Trip Report: Winning Gold

Posted by Robert N Pruden on Jul 28, 2005

It's a bit of a long write up but I used short paragraphs to make it easier to read. Hope you enjoy the read.


World Master’s Games: Revin’ up the Raven on the North Saskatchewan River

It is 0900h on Monday, July 25, 2005. It is a beautiful day with brilliant deep blue Alberta skies wrapping the clean pine scented air. I have seen to the loading of the Raven, my home built TKK1 kayak, on the shuttle trailer and have found a seat on the shuttle bus. The shuttle bus has begun its lumbering way out of the heavily treed Lion’s Memorial Park, in Devon, Alberta to ferry its cargo of eager paddlers to the starting line of the River marathon event. I am sitting near the center of the bus in a window seat, anxious about the race yet more anxious about the idea of paddling a TKK1 kayak on the North Saskatchewan River for 19 downstream kilometers. I am already an unstable paddler on the upstream haul but even shakier during the downstream rush. I am certain that my face occasionally shows an excellent visual definition for the word “uptight”. This is also my first ever kayak race.

I try to distract my feelings of nervousness by chatting with an American kayaker named Bill, who is sitting in front of me, behind the Russian team. From the Russians, I hear the occasional “Da!” mixed in with the ramble of other hard, tongue twisting Russian words, of which I cannot discern individually. There are something like six Russians dressed in blue uniforms chatting back and forth. Another Russian, or should I say, American Russian, from Idaho, is sitting beside me. He has come with the American paddlers who sit across from me. My conversation with Bill ended so I began talking about the race and river conditions with my Russian seatmate. We chat for a brief while. He turned to his Russian compatriots, with whom he used to paddle in Russia some 25 years ago, and chats amicably and quietly.

I turned my attention to the view outside. Farmer’s fields planted with the brilliant yellow blooms of Canola pass by my line of sight. I see them with my eyes but my brain focuses instead on what the river must look like at the starting point. I feel as if I am already on the Raven wobbling unsteadily as I navigate the currents on the river. I see the semi-translucent green water and become mesmerized by the micro-currents and suddenly feel dizzy. Suddenly I hear a loud Russian laugh and discover that I am on the bus nearing the starting point and my smiling Russian seatmate is still engulfed in his Russian chat.

The bus driver stopped at the top of a hill run and instructs us to walk down to the starting point because he can’t take the bus any further. Apparently, the boats have already arrived down at the river. It is a five-minute walk so I walk down the road with my paddle, seat, booties and gloves in hand, listening to people chat, chatting and enjoying the wild forest beauty around me. The weather is perfect for a paddling adventure. If I weren’t racing today then I would probably be heading down to the river with the VJ Guardian Spirit, my rec boat, for a few hours of lazy paddling.

When I get to the river I see many people milling around talking, searching for their boats or preparing their equipment for the marathon event. I walked along the rows of stowed boats to find the Raven. Hmm, oddly, I cannot find my boat. I decide that I must have missed it somewhere along the search so I backtrack and look again. Nothing! Panic! Where is my boat? As I was searching for it I met Sarah who informed me that there was still one more trailer to come with more boats. Ok, I can wait for it but it better be on board or I was gonna swim to the finish just to say that I did it.

I chatted with various people while I waited for the Raven to show. Many people were caught by surprise when I told them I was racing in a boat I built with a wooden Euro paddle. Several eventually stopped to look at the Raven and wish me good luck. The Raven appeared on the trailer during the pre-race information session. Once the talk was over with, I attended to the Raven, taping the number 34 card to the rear deck with lots of duct tape. I wanted the number to be safe in case of capsize. That precaution would turn out to be rather ominous.

I was allowed on the river some fifteen minutes before my heat was to go. I used to time to practice my strokes and warm up my arms and shoulders. About 10 minutes before my start, the starter’s boat motored by upstream and created a huge wake. I eyed the oncoming waves with nervous dismay. As they bore under the Raven, I paddled with quick weak strokes to stay aboard. I was good for the first two waves but they were too displacing and the third one got me - I braced into nothing and fell over on the right side.

Luckily, the Raven has a wide open cockpit so I simply lifted my legs out as she tipped and landed on one foot, which hit ground at the four foot mark. I grabbed the Raven and hauled her to shore where I flipped her over and emptied the river water out of the cockpit. Whew! Man, I was glad that happened. Cathy, who would go on to win the women’s TKK1 that day, just happened to be paddling past me. I smiled and commented that I was glad I got that over with and that the water felt good. I no longer worried about capsizing as much as I had before the spill. That allowed me to paddle hard and fast later on when I needed it most. A few other paddlers passed me while I was emptying out the Raven and, of course, I heard a few comments about being “cool to the core” and other such watery and humorous commentary. I chuckled at each comment and suggested they try out swimming for themselves, that the water was very pleasant, indeed!

