NCPR News Cannonball Commentary: Transcript


Old Forge sits on one of the “original highways of the Adirondacks”. The lakes and rivers form a navigable 90–mile chain all the way to Saranac Lake. Early settlers and guides found the region’s waterways far superior to the muddy slog of early land routes.

The idea for the one-day Cannonball was born from the smoke around a campfire. I have completed 13 3–day 90–milers. But the past few years I have been unable to compete because my wife Grace and I manage the race for the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. Still, the journey calls to me, it gets in toyour blood. I had to figure out a way to experience it again. The Cannonball was the answer.

Putting the crew together was easy. I was looking for “mature”, endurance paddlers with mental toughness to match their physical endurance. From the bow, the team would include Chad Kennedy of Saranac Lake: pound for pound the strongest guy in the boat. Chad would set us a quick consistent pace. Bruce Kennedy from Plattsburg: the workhorse--Powerful stroke, keen wit, unflappable. Me, and in the stern Gene Newman of Canton: an extraordinary helmsman. Gene would control the power, work for maximum efficiency, pick lines and naturally feel where the boat needed to be.

Our boat--a 23 foot We-No-Nah Kevlar canoe--isn’t the only one on the water. We meet experienced marathon paddlers John Ders and Rich Waters on the beach in Old Forge. John and Rich will each paddle solo kayaks. Headlamps on, our three vessels head out in the predawn twilight. The Cannonball is on!

We navigate through the Fulton Chain with ease. Coming out of the slew between Third and Fourth Lakes we’re treated to a world of crimson. The Sun comes up over Bald Mountain--and then we see sunrise after sunrise as it flashes behind the necklace of hills north of the lake.

We enter the slew heading to Fifth Lake and set up for our first portage. Bruce and I shoulder the boat, and charge off while Gene and Chad gather our paddles and lifejackets. Our early morning “Pit crew,” meets us with a cup full of crisp grapes, water, and Harvest Bars--plenty of high energy for the miles ahead.

Already, as we clamber back onto the water, we’re settling in as a team. Chad and Bruce have paddled many miles together, but for the four of us, this is our first time in a boat together. Still, we communicate well, quickly negotiating a stumpy section of Seventh Lake.

We met our pit crew at the next portage, refueled and headed out onto Eighth Lake. The competitive juices started flowing. John Ders made the first move upping the pace as we hit open water. I don’t remember any audible signal in our boat, but our strokes quickened and we gave chase. The end of the lake came up fast and we were back out of the boat--headed overland to Brown’s Tract.

The Tract is a twisty turning humbling experience for anyone attempting to quickly paddle its length. The tight turns, shallow muddy water, lily laden straight-aways and beaver dams force you to take in the beauty of the rock cliffs to the North, the insect eating pitcher plants at the waters edge, and the sight of a new born fawn sloshing in the shallows close to her mother.

At the end we glide under a bridge that leads to the hamlet of Raquette Lake, bump over one last beaver dam and enter the lake. In the 90–Miler Raquette Lake has proved to be one of the biggest hurdles. 3 times the race has been stopped at the bridge because of high winds. Another time it should have been. But today the air is calm. The water is flat.

We follow the traditional route, heading North past Big Island, Thatcher Point, The Needles and on up the North Bay. We share stories of harrowing past adventures, when the lake was more like an unbalanced washing machine. John’s up ahead in his kayak, maintaining his lead. Rich has settled into a comfortable draft off of our stern.

Near the end of the bay we navigate the half - mile carry over to Forked Lake. Then--following the original route of the 90-miler–-we set off down the long and winding road to the Raquette River.

For most racers, this would be the start of day 2-–but on the cannonball it’s still just lunchtime. We munch on baked chicken and pasta salad as we hoof it across the carry. We put in on the Raquette River, paddle a mile, then carry cautiously over the poorly maintained portage trail past Buttermilk Falls.

