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Events & Activities Outdoor Adventures

Snake River Canoe Race 2014

High water, happy friends. Days of downpour the week before caused extraordinarily high water (7′) and dire warnings from race organizers. We went anyway.

Katie and I paddled it together for the first time this year. We navigated haystacks “by consensus,” paddled as steadily as we could, and finished in under three hours.

Gabe and Darrick took the gold in the citizen non-aluminum class again. And once again, the only “citizens” who were faster were two guys in the 130+ combined age class, in an aluminum canoe. Turns out these men have also competed in the Yukon 1000 — 10 or so days of paddling 18 hours a day. Never underestimate wisdom, technique, and “old man strength.”

Wade and Audrey and Slim and Nel paddled well, too, and everyone made it down the 15 miles of river without swimming – which is more than could be said for a few of our fellow paddlers.

Falling on my birthday this year, we spent the weekend at a cabin in Mora on Fish Lake. Decorated in garage sale crap, a little shabby, very quiet and comfortable.

We’ll do it again every year we can.

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Miscellaneous

Another nail in the canoe

Originally published on my StarTribune.com blog.

First stop
Our Royalex Wenonah Spirit II on the Cannon River

First it was kayaks. Now it’s stand-up paddleboards. Canoeing just can’t seem to compete. Therecent news that a popular material for canoes will no longer be manufactured is perhaps a sign of how far the once-dominant watercraft has fallen. If not a symptom, it could very well push the canoe further to the margins of paddling.

Tough, lightweight, and inexpensive, Royalex has been used in many a fine canoe during the past 30 years – including my Wenonah Spirit II. The Minnesota company uses the material in 50 percent of the canoes it makes on the banks of the Mississippi River.

All-purpose perfection

Our Spirit II has taken us deep into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and down many miles of Minnesota rivers. Sure, I have envied my companions’ super-light Kevlar boats when carrying it across BWCAW portages, but love the durability on the rivers during low water, when scraping gravel is unavoidable. It’s the ideal all-purpose boat.

Royalex is best known for its use in whitewater boats. I don’t paddle rapids much, but I love the stories of canoes wrapped around rocks by hydraulic forces, only to snap back to their original shape when pulled out of the river, often with a winch.

Apparently this position as the preferred material for the hardcore fringe of an increasingly marginal pastime doesn’t make manufacturing the stuff economical any longer.

Rise and fall

Canoes were once made out of birch bark and then wood and canvas. After World War II, airplane manufacturers converted their plants to making the ubiquitous aluminum canoes (and many war pilots turned to flying those craft into remote lakes with vacationing paddlers).

The vortex of baby-boomers and post-war industry and a national passion for the outdoors defined canoeing’s peak.

Then along came Royalex and eventually the premium Kevlar. And then came the meteoric rise of kayaks in the late 1990s and 2000s. People – including myself – love the indepence, the ease, the intimacy of a kayak. Stand-up paddleboards are the latest and greatest thing – it looks fun, and boasts the simplicity and closeness to the water to which all paddlecraft aspire.

But you can’t beat the connection between boat and water and people as you can achieve while paddling a tandem canoe. To make it swing and pivot in the current as you descend a river, or to pull it against a headwind stroke by stroke, brings you close to each other, and to the canoe’s history as an efficient means of transportation – loved by indigenous people, voyageurs and explorers.

Uncertain future

The big question with Royalex is what will happen next? Will someone buy it up and keep the stuff available? Will some other material replace it? Either way, I suspect it will be a more expensive future, recognizing the smaller niche market it supplies.

Hardcore canoeists will probably point to cedar strip, wood-canvas, fiberglass, or Kevlar as indication of thriving canoe communities, but those aren’t materials for the mass market. People will always canoe, but it’s likely it will either be in heavy, noisy aluminum, or one of the expensive and precious  materials.

Royalex is dead. Long live canoeing.

Categories
Miscellaneous

Paddle parade

Snake River start
Snake River start

Last May, I posted a GoPro video I made doing the Snake River Canoe Race. Now you can read all about it in an article I wrote for Minnesota Trails.

With six inches of snow on the ground right now, it’s hard to believe the 2013 race is coming up in two weeks. I figure shoveling must be good training.

