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Under normal conditions, the 6 mile paddle takes place on the Maumee River, beginning at Independence Dam. This year found the mighty Maumee almost at flood stage. The unsafe conditions forced the paddling portion to be run on a portion of the historic Miami & Erie Canal. In the early 1900’s, the Miami & Erie Canal helped connect Cincinnati and Lake Erie with a complex series of canals and lakes. This hand-dug canal had long since overgrown with vegetation and trees, but race organizers had worked hard to clear the 6-mile stretch that would be used during the race. High water conditions on the river had also translated into higher levels in the canal. During pre-race conversations with fellow racers, I found that when conditions have forced organizers to use the canal in the past, there are a number of sandbars that would require portaging. This year proved to be an excellent year, because those sandbars were well underwater.
Exiting the paddling portion of the race at Gessner Park in the Villiage of Florida, OH, participants sling their weighted packs over their shoulders and begin the hike up route 424, crossing the canal and traversing 8-miles back to Independence Dam State Park. This trail is also historical because thousands of hooves pounded the same ground, hauling goods and people across the region. The hard packed flat trail hasn’t been fully overtaken by undergrowth and trees, but the forest is doing its best to cover up the past. Normal public use on the trail helps to keep it open for biking and hiking. Racers exit the trail and hike the last 3-4 miles within the park along the Maumee River. The hard pavement park road is not a welcome sight after traveling 5-6 miles on packed dirt trail. We made every attempt to tread in the grass to lessen the impact on our legs.
Hikers are relieved to discard their weighted packs upon completing the middle section of the race. Not even half-way finished, racers need to gear up again and hit the road for the 35-mile biking section of the race. Last year punishing rains plagued bikers as we rounded miles of open farmland and sloping river terrain. As bad as last year’s weather was, this year was deemed almost perfect. Cool but sunny skies followed us throughout the entire race course. The only obstacle each rider had to face was the punishing farmland winds. Flat terrain and almost no wind breaks somehow allow the wind to always be in your face. At each turn you would beg for a tailwind, only to be disappointed as the gusts would change direction and again greet us head on.
Preparations for this race actually began during our fairly light 2006 winter. I began peppering a friend of mine to do the race with me this year. Last year I soloed this race and wanted to compete as a team this spring. Having convinced a lucky candidate I began training and conditioning for this and several other kayak races on my calendar. Having a winter almost devoid of snow allowed for me to get in some unexpected water and road time on my bike. When I couldn’t practice in the elements, I logged hours in the gym and treadmill. As the race date approached, a few last minute training sessions on the bike helped to loosen the legs and open up the lungs.
Our pre-race registration materials indicated that we had and 8:30 a.m. start time. Last year I chose to drive the almost hour-long trip from Toledo to Defiance on the morning of the race. This year we made plans to camp overnight at the park, not wanting to be rushed in the morning. Camping overnight was a welcome substitution to driving during pre-dawn hours. As we set up camp, we hooked up with two of our friends that had also planned to do the race. Our pre-race training continued the night before the race as we traded stories and adult beverages at a local Mexican restaurant. We all hoped the refried beans would give us extra energy!
Sleep came quick and the morning came even quicker as the frosted windows of our van blurred the pre-race activities going on outside. The morning sun would quickly warm our faces as we emerged from our camping van. Organizers were going through their pre-race set-up and early-bird racers were gathering. A hot breakfast of oatmeal, coffee and bananas charged our systems and we went about finalizing our preparations and expending nervous energy.