The manner in which each heat was started was interesting. We were required to be about 300 meters upstream of the starting line with five minutes before the start. We floated downstream and were instructed to line up as well as well as we could. Certain boats were asked to either speed up or slow down, all while floating downstream towards the start line. After one minute, we were told we could start at any time depending on when the starting judge deemed us ready. With 30 seconds to go the judge sounded his horn and we were off. Every Laser TKK1 on the water with me at the time took off like a shot. I struggled to get up to speed but wasn’t worried. There was 19 kms of downstream paddling ahead of us and a weak start was no concern at all.

My main focus after the start was to keep up with the main body of paddlers while making certain I was reading the river currents correctly. For the most part, the lead group was reading it well since they were pulling away from me quickly. I recognized quickly that the Raven was not as fast as the Laser TKK1’s. I also recognized that using my Grey Owl Sirocco euro paddle instead of a winger handicapped me big time. One of the men’s TKK1 paddlers was in front of me and in the lead pack after 500 meters. The lead pack eventually split into two groups: my quarry was in the second group just in front of me, a man wearing a yellow baseball cap. The other guy in my class was just behind me. He occasionally came up even with me but he was paddling to my right in slower water. I knew he wasn’t reading the river well and using the currents to his advantage so I wasn’t as worried about him as I was Mr. Yellow Cap.

Interestingly enough, all of the female TKK1 paddlers were in front of me and would stay there for the whole race. One of them, Sarah, would become my main focus as I used her presence to maintain my perspective on the race and as a sort of rabbit to spur me to paddle harder to catch her. I would never catch her but she would never pull very far away from me. By trying to stay with her, I prevented anyone behind me from catching me. I’ll tell you this though, Sarah was one tough cookie who would not crumble. I told her so later on when I went to check on my final time and placing. She just happened to be there when I was there and remembered me from the start.

As the race progressed I watched the lead group disappear from my view and the second group slowly work their way ahead of me. At one point they were all small sunlit sticks standing out along the shoreline way ahead of me with their paddle blades splashing silver streaks with rhythmic movements. Although they managed to follow the main current and use the best current speed to their advantage, I used my own knowledge of river paddling to cut corners while keeping my speed to occasionally gain a hundred meters or so on them.

Near the mid-point of the race, there was a class one rapid. Had I been paddling in the VJ, I would have shot right through the middle of it with glee. In fact, I have done just that during a previous river run a couple of years ago that went from Drayton Valley to Devon. In the Raven, however, I wanted to avoid the rapids altogether. The pack in front of me took a very wide berth left through much slower water around the rapids, completely missing all that faster moving water. I decided to scratch the edge of the rapids to take advantage of the faster water and see how much ground I could make up between us. As the Raven was grabbed by the speedy current along the edge of the rapids, it was drawn towards the standing waves at the bottom and I could feel a huge increase in instability. I reacted by making a long series of short staccato-like paddling strokes, slapping the almost one foot tall standing waves to stay afloat. Once the Raven entered calmer waters I relaxed and let out quiet, “woo hoo!” I could see that I gained an easy 50-75 meters on the group ahead.

My quarry, Mr. Yellow Cap, was doing well despite my efforts to minimize his lead. In short order, the river’s course turned right. I could see that the valley itself was making a sharp left turn. I could see a gravel bed in the center of the turn and knew the river would be speeding right and left with the main channel splitting both ways. To go left would mean slower current but less distance, probably with a shallower riffling washboard. Deeper, faster water would be to the right. I opted to paddle left while the group ahead opted to go right. The decision to go right would lead to Mr. Yellow Cap’s demise and my gold medal victory.

The right route was roundabout and much longer right while the left route was straight on but slow, thus avoiding something like 50-100 meters of paddling. Most of the group realized this and made a hard left turn to take advantage of the shortcut. Mr. Yellow Cap turned late and ended up grounding on the gravel bed. As he was climbing out of his boat to get his boat back into deeper waters, I was paddling my ass off to get out of the slower currents on the left side of the gravel bed.

I shot past Mr. Yellow Cap and knew I had a new challenge at hand. Yellow Cap had a faster boat and was paddling with a carbon fibre wing paddle: he had all the advantages of speed and weight. I had to ramp up my paddling speed and keep it there. From that point on, I would be paddling hard and fast while trying my damnedest to stay afloat. I still had something like 9-10 kms to go and here I was practically sprinting to stay ahead of someone I felt would catch me and demolish me at the finish line. Still, I had to give it my best effort so I paddled on.

I now had the lead in my class for the marathon event. I wanted this lead badly because I wanted to win with the boat I built. I suppose in a sub-conscious way I wanted to win for all builders. Winning with speed is all very well and nice on flat-water courses, but you need more than speed on the river. You need to know where to paddle and how to paddle it – that I knew well. I knew the Raven was slower than the Lasers behind me so I had to be tough and paddle for all I was worth. I kept Sarah and her red TKK1 in my sights and continued to try hard to catch her. By doing that, I prevented Don, the second place finisher, and Yellow Cap, from ever getting close to me again.