Start Your Paddling Season on the Snake River

As Slim and I approached another mild-looking rapids on the Snake River, we saw that some other racers were capsized at the bottom. They were wading around in the chest-deep water, fishing their gear out and trying to free their canoe, which was submerged and pinned by the rushing water.

This got our attention. We stopped paddling and started scoping out the rapids. It didn’t look like much, another Class I set which appeared like most of the ones we had already run. More water than rocks, a few miniature standing waves, plenty of room to maneuver. Nonetheless, that capsized canoe made me worried. The water was cold.

Continue reading »

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Miscellaneous

On your mark, get set, paddle

A few weeks ago, I participated in my first canoe race, on the Snake River near Mora, MN. I borrowed a friend’s GoPro video camera to play with, and ended up making this short video:

The Snake River Canoe Race is about 14 miles long and has been happening for 32 years. It includes about 175 canoes ranging from hardcore racers who do the trip in less than two hours, to folks out for a good time, like my friend Slim and me.

You can read a bit more about the race and our experience at St. Croix 360. Bottom line is, I thought it was a blast and plan to do it again next May.

Categories
Miscellaneous

Two weddings and a river

Cross-posted from my StarTribune.com blog.

The St. Croix in May

In mid-May, I attended my cousin Samantha’s wedding in Mondovi, Wisconsin. The ceremony was in a small Methodist church. The minister stood before the couple and talked to them in a casual yet thoughtful tone, as if we were all gathered around a dinner table. He said that when he was growing up, living on a nearby farm, they had used baling twine for many purposes. He had learned that you could braid three strands of twine together to make strong rope, but you couldn’t braid two strands. He likened those two strands to the couple, and the third strand to God.

A couple weeks later, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I took to the St. Croix River with my wife Katie and our black lab Lola. Katie and I have been paddling on the St. Croix for years. I don’t remember when we first went, but it’s been several times a year for at least the six years we’ve been married. And I’ve been canoeing the river since I was a junior at Stillwater Area High School, when biology teacher Jeff Ranta took a group of us that spring to see a Great Blue Heron rookery near Copas.

Back channel

Memorial Day weekend, the water was high and the current moving fast. Weaving amongst narrow islands, we drifted and talked about that metaphor the minister had spoken of at the wedding, of the twine braided to rope. It came to me that the St. Croix River is a third strand, braided into our lives. There are surely other strands, too: our families, friends, compassion, words. But the river possesses a mysterious combination of constancy and fluidity. And when there is just the two of us and the dog in the canoe, and the river carrying us forward, I sit silently in awe and wonder at it.

We went back to the river last Saturday. This time there were eight people: four couples, two married, two not, split amongst three canoes. And, of course, the dog. We happened to float the same stretch of the river as Memorial Day weekend. The water was down a couple feet from May, and warm for swimming, but still high enough that beaches and sandbars were few. We let the current carry us, we saw eagles and osprey, a musky was caught and released.

Drifting downstream

On the trip was myself, fretting about logistics, safety, sandwiches; Katie, gracefully duffing in the middle of the canoe, eating cherries most of the way; Wade, making a sombrero look sensible; Audrey, her fingernails painted red, white, and blue; Slim, often reclining, face to the sky; Nel, not only smart enough to bring coffee but generous enough to share it; Gabe, who dedicated the day to his fly rod; and Liz, steering the angler downstream with a saintly smile. And there was the river, the third strand of twine.

At another wedding this summer, in the woods of Afton, my friend Sunday delivered the sermon for Doug and Heidi. Sunday spoke about what Spiritual Humanism has to say about relationships. It came to mind again as I traveled down the St. Croix on Saturday, in the company of three other devoted couples. Sunday spoke of Plato, and said, “In searching for and recognizing the divine within your beloved, one discovers the divine in oneself, and comes to recognize that, in all its forms, divinity is one and the same.”

St. Croix scene

That might call to mind the words of Norman Maclean, at the end of his famous story, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” It also makes me think of another concept in that story (which is arguably about relationships more than fly fishing): that to love is to seek to understand, though we can love fully without fully understanding.

The skies last Saturday were blue and clear. A mile from the take-out, we stopped at a small beach and swam and sat in the water as the sun dropped toward the trees on the western bank. The water was perfect and the silence absolute. I said I thought I might just stay there. But then I figured the mosquitoes would be bad and my own bed sounded better than sand. We got back in the canoe — a wedding gift from our friends — and headed on down the river.

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