At two years running, The Dam N Back is the newest race in South Dakota. Folks from Southeast South Dakota, Northwest Iowa and Northeast Nebraska have utilized it as a “cleaning out the garage” race as Kayaks, canoes and gear start to awaken from hibernation with air temps starting to tease of Spring/Summer and slabs of ice no longer a feature, drifting down the river. The race starts at Riverside Park in Yankton, South Dakota, the same as the starting line as the South Dakota Kayak Challenge.
The inaugural year of the Dam N Back race in 2015 raised a bit of concern for those eager to get on the water. Conditions were very mild and the water was by every means nippy as temperatures barely crept into the 50’s. Granted this may be a mere 10 miles to paddle, but a few twists are thrown into this race to spice things up.
This year was a complete 180 as Spring decided to knock on our door months ahead of time. Air temps were well into the 60’s and the water was on the rise closing in on the 60’s, making race day very welcoming and quite comfortable. The sun however was masked by the heavy smoke carried into the northern plains from the Canadian wildfires. I started my Saturday morning off by firing up the Weber grill with a snake of charcoal briquettes complimented with some soaked hickory chunks. Smoke billowed from the vent and beneath the lid of the grill after slapping the brisket on the grate but yet this was not enough to overwhelm the smog like appearance filling the sky from the wildfire smoke.
Once the brisket was set to fend for itself, I ventured down to Riverside park at 1pm to get ready for the race. Granted only 11 competitors were there to race, several others also joined the racers to mingle and support the efforts of one of our local race organizers, Jarett Bies. A handful of participants were there for their 2nd round of the Dam N Back while we saw a few newcomers as well. This was the first race for most individuals in the area since I was the only one to venture south for the Epic Shootout a few weeks prior. I felt as I was well prepped for what the low water levels would throw my way this year and would have a nice advantage over my good friend and paddling rival, Matt Story.
When 2pm rolled around, the racers lined up near the bike path for the Lemans style start. Waiting anxiously, we stood there as the 2 pm start arrived--- but no sound of the gun firing, just a simple click….click….click. Finally Jarett yelled “Go” and we took off running 30 yards down the steep grade to where our boats were staged. I snapped into my leg leash and I was off. Surprisingly, I was the 2nd boat taking off. Roger Debates to my surprise managed to get situated in his kayak and was already on his way in 1st place by the time Matt and I pulled away from the shoreline.
I took off to get ahead but held back a bit knowing I would have to pace myself to hold the lead or stay with Matt. It wasn’t but a minute or so until Matt and I were paddling side by side going into the first bend as we worked our way up to the 5 mile turnaround point. We were neck and neck until we were about halfway to the turnaround point when we encountered the first batch of trees partially buried in the bed of the river. Branches were randomly poking out, forcing paddlers to choose their lines carefully as we tried simultaneously to avoid the sand bars. Matt cleared the first tree but got swept back to the right in the strong 4+ mph current in this particular area. I decided to take the same path but got swept sideways a bit quicker. I felt the stern of my boat start to swing out so I dug the paddle in hard to try and pull ahead but it was too late. I heard a clunk and I was instantly spun 180 degrees. Here I sat with the rudder caught in a V between a couple large branches in strong current. I tried digging the paddle in deeper to move to either side but nearly had the paddle pulled down with the strong downward force of the current being swept under the main body of the submerged tree. “Matt, I might need some help here,” I called out nervously feeling the boat wiggle a bit as the current churned my boat while the rudder remained locked into the tree. I turned and saw Matt having some trouble getting through the other trees and battling the current where he was so I knew it wasn’t possible nor would it be wise for him to try to make his way back into the strong current with the risk of being put in the same position.
I took a moment and considered my options….bail out to get my boat loose and risk getting swept under with the leash tangling in the log or to make another attempt paddling to get out. Thankfully I’ve practiced paddling in reverse to have some comfort and chose to dig the wing paddle in deep. With a couple quick strokes I felt the boat loosen a little before slamming forward again. “It would work” I thought to myself. I dug the paddle in rapidly and managed to maintain balance to keep the boat going in a straight line in reverse against the strong current. I pressed my left toes forward immediately and felt the rear of the boat kick sideways and come free of the branch. I let the paddle scratch the surface of the water as I once again was spun 180 degrees facing up river again. I was relieved to be out of that sticky situation and making my way up river again.
Matt gained some ground on me while I was stuck but over the next couple miles going up river, I was able to recover some of the distance between us when he got caught on a sand bar. I couldn’t help but wish that he would be stuck waddling with a leg on each side of his ski for a few minutes to get back in deeper water but that only lasted a brief moment. It was still enough to make up a hundred yards or so with a strong sprint.
By the time Matt reached the turn around, I closed the gap to a couple hundred yards. I saw how he approached the turnaround grabbing the token and swung in at a different angle for a smoother turn around. I I dug in hard with a sprint closing the gap to about a hundred yards at this time. I thought I had him until he reached the channel on the opposite side of the river as he once again put more distance between us.
We were nearly a quarter of the way back down the river when we passed Jake Riter in 3rd place. At this time, the wind started picking up causing some chop around 12” with a hint of 2 to 3 foot wakes coming off the couple boats we passed. Thankfully I love such wakes being able to beam them comfortably which helped me close the gap again on Matt. We continued passing others still making their way upriver as we were now a couple miles away from the finish line. We smoothly made our way through the trees that were problematic on the way up. I knew this is where I would have to really pick up the pace to catch Matt. I dug in hard to pick up the pace but I was only making minimal progress as we approached the Highway 81 bridge. Once we hit the bridge, I pushed hard hoping to make him work for the win. I noticed his pace wasn’t changing much at this point so I felt the adrenaline building knowing there was still a chance. We were now at the small lookout pier, a mere couple hundred yards from the finish. I continued pushing knowing my chances of catching him faded as we approached the shore. Matt’s boat reached the shore as he grabbed his boat and started making his way up towards the finish. I saw him scrambling a bit, not realizing he dropped the token he needed to toss in the kayak to clock his finish time. As my boat was a couple feet from shore, I pulled my leg up to unclip the leash and swung my legs over to make for smooth exit. I lifted the boat and pulled it up on the shore as I pulled the token from my PFD. I darted for the finish bucket and tossed my token in a mere 15 seconds after Matt. We made our way up the shoreline carrying our boats up on the grass by the vehicles to get them cleaned up as we rested a bit, waiting for the next boat to come into sight and the remaining racers to follow over the next couple hours.
It was a great race having Matt Story there to once again make the race a strong push for one another, resulting in an improvement of our own times. Matt did an awesome job taking the lead and winning the race with a time of just over 90 minutes beating the record I set last year at 95 minutes. Had we both not encountered the sticky situation going upriver, it would have been interesting to see how far we would have pushed one another on a dead sprint for the finish line knowing we would still have been neck and neck the whole way until one took off with the other duplicating the actions. As for now, it will be back to the weekly 5k times until we have our chance to duel again with the South Dakota Kayak Challenge in a couple weeks!