Soon, the river takes us onto Long Lake, The longest continuous stretch of water without a portage. It’s 15 miles down the lake and another 5 miles down the Raquette River. In climbing jargon, this is the crux move of our route--the place where we hope to pick up enough speed to finish the Cannonball before dark.

Soon, the spirit of competition gives way to steady teamwork as the three boats share encouragement and support. Going under the bridge in the Hamlet of Long Lake, a member of out pit crew wades in up to his waist, bringing fresh water and snack bars. We push on, skirting the South Western border of the High Peaks Wilderness. It’s a perfect day--a slight breeze at our backs, an overcast blue sky, a lake all but empty of other boats. We set a steady pace at nearly seven miles per hour.

We’re past the halfway point now. Muscles begin to tire. Legs need to stretch. We shake our heads to throw off fatigue. We swap a few off-color jokes, share some Adirondack history. We debate the pros and cons of development to the sound of pounding of a carpenter’s hammer on shore.

At the end of Long Lake, John--in one of the kayaks--has fallen off the pace. It’s hot now, mid-afternoon. We wait for him to catch up. We give him our extra water, but he and Rich decide to go at their own pace. We’ll travel in two groups the rest of the way.

The canoe team pushes on. The river is winding and busy with oxbows, but the Minnesota IV brings us past through the Cold River country, past Deep Hole. It seems to take forever, but my knowledge of the route makes it marginally less interminable. We finally make it to impassable Raquette Falls. Though the portage is one of the best-maintained trails in the Adirondacks, it is always too long!

Chad and Bruce offer to take the boat first, on the long march uphill! I carry the gear ahead and Gene waits behind for a sign that the kayakers are OK. Bruce and I take the canoe from the top of the portage, and carry it down the mile plus trail back to the river.

Past the Falls, the scenery closes in tight. The valley changes subtly as we head for our first pit stop in more than twenty-five miles. At the appropriate spot I encouraged the group with a call of “two more turns and a straight away and we’ll see the Crew!” The pace quickens slightly, and coming around the final oxbow we hear the cheers of our support team making ready to greet and re-supply us.

With new energy, we zig and zag our way through shallow, narrow Stony Creek, across the ponds to Indian Carry--our last major hurdle.

Roughly 70 miles and 11 hours into the trip, there’s nothing fun about carrying a 65-pound canoe uphill. But soon we hit the shore of Upper Saranac Lake, paddling out past Indian Point and Chapel Island. Then it’s a quick dash over old corduroy logs and rocks and roots that make up Bartlett Carry.

We swing past Ampersand Mountain and push across Middle Saranac Lake. We enjoy a straight line run on the unruffled lake headed toward the rising summits of McKenzie, Moose and Whiteface Mountains looming in the distance.

We lean the boat through the wide turns of the Saranac River and as we drop into Lower Saranac Lake, we exceed the posted five-mile per hour speed limit.

Homeward bound, our pace quickens as we pass under the Route 3 Bridge to the cheers of our Pit Crew. The final leg, across familiar territory, takes us to Oseetah Lake and then we see the village rising up on the hill, and the Finish Line Cedar tree on the shore of Lake Flower.

Chad, Bruce, Gene and I finish our one-day “Cannonball” in 14 hours and 34 minutes. Our incredible support crew, along with more family and friends, meets us with hugs, champagne and turkey subs from Lakeview Deli across the street. Rich and John bring their kayaks ashore just before dark, after an incredible solo performance of 16 hours 11 minutes. Before we head home, sore and tired, we celebrate and take pictures and talk about the long day--where we lost time, where we picked up speed. We feel the bond of achievement of a common goal among friends.

Standing on the dock at the Start Line of The Adirondack Canoe Classic in Old Forge, When I say “on your mark, get set, GO!” to the 250 canoes, kayaks and guideboats ready to churn up the 90 miles of water and portages on their three day journey to Saranac Lake, I’ll try to be content with the memory of that long day in June when the Cannonball was run!

Brian McDonnell

2003 North Country Public Radio