I'd had already paddled 2 weekends in March and missed the opportunity on the third due to the Sportsman's Show so I was itching to get out again. So when Kelly McDowell from Complete Paddler told me about a slalom race on the Credit river the following weekend, I said "I'll be there!" without much thought. Since I've never seen a slalom race before I thought it would be interesting to watch, takes some pictures, and maybe, just maybe paddle the course when it was finished. I quickly relayed the event info to other friends and hoped some would join me.
Kelly and I had recently talked about solo whitewater boats, so he asked whether I would be interested in paddling one. Of course I didn't want to lose an opportunity like this so I wholeheartedly said yes. Time has a way of making things much clearer, and so reality started to set in. Here I was, going to a race with experienced slalom paddlers and I was going to attempt paddling a solo boat for the first time! If you don't know, solo whitewater boats are much shorter than regular canoes, have a pronounced rocker (looks like an upside down banana) and is very tipsy if you don't know how it paddles. (like me!!!) Well, I figured I could just test paddle further downstream of the course away from everyone.
Well, the day of the race came and my friend Ben decided to join me. I called him earlier that morning and asked whether he was interested in paddling the course. Like me, he thought he was just going as an observer, but when I told him Kelly was bringing several boats, I figured we could possibly paddle the course tandem. Even though neither of us competed before, we've paddled whitewater confidently together and I knew we could do it - despite the possibility of coming in last. He hesitantly agreed to bring his gear and said he would make the final decision once we were there.
We met at Streetsville Memorial Park where there were trailers, tents, and several boats all around. The race day weather didn't help with the rain and overcast sky, but I was getting excited. After speaking to Ben and Kelly, we decided to go for it and paddle the course tandem. It made us feel better when we found out it was Kelly's first time as well. Although, he was partnered with an experienced slalom paddler and he encouragingly said we couldn't possibly do any worse. (yeah right!)
Since I didn't have a drysuit, Kelly kindly loaned me one for the race. The only problem was that it was a women's. Considering the importance of staying dry and warm with the rain and the possibility of tipping in the frigid water, I knew it was necessary, but,...the drysuit was purple! With all the paddlers around it was hard not to notice, and if I recall correctly, not even the women there wore purple!! (sigh!) So I reluctantly donned the drysuit and tried to be positive and thankful. (really Kelly, I was!) Then I noticed an odd feeling behind me. I grabbed at the annoyance only to notice it was a huge upside-down U-shaped zipper! Men's drysuits have a waterproof zipper across the crotch, guess where a women's drysuit zipper would be?! Yeah, it was the rear hatch!! Not like I needed more attention!! (stop laughing!)
Photo: Ben Albert
After hoofing the fully outfitted boat to the starting gate, I could feel the nervous energy that comes with competition as everyone was scoping each other out. (either that or they were wondering why a guy was wearing a purple female drysuit!) The awful weather did have a side benefit, - the lack of participants. That meant only hardcore paddlers came out - which could mean they were the best of the best (great!), or dummies like me that had a better chance at looking somewhat respectable in a smaller group! It didn't help when were heard there were some national champions and even an Olympian! - but in those other crafts, - kayaks. Phew!
When Kelly got in the solo boat and ran a few gates to get an idea of the course, it was immediately obvious how difficult it was - navigating fast moving water, exiting tricky eddies, and trying to nail the gates. I swallowed hard and said to myself that there was no way in hell that I was doing the course solo. As there wasn't much time, Ben and I took the opportunity to paddle the tandem boat through a few gates to also get an idea. We managed okay, but it was nerve-racking. We quickly went to register for the race and and was told $20 could enter you for both the tandem and solo. You'd think logic would have been flashing like crazy right about now, but I looked at Ben and I asked, "Want to?" Maybe ego, maybe peer pressure from paddlers standing around, or just plain stupidity, but since I didn't want to say no first, he said "Ok", so I relented and said ok too.
On our way back up, we walked stoically side by side. We had some time and we were probably both deep in thought of the looming fiasco ahead. (at least I was!) As we stood in the rain surrounded by the many paddlers, the call came for the solo boats to go first. I hoped and prayed I would be called last. Wrong! After 2 boats had gone, I was asked to go. Of course I was mortified, but it didn't help that everyone was encouraging me as well! So I grabbed the boat, shoved it in the water, and saddled up. All I could think was just don't dunk. Not here, not now. As the time judge counted down, I focused on the upstream gate 5 feet away. I told myself, "Relax, you'll be fine." "Go!", the ref yelled and off I went, driving the paddle deep into the current aiming for the gate. The boat wobbled uncontrollably playing havoc with my balance, but the gate was almost in reach as I strained to get through when all of a sudden my world went brown! Holding my breath to prevent gulping in river water, I pushed away from the thigh harness and stood up. If for once I could just disappear, it would have had to be now! Needless to say, I'm sure there was some giggles and laughter. Despite the embarrassment, I asked to start again. There was no way I was going to stick around!
Needless to say, I finished the run without dunking again. Not that I did well by any means, but it was over and it felt good to finish it. By the time I had brought the boat back up, Ben wisely took the boat upstream and got a feel of the boat before running the course dry. (he didn't dunk) Despite the debacle, it was fun. So much in fact that emotion overrided logic once more and I decided to run the course solo again. I started a lot better this time but managed to dunk midway. (only me!) Oh well, like it could get worse!, - I finished much worse than the first run.
I have to say, despite everything I had an amazing time at the race, sentiments felt both by Ben and Kelly. We met a lot of people at the course that were extremely friendly and encouraging. I was also surprised to find that this was the 51st race and is the second oldest whitewater race in North America, - wow! I know for certain I will be back next year with hopefully better solo paddling skills! I want to thank Kelly for the invitation, Ben for fearlessly joining me and all the organizers and volunteers that ran the race in the miserable conditions. I realized that day emotions are an integral part of our human psyche, because if we allowed ourselves to be controlled by logic, life would be pretty boring and I wouldn't have such amazing (and funny) experiences to write about!
(Is there possibility of Giardia in the Credit River?! - cough, cough)