After a long summer of racing, most paddlers are done competing and have settled in to enjoy the colder months on land. But Ted Burnell just doesn't know when to say when. I ran into him at kayak events for several consecutive weeks, and in October he disclosed, "I'm growing tired of seeing you!" Not long after, he suggested we team up for the Big South Fork River Race. Because Ted didn't mind dragging dead weight around in his kayak as long as he'd have a chance to paddle, he agreed to transport me and his Stellar tandem surfski up to the Big South Fork National River and Scenic Area in Whitley City, Kentucky. Ted and I had never paddled a tandem together, but we were pining to be pioneers at the inaugural Big South Fork River Dash.
The 8-Mile race was capped at 50 total entrants, and it filled easily. Local paddlers seemed genuinely surprised that people traveled so far to attend the event. Many cozied up overnight in the Alum Ford Campground, at the site of race start. Some unique aspects of this particular race were the wide variety of watercraft represented: entrants included everything from Girl Scout-style canoes to a rowing shell! There was an OC-1 paddler from Chicago who is more Hawaiian than anyone I've ever met from Hawaii. There was a canoe paddled by a girl dressed as a monster and her partner wearing a monkey mask. One lady mounted an alligator to the bow of her kayak. One stand-up paddler did the whole course barefoot! Big South Fork River Dash was a veritable remix of all the best parts of kayaking: revelry, rivalry, and responsibility.
We were fortunate to be able to paddle the race in weather that was cold, but mild for November. I'm always excited to wear pogies, anyway. As we lined up to begin the race, our boat started to fill with water. This kayak has no bailer plugs, so when it sits still, water enters from the bottom. As soon as the horn sounded to start the race, we paddled furiously, but didn't go anywhere. To drain the water and gain forward momentum took far longer than it does in a single ski, but soon enough, we started to make progress. We quickly caught the fast guys at the front of the pack, and I was thrilled! I finally had the opportunity to experience what it's like to be up with the big dogs, who are usually miles ahead of me during any other race. That thrill didn't last long, however. Ted steered Joe DiChiacchio's Ion into a cliff along the bank of the river, and seconds later, we pulled away from everyone, even overtaking the rowboat.
Fortunately, that meant we had the first turn entirely to ourselves, without having to consider other vessels while circumnavigating the center buoy. Headed back down the course, we were surprised to see that we had such a significant lead. Big South Fork made for great viewing of other competitors as our paths crossed, and we were able to cheer or joyfully heckle one another up and down the river. Ted deftly maneuvered the 24-foot long barge we were paddling through the second turn, and we were home free. We pulled up to the finish, frigid but satisfied with our performance. We handed the boat off to the Junior ROTC volunteers there from a local high school. They were courteous, respectful, and eager to help assist as necessary. Most of the racers stuck around the boat landing area for several hours, as paddlers of all skill levels streamed in. We swapped stories, played frisbee, and enjoyed one last hurrah of the paddling season.
Only later did I realize that neither Ted nor myself carried a GPS device with us to measure speed or distance. We didn't even have a stopwatch between us! Paddling without continuous data was liberating--we had no clue how fast or how far we had gone. Though we hadn't set a goal, or even a guesstimate, we managed to finish in less than an hour! Regardless of how far or how fast you paddled, every finisher received a colorful commemorative coin, fancier than any other paddling medal I have collected. The trophies were even more impressive: laser-cut wooden slabs detailing a map of Big South Fork Country and a single paddle blade. The raffle, held at the Big South Fork Scenic Railroad depot, was more multifarious than others I had witnessed before. The most unusual prizes were several ghillie suits--those swamp monster outfits hunters wear to decorate with twigs and blend into the forest. We all went home winners, but the true prize goes to race director Gerry Seavo James, who turned a grassroots event into a serendipitous success!
Ted named his tandem surfski the "Chattanooga Ohana," incorporating the Hawaiian word for "family" to capture the community aspect of the sport. But the paddling ohana obviously extends far beyond Molokai and Chattajack, with just as warm-hearted folks in Kentucky as I bet you can find in Capetown. Given McCreary County's support and interest in wilderness activities, River Dash has the potential to grow into an alluring annual affair.