contemporary racing models. Traditionally made from pine, spruce, and cedar with scarfed (overlapping) planks held together with over eight thousand tiny copper tacks and screws, they are true works of art. If I owned something this beautiful, I’d be deathly afraid of striking a submerged rock. But Allison reminds me that they were made to be used. The utilitarian origin of the Adirondack guide boat, a cross between a rowboat and a canoe, dates back to the early nineteenth century. Professional guides used them to transport clients. The design evolved into a craft that could be swiftly rowed and light enough for a single person to carry with a yoke.
The idea that we’ll be following the routes of old-time guides such as Mitchell Sabattis and Alvah Dunning, and paddling beside these classic craft, is one of the things that make this race so special. In the Ninety-Miler, guide boats compete either in two-person teams, with one person rowing and the other in the stern with a paddle, or as solo entrants.
The solo guide boat class is the smallest in the race, and for good reason. Even guide boats designed for speed and constructed with modern materials like Kevlar and fiberglass weigh fifty pounds or so. Carrying such a boat plus a pack and oars is not for your typical lily-dipper. Pit crews can offer food, water, and encouragement, but racers are responsible for schlepping their own gear.
We are in the largest class, Open Touring. This noncompetitive category of canoes, kayaks, and guide boats has no age or gender divisions. Most of the people in this group just want to finish and enjoy the experience. Although times will be kept, there are no prizes other than the warm fuzzy feeling of a mighty accomplishment and three days of camaraderie among fellow paddlers.
The enthusiasm in our group is contagious. There are teams made up of family members, school clubs, church groups, neighbors, and friends, many sporting matching garb and more than a few in costume. They are paddling boats decked out with flags, signs, and mascots. We vow to afix a mascot to our bow if we decide to come back next year. I suggest a pig with wings.
Finally, the race gets under way. The classes are started in twelve waves with timed intervals separating each. I’m a little nervous as our wave is called and we make our way to the water. As we wait, two gentlemen in a canoe float up on our port side and strike up a conversation.
“Hello, ladies, is this your first time?” the one in the bow asks. We reply politely in the affirmative, and he proceeds to tell us all about the course in a know-it-all manner that is more than slightly patronizing. When he suggests that we might have trouble negotiating the narrow, winding Marion River with our double-bladed kayak paddles, I can tell that Allison is smirking and rolling her eyes even though she is seated behind me. We let the wind push us out of earshot.
What our friends don’t know is that our trusty steed is a Placid Boatworks Ohneka made by Joe Moore. The seventeen-foot pack canoe can be paddled solo or tandem with double bladed kayak paddles or traditional paddles. Anyone who owns one of Joe’s boats knows that they are fast, nimble, and light and turn on a dime. The boat’s performance is the one thing that we are most confident about.
Finally the gun goes off, and our ragtag flotilla lurches into motion with a great churning and hoots and hollers. Allison, the more seasoned paddler, is in the stern keeping us tracking on a straight course. From my seat in the bow, I provide as much forward motion as I can. When I get my paddle stroke under control, I realize that I have spent the first ten minutes splashing her pretty much continuously.
“Oops, sorry, pal,” I say, seeing see that she’s soaked.
“No worries,” she replies. I’m grateful for her easygoing nature.
“Jeff and I would be divorced by now,” I yell back.
I dub her de facto captain of our craft. “That makes you Skipper and me Gilligan,” I tell her, hoping that a little self-deprecating humor will offset my ineptness.
We settle into a steady rhythm and take in the scenery and the spectacle of the race. The weather is perfect: mild, clear skies, little wind. As we make our way up First Lake, there are boats as far as the eye can see. We are still in a cluster from our wave. When we turn around, we see the friendly fellas that we met at the start, glued to our stern.
“If they get any closer they’re gonna have to buy us a drink,” I remark, loud enough for them to hear.
“Hi, girls, just doing a little friendly drafting,” one of the boys says.
Allison smirks as they proceed to bump the back of our boat.
“Seriously?” she says under her breath.
“Hey, no problem,” I say to them. “We’ll take a turn up front, and then you guys can pull us along for a while. We’ll work together.”
With that, we tow them across the entire Fulton Chain, all the way to Eighth Lake. I keep waiting for them to pass so that we can take a turn drafting behind them, but this never happens. If we slow down to take a drink or eat, they do the same. At some point at the start of the expansive Fourth Lake, the wind begins to pick up. They are still feet from our stern. Now we are breaking the headwind for them too.
“They’re like a parasite. So much for chivalry,” Al jokes.
“You’d think they would have a little more self respect,” I add.
If they intend to shamelessly ride our wake all the way to Inlet, they’re going to have to work hard. I begin digging in with every stroke. I paddle like a maniac all the way across Fourth Lake. When I glance back thirty minutes later, they are still behind us but looking haggard and pissed. They’re having difficulties keeping their boat going straight and start arguing with each other.
