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For 36 years the Keelhaulers Canoe and Kayak club out of Cleveland, OH has sponsored their annual river race on the Vermilion. The race is always held on the last Sunday in March and is sanctioned by the United States Canoe Association.
After a long winter, I was ready to knock the dust from the paddles and the joints and take part in the festivities. After talking to grizzled veterans of the race, they’ve had all kinds weather for this early season race. Long-time racers say they’ve paddled with snow, rain and even sleet! After predictions called for scattered thunder showers, the weather conditions turned out to be perfect, air temps in the mid 60’s, water temps in high 40’s, blue skys and nothing but sun.
The water conditions also turned out to be perfect as well. The rive gauges read just over 4 ft and the river was flowing about 1400 cfs. I’ve also heard that the closer the gauges get to 2.5 ft, the river gets pretty gnarly and you really have to pick your line and portages may pop up from time-to-time. Traditionally this is a 1+, sometimes class II river. A paddling buddy that checked the river the day before the race reported seeing some whitewater boats playing in sections of the river.
I had met several friends at the put-in at Birmingham, OH and our boats were spread over several classes. There were 17 classes of boats participating in the race and I was entered into the last and largest class of the race, sea kayaks. After signing in and paying the $15 fee, we worked out the portages and dropped off two vehicles at the take out at Mill Hollow Park also known as Rodger Bacon Reserve. Both the put-in and take-outs provide more than enough parking and easy launch areas. Getting down to river level at the put-in is pretty steep and there is a switch back trail that leads to the river. It would definitely help to have an extra hand when putting on.
All racers were assigned bib numbers and the unrestricted class of amateur racers and downriver boats were unleashed first. After this first group left, boats started to line up on the river for our starts. Organizers timed the race with minute intervals between boats and would count you down before you were released.
With the current, it didn’t take long after leaving the Birmingham launch before you disappeared around a bend in the river and were under way. I found on this day that it really helped to be able to read water and find the best lines through the rapids and turns. The Vermilion is pretty winding and fast at high water. On the day that we raced, I’d say that 60% of the river was class I-I+ rapids. There wasn’t much slack water, unless you got pulled into an eddy.
Most of the river is remote and bordered by hundred-foot cliffs. There are some homes visible from the river and there are several bridges that you cross beneath. It was neat to see spectators cheer us on from these bridges. I was surprised by the sheer shale cliffs that border most of this section of the river, it almost gave you the sensation that you were in a deep river gorge. Even though temps were in the 60’s, it was still early enough in the season that there were still piles of snow at the base of the cliffs, tucked back into the shade. Coming from northwest Ohio, where gradient isn’t something that is in our dictionaries, I was also surprised by the numerous waterfalls that trickled down the cliffs. Granted some may have been drainpipes spilling over the cliffs, but I’d like to believe that most of the falls were the end of the line for little forest creeks that spilled into the Vermilion. The only thing I would have changed on this trip would be the vegetation; it was still too early in the spring for the leaves to pop. The hills were still brown from the winter and having more tree cover would have added to the remoteness of the trip.
Being that this was billed as a race, the four boats in our group finished in various times, in just over an hour. Having speed though the race without taking in the scenery, we had planned to gab a bite to eat and then shuttle back to the put-in to do the river a second time, but at a more leisurely, relaxed pace. Traveling down a second time was much more enjoyable than racing, you could take in the scenery, talk, play in the rapids, surf, explore more and just enjoy being on the water. Actually most of this report is from our second trip, because I was concentrating so much on the race, that sightseeing was out of the question!
Overall this was a perfect day of paddling and the Keelhaulers did a fine job of organizing the race and the racers were perfect gentleman and ladies. There was an awards ceremony and BBQ at the takeout at 3 pm and many racers stayed to socialize and kid each other about their finishes. If you ask me, I’d like to inspect the boat that won my class for an outboard motor!
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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