The life of a writer is never dull. This page is dedicated to the significant events, fun, and detours along my journey.
The Neches Wilderness Canoe Race
August 7th, 2010
A jammed knee, numerous blisters and cuts, aching feet, and muscles I didn’t know existed were screaming.
Everyone should have at least one crazy great adventure in their life. This is my latest.
It all started several years ago when my mom saw an advertisement for a canoe race. It’s nicknamed “The Toughest Little Canoe Race in the Republic of Texas”. You don’t have to worry about snakes on the river – the alligators eat them.
A few years ago, I took the river on a “yak” board, but was unable to finish the 22 mile course as I was pulled at the fourteen mile check point for missing the cut off time by fifteen minutes. I was heartbroken. Due to a family crisis I’d been unable to seek redemption. Until this year.
Am I Crazy or What?
Partnered just a few weeks before the race with my two-time Neches River runner brother, Jon, there wasn’t much time to prepare. Except for a few hours of practice the week of the race, neither of us had canoed in several years.
I thought it was crazy. Me with the health issues I battle – from chronic fatigue to hypoglycemia – throwing myself into a grueling, no turn back race was insane. What can I say? It was time for a great adventure.
As with everything, I set goals for this race:
1. Complete the course
2. Do it in less than 6 hours
3. Avoid tipping the canoe
4. Place in the Winners Circle (top 3 in division)
All or Nothing Start
We lined our rental canoe on the start line, Jon at the stern and me at the bow. I tried to breathe evenly as I focused on the start plan we had practiced. As one experienced racer said, “You can’t win a race at the start, but you can lose one.” No pressure, right?
When the whistle finally blew, I gave my all and was amazed to find our boat the first one at the bend. We held that for about five minutes.
One problem with being the lead boat on the Neches River Race is you cannot see the best way through a tree jam – and they are constant on the course. After hanging up a few times, we found ourselves in third. Our paddles opened up to full throttle though it was easy to see the skills of the ones in front of us far exceeded ours. But we didn’t settle in.
It Gets Tough
“Left, right, middle, over, under, around.” Those words my brother and I called out every time we approached a tree jam obstacle. Sometimes our calls conflicted. Sometimes the other couldn’t see the opening. Sometimes I made a bad call. Sometimes he made a bad call. It didn’t matter. Whatever ‘jam’ we got ourselves in, we gave our all to make the correction. There was little hesitation. We trusted each other.
It’s not called a wilderness race for nothing. No businesses, no houses, no restroom stops. We passed an old fisherman and some primitive campers. There was little eating on the trip. I swallowed a Slim Jim, cheese and two cookies as I paddled and Jon had some protein.
When times came to haul the heavy canoe over trees or around them on the shore, I couldn’t have made it if not for my brother and his “big guns”. In spite of my knee wrap it still gave out as I put my other foot into the canoe after it was over a huge fallen tree. I landed oh-so-gracefully in the bottom of the canoe and couldn’t move my freshly jammed knee for the pain. But no time for a sissy! I hauled myself with my hands to the front of the canoe, swung around, grabbed my paddle and off we went.
My old nemesis – the fourteen mile checkpoint – came and went with barely a glance as I called out our boat number and “no thanks” to the offer of bottled water. We had twenty-four in the canoe.
River of No Return
Paddle, paddle, paddle. My brother warned me I would soon wish I’d gotten out at the check point but I never did. I wanted to paddle under the finish line flags, and though I never complained I did wonder if the line would actually come.
Paddle, paddle, paddle. Under a log. Oops, lower log in our face. Back up. Wait. Go right. Lean back. Lean forward. Shallow water, pull canoe, limp on leg. Get back in canoe. Dig in as hard and deep as if it were mile one.
Did I mention there is virtually no current? Someone who had never boated this sloth of water gave the definition of the Neches as a “river”. Jon: “Oh no, a stick is floating upstream toward us!”
Paddle, paddle, paddle. Jon: “I hear a car.” Me: “No, that’s an airplane.”
Paddle, paddle, paddle. Me: “Wait, now I hear a car. It really is a car.”
Paddle harder, paddle harder, paddle harder. Round the last of the thousandth-something curve. Me: “I see a white shirt, people. This is it!”
Paddle full speed, paddle full speed, paddle full speed. Pretend competition is breathing down our necks though no one is there. Under the flags we glide.
Guiding the canoe, we parked at the edge of the shore. My brother fell into the water. I sat still, adjusted my glasses. Breathed deeply. Jon finally said, “Are you going to get out?”
Oh yeah, I noticed the man waiting to pull our boat up the steep bank. I joined my brother in the cool river water before we staggered up to unload our canoe. We sat in lawn chairs and were served by our mama with hamburgers, chips, Big Red and watermelon. Wow. It was good.
Savor the Moments
Our time posted at 5:37:10. Wow. Not bad at all.
We slipped on our participant t-shirts to receive our third place medals and pictures were snapped. Somehow, I was able to walk to the car on my own two legs.
You probably noticed we met all our goals, and I credit the prayers in which this canoe race was cloaked. Every muscle in my body agrees: there is power in prayer.
My one regret? Eating the watermelon so fast I bit the inside of my lip. Aside from my knee, it was my worst injury of our great adventure.