“All right, you’ve proven your point,” Allison admonishes me as we pull into the first portage at Inlet.
We hop out quickly, move our boat to the side, and let them pass us on the path.
“Good luck, have a good race!” I call after them with all of the faux girlish charm I can muster.
The rest of the day continues at a more reasonable pace. We are treated to some spectacular scenery. Browns Tract Inlet is awash in fall color and one of the most beautiful spots that I’ve ever encountered while paddling in the Park. The Marion River is twisty and wild, but we navigate it easily. This boat was made for this kind of water, and we make great time.
On the flip side, day one also demands the most carrying—three miles, in all. This is where we lose time. Neither of us is interested in running the carries like the more competitive racers. At thirty-nine pounds, the Ohneka is relatively light, but we have both packed way more water and food than we need, and after three miles of lugging everything around, we are both spent. Funny that paddling thirty-four miles seems not so bad compared with portaging three miles.
By the end of the day we are ecstatic to see the far shore of Blue Mountain Lake. The big yellow Byrne Dairy truck is parked at the takeout, and they are giving away free chocolate milk! The sight of it pulls us like a beacon. I spot Jeff in the crowd with a big goofy smile as we pull the boat ashore. We have been on the move for eight hours straight. Tired and sore, we look forward to relaxing on the ride home and to sharing pizza when we get there.
Perfect weather again. I have a sunburn from the first day on the right half my body, which Jeff thinks is hilarious. “You’re half-baked!” he jokes.
The sunburn is the least of my worries: the tendon in my left wrist is grossly swollen and super painful to the touch. I later learn that this is a common paddling injury caused by poor form and overuse. Not much I can do about it now except to wrap it with tape and take ibuprofen.
The staging area at a field on Long Lake is another mob scene. The mood is festive, and we greet many people we encountered on the water the previous day. A thick fog and heavy dew cover the field.
After putting in, we quickly fall into a nice rhythm. Because of the fog, I didn’t notice at first, but our boys from day one are dead ahead of us. I pull in behind them, keeping a respectful distance from their boat, and stealthily draft along in their wake. When the chap in the stern finally turns around and sees us, he does a double-take.
“It’s payback time. You know you guys totally owe us!” I shout.
He shrugs good-naturedly, and they end up taking the lead for almost the entire fourteen miles of Long Lake. As it turns out, we will get the better end of the deal since today we’re fighting a stiff headwind. Thanks, guys, for being our windbreak!
When we enter the Raquette River at the foot of Long Lake, we part ways. I have never been on this stretch of the Raquette. I’ve heard that the landing for the carry around Raquette Falls can be dicey, so I’m nervous. Finally, we round a bend in the river and see the takeout. Boaters are scrambling onto the bank with the help of spotters who stand in the water and onshore. Just ahead of us is a four-man canoe team of older gentlemen. They hit the bank hard, and the fellow in the stern hops out quickly, misjudging the water’s depth. He goes under and gets swept past the boat. Luckily a volunteer grabs him by the vest before he heads downriver.
This is the only portage of the day, but it’s a killer—1.2 miles of steep, narrow, rutted, and rocky misery. It’s like lugging a canoe up an elevator shaft. The trail is not wide enough for those in a hurry to pass slower boats. Teams begin to bottleneck, and tempers flare. At the other end of the carry, we wait patiently for our turn to get back in the water. Then calm returns. I’m glad we don’t have more carries today. We cruise peacefully down the Raquette, past beautiful silver maples, to the takeout at the state-owned boat launch known as the Crusher.
The easiest leg of the race. The day’s carries total less than a mile, all short and sweet. And after living in Saranac Lake for many years, we have a hometown advantage.
From the Fish Creek Pond State Campground, we quickly make our way to Upper Saranac Lake. We carry to Middle Saranac Lake, cross the lake, and then follow the Saranac River to Lower Saranac Lake. All three lakes offer breathtaking views of mountains. After passing through First Pond and Second Pond, we re-enter the river, carry around a lock, and cross Oseetah Lake (more fantastic views) to reach Lake Flower. The takeout is a state boat launch in the village of Saranac Lake.
My house is just a short walk from the launch. Every year I wander down to watch the boats arrive. Today I enjoy the spectacle from a different vantage. The place is packed with a cheering crowd. As we pull in, our names are announced over the PA system. Hometown entrants always get a rowdy reception, and we are no exception. Friends greet us with congratulatory hugs and high-fives.
We head to the food tent and share a celebratory lunch while waiting to receive our finisher pins. We are now members of a special club. I may have lived here since 1996, but for the first time I feel like a real Adirondacker. ■