Racin' on the River
A chance to paddle the Mississippi, along with an Olympian and some Vikings.
By Paul Gerald
MAY 10, 1999: My canoe-racing career got off to a nervous start.
My friend Tony had asked if I wanted to participate in the Great Mississippi River Canoe and Kayak Race, and since he and I had paddled together once or twice, I thought it sounded like fun.
But when we got to the north end of Mud Island, up where the Wolf River meets the Mississippi, there was electricity in the air -- literally, as in lightning. As we hauled our large piece of metal toward the water, a man with a bullhorn was casually announcing, "Okay, folks, we'll just wait for this little thunderstorm to move on out before we get started."
So we all stood and watched the lightning and the whitecaps out on the water, and after what seemed a very few minutes we launched into the Wolf. The waves awaited us out in the big river, but the scene in the Wolf had me nervous too. The guys next to us were dressed as Vikings; nearby were some cheeseheads; one canoe was made up to look like the Batmobile. The Vikings, I noticed, had a cooler on board. These were the people we'd be paddling the Mississippi with?
There were a couple hundred canoes and kayaks in the Wolf, all jockeying for position. Some of the paddlers looked like they were set on trying to win, but considering the circumstances, I would be happy to survive. I looked back at Tony, who was still watching the sky, and he said, "Well, I guess we're really gonna do this thing." The very picture of confidence, that Tony.
The start was complete chaos. I put my paddle down, but instead of water I hit a Viking. A couple of guys in wigs cut us off. We finally found our rhythm as the crowd cleared, we got out into the Mississippi, and the current got us. We paddled real hard for, oh, two minutes, and then I looked up to see how we were doing. We weren't doing well. There were already canoes a quarter-mile ahead of us, so we settled into cruiser mode and tried not to tip ourselves over. I think we finished 125th overall -- but only about 30th in our age group!
Such is the nature of the race, which on Saturday, May 8th, was held for the 18th time. It's the longest-running athletic event associated with Memphis in May, says Joe Royer, the race's founder and the president and co-owner of Outdoors, Inc., which sponsors the race. He was the one, I recently found out, with the bullhorn, telling us not to worry about the lightning.
"We try to keep a very friendly atmosphere," Royer says. "If you want to race and go for the medals, that's great, but if you just want to participate and have fun, that's okay, too." (There will be fun available after the race, as well, with music and food and several canoe and kayak manufacturers offering demos of their latest equipment.)
The first race attracted 50 canoes and kayaks; this year's will have around 250, Royer estimates, including Olympic gold medalist Greg Barton of Seattle. Royer says Barton should finish the race -- which goes south along Mud Island, under the I-40 bridge, then north into the harbor -- in about 18 minutes. The parent-child combos and weekend paddlers and the Vikings will take up to 40 minutes.
"It's not like you're out there for hours and hours," Royer says. "The current gets you on down the course."
Royer, who remembers our thunderstorm experience as "that time we had to pause for a minute," says safety is of the utmost concern. The Coast Guard closes the river to barge traffic, and a fleet of some 40 safety boats will be out in the river. He points out that one couple, aged 81 and 79, will be in the race this year, like every year.
Still, if you haven't been in a canoe before, Royer says this isn't the time to start.
"I like to say the Mississippi is like Mount Everest," Royer says. "It's the largest river in North America; it's celebrated and it's wonderful, but you have to respect it or you can get in trouble quick. But this is the only day of the year when big boat traffic is shut down, so if you've had some experience, your chances of enjoying the Mississippi on May 8th will be the best of the year."
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