A pre-race meeting confirmed safety procedures that we’d be racing in the canal instead of the river. The starting time was quickly approaching and my partner and I gathered our boat and paddles at the starting line. Wanting to paddle together instead of two separate kayaks, we chose to use my two-seat sit-on-top boat. While this boat tends to be a bit slower, we banked that two experienced paddlers could motor us to a strong kayak leg. Figuratively the gun went off and race teams were released 30 second apart. We left the stating line in a cloud of dust as teams had to jog the quarter mile to the launch point. We hit the water at a newly constructed boat launch in the shadow of historic Lock #13. The put-in quickly disappeared behind us as we started to clip-off miles on the rail straight canal. We quickly caught and passed several competing boats. A miss-judged line around a fallen tree had log-jammed three canoe teams and we triumphantly navigated around the tangled group. Each paddle stroke made our boat surge forward. The heavier and more cumbersome boat blazed down the canal under our control. We more than made up for extra weight with our conditioning and experience. While the canal was primarily cleared by organizers there were still several locations when careful paddle placement and observant water reading helped to navigate downed trees and submerged obstructions.
The Village of Florida and Gessner Park quickly came into view and after reporting to the time-keeper, we raced to put on our boots, re-fuel and hit the trail. The weight of the pack hit me after only a few steps. It further cemented that I’m a kayaker by nature and not a backpacker! I was only several yards into the hike and I was already wishing we were back on the water! The first section of the hike leads you along scenic Route 424 towards Napoleon, OH. A volunteer stationed at the turning point motioned us down a slope, across a bridge spillway and onto the old towpath trail. To describe how straight and flat this hike is, one could easily see all the way back to the starting line, if the trees suddenly disappeared. Seasonably wet conditions had left the trail in muddy, but not oozing mud-like conditions. Our boots could grip, but not sink into the hardened trail. The hike is straight forward and one has to keep putting one foot in font of the other. My partner and I traded family stories and observations for a while, before conversation gave way to heavy breathing and the occasional swig from our water bottles. After 7.5 miles seeing the Independence Dam backing up the Maumee River helped to recharge our batteries as we made the last stretch for the last transition point.
Tossing our packs down, we each took time to eat something and lace up our biking shoes. Well, at least one of us remembered to bring our shoes. While I clipped into my bike, my far more experienced biking partner unfortunately forgot to pack his bike shoes! Attempts to find an honest non-participating observer to run into town and purchase a replacement pair of shoes was successful, but finding a store that carried them was not. Needless to say we pulled away from the parking lot each wearing our respective shoes, me clipped into my bike in streamline-like fashion and my partner sporting his hiking boots. Surprisingly my partner plowed through his disability and we began to tear up the road. Passing fellow racers became common place and we took great pleasure in passing a team going up-hill, into the wind!
The well-marked race course begins on primarily flat farmland, zigzagging over virtually abandoned roads. A check-point near the Village of Florida directed us over the downtown bridge and along the Maumee River. We followed the river for several miles before we broke away and headed back into farmland. Random barns and farm houses were our only company for many miles. Somehow we must have separated ourselves from any groups of racers, because we found ourselves alone for a good section of the race. While most of the course is flat, there are several unexpected and unappreciated slopes and hills as the course travels down and up each small creek and tributary basin. Each one seemed like it had its own gorge as weary legs would burn up each climb. The race course eventually finds its way back to Florida and we crossed the bridge again for the final 6 mile sprint to the finish along Rout 424.
This final stretch is a long final salute to almost 6 hours of constant movement. Each peddle stroke only brought the finish line a few inches closer. As the park came into view random applause and a subdued “great job” greeted us. Our van was smartly parked close to the finish and was the perfect landing pad for our imminent collapse. We had just completed a very competitive and fun afternoon of adventure racing. Our start was strong and our finish was notable. We had just finished using every muscle in our bodies and our mile-numb limbs were fatigued from this full-body race and it was truly good to not be moving. I know I can’t wait to do it again next year!
Normally this would be listed as a submission for the Maumee River. High water forced the race from the river to the Miami & Erie Canal.
The canal can be paddled thoughout the year, and the additional high water helped, but I don't want to give people the impression that the canal is "always" paddlable.
While you can paddle the canal at different times throughout the year, the Maumee River is the preferred body of water in this area.
YakCatcher Rod Holder
Paddler's Truck Rack