At one point, two K1’s came along side me, one to each side. I was feeling kind of pissed that I couldn’t catch Sarah so I refused to let them pass me. I stayed on course with them for about two to three minutes before a large boil in the water caused me to become unstable. A boil is an upwelling of water that causes a low-pressure incidence of water to occur. It has lower water pressure than its surroundings so when a paddler dips a blade into it and tries to pull, the blades passes through it more quickly. That causes a sudden shift in balance, which is often enough to cause a very, very tippy feeling to the unwary. Once I stabilized my sense of balance, I upped my pace to make up for lost distance.

I managed every turn that came better than those fine folks in the pack in front of me did. I knew I was doing better because I got closer to them in the curves. They often hugged the inside of the curves where slower water prevailed while I stayed about ¾’s to the outside of the curve. They invariably made up their losses in the straight-aways. Those Lasers, Ugh! I managed to make up enough distance between me and the group ahead through the final hairpin curve that, figuratively speaking, I could almost smell the perfume that Sarah was wearing. She was only 100 meters ahead of me.

We rounded wider curve and to my surprise, the bridge to Devon appeared. I was somewhat in shock but immensely relieved because I thought I was only 2/3’s of the way through the course. That meant the finish line was only 3-4 kms and two curves away. I wanted badly to look behind me to see where my competitors were but I feared a capsize. I knew that I would have to wait and study any bows passing me to see if they belonged to my competitors.

I began paddling like a maniac. I have good endurance during the long haul so I wasn’t worried that I would get tired. As I approached the bridge the water got very choppy, like popcorn with a faster current. The surface was rife with higher and lower pressure areas that sent me rocking back and forth like I was being shaken in a baby’s cradle. I could not paddle hard while maintaining good stability and several times I almost capsized. I had to ease up on my pace and occasionally slap the water hard to stay afloat. Once I passed under the bridge, the river settled down and the boat stability improved. I began paddling in earnest.

The second-last curve for this course occurs immediately after the bridge to Devon. I passed though it staying my course in the main current while paddling hard to catch Sarah, who seemed to fair better than I did through the popcorn. At this point I had not seen nor heard anything of Yellow Cap. I was slowly gaining on Sarah who seemed to be a little tired by now. Suddenly she veered hard left just in front of a thin line of white water. I reveled in her folly and increased my stroke speed to take advantage of her delay, not looking hard at her reason for veering left so suddenly. I figured the line of white water was nothing more than water pouring over a stone or some obstacle easily avoidable that Sarah overreacted to. Not so!

I was so focused on catching Sarah that I didn’t see that the river was moving me towards the odd white line. When I heard the sound of rushing water I looked at the actual water and realized that there was serious trouble ahead. During previous paddling trips, I have seen a remnant of a trestle below the surface of the river. The trestle was always under three to four feet of water. Not today! That damned thing was causing a one-foot drop over which the water was rushing and to make it worse for me, the riverbed was directing the water over the trestle.

I was seriously dismayed to be so close to finishing the race in first place and now to be so close to earning my swimming and self-rescue badges simultaneously. With a clenched jaw I tried to veer sharply to the left, but the current and my inability to really lean the Raven hard left condemned me to run straight at the left side of the trestle. The Raven carried my horrified sacrifice to Triton over the trestle while I shouted out various epithets. The bow cruised over the trestle and buried in the water below as the cockpit then the stern followed. The chop below sent my nerves for a whirl as my frantic paddling prevailed to keep my head above the water. As I exited into calmer waters I let out a loud “Woo Hoo!” and Yeah, baby!” I raised my loom in salute to survival while my brain registered disbelief that I made it through.

I did gain on Sarah a little but in my relief I had stopped paddling to catch my breath. I watched as Sarah gained back her losses. As I passed around the final curve, I spied the yellow buoys that marked the finish line and sped toward them. I could hear no paddlers behind me so I relaxed a whit more while I made sure to pass between the buoys. There were dozens of folks cheering up on the high banks. I heard them but I couldn’t look up at them for fear of tipping with only a couple of hundred meters to go. I kept the blades of my Grey Owl double wet until I passed through the finish line then held my paddle by the loom in an upraised position to signal my victory and joy to be soon off the water.

My nerves were frazzled but intact – I was happy, very much so! I eased the Raven in a rather steep, yet confident turn to starboard to bring her to shore. There I lingered with one leg in the cockpit and the other firmly nestled in the mud under one foot of water while caught my breath. I finished the race in 1:26:57, quite a bit faster than the two hours I initially figured on.

At approximately 1800h that evening, I would be posing with a Mountie and receiving my gold medal for today’s efforts – my first big win in kayak racing.

Robert N Pruden

Pictures of the final meters of the race and the medal



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