As Slim and I approached another mild-looking rapids on the Snake River, we saw that some other racers were capsized at the bottom. They were wading around in the chest-deep water, fishing their gear out and trying to free their canoe, which was submerged and pinned by the rushing water.
This got our attention. We stopped paddling and started scoping out the rapids. It didn’t look like much, another Class I set which appeared like most of the ones we had already run. More water than rocks, a few miniature standing waves, plenty of room to maneuver. Nonetheless, that capsized canoe made me worried. The water was cold.
The Snake River Canoe Race has been taking place near Mora for 32 years. This was my first time participating; actually my first canoe race ever. Slim and I were not in it to win it, but rather to experience the festivities, see a beautiful stretch of river, and do a little paddling.
Together with two other friends, we dropped our canoes off that morning at the finish line at the Kanabec History Center in Mora, then caught a bus up to the start. Our canoes were soon delivered to the ditch where everyone was queued up. The “pro” racers jogged in the shoulder to warm up, while others stood around and socialized. A few people cracked open cans of beer.
Participants slowly trickled toward the banks, in no particular order. You go to the start line when you want. We were some of the last to get in our canoes and on the river.
Racers start six at a time from underneath the highway bridge; the stern paddler holds onto a rope hanging down from above until the gun goes off, once a minute. Then it was furious paddling to get started, and before we knew it we were around the first bend and underway.
It was a hour or two later that we were approaching that apparently hazardous rapids. We spent the first half-hour of the race getting silently passed by the dozen or so hardcore racers, who for some reason were started last. They paddled at a pace I could not imagine maintaining for fourteen miles. But once they all got past us, it was just us and a lot of other casual canoeists enjoying the river, thankful that forecasted rain had not materialized.
We were still 25 yards above the rapids, approaching cautiously, staring down the set, when we slammed into the rock at midstream. The canoe quickly went sideways, with the rushing water pushing against the hull. There was a moment of fear that we would get pushed over by the current and end up swimming the rapids, but we didn’t move.
When we shoved off the rock, the current spun us around. Great, I thought, just what we needed, to go down this rapids backwards. But we did another 180 and got ourselves pointed the right way. The river carried us down, maybe bumping a rock or two, but otherwise smoothly. A couple folks had pulled off the river to help the capsized crew.
The banks of the Snake are largely undeveloped. There are cabins here and there, but it is mostly wild. Too small for a motorboat, it is just the right size for canoeing. The area had gotten rain for several days in a row leading up to the race, so the water was in fine shape. Solo trumpeter swans twice flew right over our heads.
Occasionally, there would be a few folks sitting at the water’s edge, watching the canoes and kayaks go by. They had fires going, and would wave and say hello. I remember hearing one participant say to her partner, “This is the best parade I’ve ever been in!”
There were really two events on the river that day, the race and the parade. The serious racing was not limited to the intense people with specialized canoes. Aluminum canoes got their own class for competition, and carried some very strong paddlers. The fastest time of the day was a pro boat, clocking in at 1 hour, 57 minutes. But two aluminum canoes finished just 20 minutes later (and only seven seconds apart).
Our time was nothing to brag about, but our canoe was definitely the best float I’d ever ridden on in a parade.
The 2013 Snake River Canoe Race is Saturday, May 4. Look for a first-timer's guide to paddling the race on MNTrails.com next week. Get more information or register at http://www.snakerivercanoerace.org/.