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For 37 years the Keelhaulers canoe club has hosted their annual river race around the middle section of the Vermilion River, braving the elements like a rain slicker wearing mail carrier. Without fail this annual race has weathered countless changes in our temperamental weather patterns in northern Ohio, except for spring 2005. A period of rain and a late spring snow storm that dumped almost a foot of snow and broke Cleveland’s all-time snowfall record interfered with the running of this annual spring paddle. Race morning the USGS gauge read a blistering 6.5 ft and almost 5000 cfs, a lot of water for this usually pleasant paddle. Ideal race conditions would see the gauges closer to 3 ft. In addition the air temperature was hovering in the low 40’s and there was a strong NW wind cutting across Lake Erie.
My partner and I pulled into the take-out the morning of April 3, 2005 excited and ready to race. We found the Vermilion to be in a bad mood at the Mill Hollow Bacon Woods Reservation. To quote George Costanza in an old Seinfeld episode “the sea’s were angry that day my friend.” There was a dusting of snow at the take-out, aftermath of the Cleveland snow storm. Vermilion is still an hour west of Cleveland but not outside the storm’s reach. The river was screaming around the bend to the take-out and there was nothing but frothy, brown, whitewater. We looked to our left and right and found no other cars at the take-out. We drove to Schoepfle Gardens in Birmingham to check with race organizers. We found 40+ racers huddled and waiting for a determination on the start of the race. At 9:30 a.m. a sigh of relief could be heard as organizers wisely cancelled and rescheduled for the following weekend.
Vermillion Race “part-deu” April 10, 2005 turned out to be night and day different as the previous weekend. Sunny skies, temps reaching the 70’s and lower water levels greeted racers. Perfect weather conditions also produced water levels that dipped below 3ft and began leveling off at 2.8 ft.
As the sun started to peek, organizers and racers could be found stripping off gear quicker than the tires on a freshly stolen sports car. Racers had to find a middle ground in their clothing selection between dressing for the water temperature or the air. The rescheduled race date may have eliminated some racers, but check-in was still a bee-hive of activity and the contingent looked at least as large as the week before.
A quick racer meeting was held at 10 a.m. and by 10:30 our rainbow armada had moved to the race start. One minute intervals paced the distance between racers and the enthusiasm was high. It didn’t take long for the enthusiasm to wan as you could hear paddles clanking the bottom even before racers rounded the first bend. From the beginning I knew we wouldn’t be breaking any water-speed records.
The Vermilion is known for its fun series of class I-II rapids, its winding route, sheer rock walls and its beautiful scenery. Its designation as one of Ohio’s official scenic rivers is well deserved. While the water level was a disappointment, the newly budding scenery and trickling waterfalls were still a treat to see and helped break-up the technical aspect of racing and finding the correct line. I probably had more time to sightsee this year than others because of the slower pace.
The Keelhaulers do an excellent job of clearing deadfall, sweepers and strainers from the race course, which also adds to the general health of this part of the river year round. Racers can float with confidence that they won’t be swept into a dangerous situation when the current is up. Racers do have to pay attention to the current and the possibility of getting swept into a wall or submerged rocks.
While I’ve run the Vermilion at higher levels, the low water didn’t damper anyone’s spirits. I joked with my paddling partner about the trail of blue and white marks I left on the rocks for him to follow, like a trial of bread crumbs. I can truly say the Vermilion is a wild ride at higher levels and I can now say from experience that is also frustrating, but still fun to race at depths below 3 ft.
As racers neared the Mill Hollow Bacon Woods Reservation finish line, families and friends cheered our final strokes toward home. A mere 12 seconds separated me and the racer that finished 2nd in my class. A few less missed paddle strokes, rock bumps and breaks to sightsee, would have put me in silver medal contention.
As usual, the race is well run, organized and populated by a fun group of racers. This is a great spring paddle that many use to knock the dust off their equipment and I have no problem telling my friends to paddle the Vermilion.
If you want to contact me, email me or you can contact me through the USA Olympic training center, where I’ll be working on shaving at least 12 seconds off my time for next year!
The easiest way to get to the put-in is from the east or west travel down Route 2. You can go from Toledo to Cleveland Ohio on Rout 2. Go south on Route 60 and then go east on Route 113 (turn left at the wooly bear restaurant). The put-in is about a mile on your right. If you cross the river you've gone too far.
To the take out, retrace you steps, by going west on 113, north on 60, then take a right (east) on Mason Rd. Rodger Bacon Reserve will be on your right several miles down.
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