Rapids, Rocks, and One Wild Ride: Sugar Creek 2018!
Sugar Creek was anything other than certain this year. Water levels were very low, but there was the promise of rain…and possible thunderstorms! It could be impassible, or rained out, or cancelled due to lightning – all less than thrilling scenarios when you’re driving 3 hrs each way to torment your boat and your body! But we were blessed with an almost miraculous provision of race water: dropping our vehicles off at the finish point of the race, we noted that the water was low and clear, but at the start it was significantly higher and silty. After finishing the race someone said that the water back at the start was once again low and clear. How about that for timing?!?
Cindy Woodall and the Friends of Sugar Creek really went out of their way this year to pull off a great race, including hiring a professional timing group. I guess we should have told her Roger wasn’t going to race; nothing properly marks the end of a race like Roger standing there, pipe in mouth and stopwatch in hand, yelling out “MARK!” as you pass by. At least Roger was there to provide encouragement and dispense timeless wisdom, like “you’ll be a lot faster if you keep the open side up!” – advice I should have heeded. For some strange reason Roger didn’t seem to have a great desire to shred his pretty stripwood kayak on the rocks of Sugar Creek…
After having to cancel last year, it was great to see a nice combination of USCA racers and recreational racers turn out for this running of Sugar Creek. Race organizers sent off the USCA boats first, followed by the rec boats. Maybe to ensure recreational paddlers could gaze upon our carnage as they floated by…
Lots of boats have been sacrificed to the rocks and rapids of Sugar Creek over the years, even boats in the hands of renowned paddlers. Not being a renowned paddler left me in a bit of a quandary when it came to boat selection: go with the new/old C1, a lower-dollar boat with some scars, but one with which I wasn’t yet comfortable; or use my surf ski in the special Multi-Sport layup, designed specifically for this type of racing, and resigning myself to the practically guaranteed addition of “Sugar Creek Scars” in the clear gelcoat over the hull. I opted for the latter – a good choice which left me in a class of one. All our other paddlers were in C1’s or C2’s. Larry Swift opted to take a more recreational C1 on the course, but Tom Thomas, Bill Kanost, Skeet Craig, and Terry Pontius paddled racing C1’s. George Tinsley and Hilman Culp paddled their aluminum C2, while Bob Stwalley and Betsy Arnold paddled a recreational C2. A couple of younger guys joined in the USCA fun as well, paddling a rec C2. As a side note, we had a number of “firsts” this race: the first race for both Betsy Arnold and Bob Stwally in several years; Tom Thomas’ first race since his surgery (and Tom wasn’t slackin’!) Terry Pontius was cleared to paddle again after chemo treatments, for his first race of the year (although his doctor – wise to paddlers – told him to take it easy, so he took a “kinder, gentler” path to the finish).
At the sound of the air horn, we all charged downstream, attempting to position ourselves in the deeper water that flowed toward the right. I caught Tom Thomas, Skeet Craig, and Bill Kanost, passed them, and proceeded to get myself into a part of the river that nearly grounded me out. Once out of the shallows and now somewhat the wiser, I opted to follow these river masters. I knew that Tom practically grew up on Sugar Creek, and he was less likely to try to lead me into shallows than Bill would be, so I planned to hang with Tom for a while. Eventually Bill took the lead, so I tagged on to him, noting that the waters were hazardous enough that he wasn’t playing any games – we were all looking for the deepest, least-hazardous route to the end. And hazards there were aplenty: large rocks lurking just under the surface (and poking through the surface), rapids, rocky shallows, and sweeping curves where the current flow would slam you right into a log sitting parallel with the shore. Getting tossed out of my boat twice by those flows slamming me against logs I couldn’t quite power away from certainly refreshed my thinking and kept me from overheating… It happened a third time but I was able to grab the log and stay upright until I got past it. I think Bill set me up… Overall this course was a blast, but river reading skill was a definite must: we were almost constantly changing sides of the river as flows followed bends and divided around obstacles in more open areas. Some regions were fairly calm and flat, but much like the calm before a storm you knew it would soon turn into rapids full of boulders. One method was to attempt to select the optimum point of entry and try to thread your way through the various boulders that littered the path through the rapids. The other option was to close your eyes and see what happened. Both methods were about equally successful…
One of the big plusses in paddling a ski is rapid reentry/recovery, as I had the opportunity to demonstrate the two times I was able to sample the fine waters of Sugar Creek. Following the first toss, I stepped on a branch, reentered side-saddle, and was on my way quickly, bailer open. On the second toss, the current was moving the boat rapidly, so I had to quickly execute a “cowboy style” reentry as the boat and I floated downstream, hoping not to whack something in process. Not as graceful or quick, but I still got back into the action in a reasonable amount of time. But by now Bill had taken a larger lead and I was wearing down; I did manage to keep Bill in view most of the way, following his lead in approaching each hazard. I noted that Bill was easing off in the rapids, so I started to hammer a bit more in the rapids, hoping to close the distance. It helped, but not enough. Bill was in his element and getting stronger… Then a leg cramp hit just a couple of miles away from the finish. I had to float for a moment and get that leg working again while kept thinking how much of a bummer it would be if I came that far only to have everyone pass me at the end while I worked out a leg cramp! I knew Tom Thomas was breathing down my neck and hoping to catch me, but my leg restored and I got back in the game. Shoulders and arms were feeling it (our “15 mile” course turned out to be 16 miles), but they hung on through it all (that was an accomplishment for me, after the shoulder issues I had last year).
Near the end of the course the waters became shallower and more treacherous, and I could feel myself bouncing across several rocks, nearly getting stuck on one. But all of us got through it and across the finish. It’s hard to describe the sense of accomplishment we each felt passing the finish timer. I just wish the timer would have yelled “Mark!” as we crossed! As for my boat, I knew I had scraped & scratched in the finish on the hull, but the ski’s M.S. layup really took a beating without any problem. I had tested it under the conditions for which it was designed, and it came through with flying colors. Had I tried to race C1 I would probably still be out there, picking up the pieces…
Most of the rest came through relatively unscathed, but we could tell our faithful Aluminum C2 paddlers had experienced a bit of nature: Hilman Culp attire was a bit more colorful at the end. What’s the point of going all that way if you don’t get in at least one swim?
At the finish Cindy and the Friends of Sugar Creek gave out nice medals and certificates to the top 3 finishers in each class (hats and a goody bag came with registration for everyone). A table with free meats, cheeses, crackers, and wine provided some post-race refreshment. All in all a well-run race, with all the challenge and fun that Sugar Creek can provide. Many thanks to Cindy Woodall and the Friends of Sugar Creek for putting on an excellent race!
I will send out another e-mail with the results when I have them, but I believe the finish order was as follows:
Bill Kanost 2:16:08
Tom Thomas 2:20:17
Skeet Craig 2:21:23
Larry Swift 2:45:16
Terry Pontius 2:53:49
Betsy Arnold / Bob Stwalley 3:01:26
George Tinsley / Hilman Culp 2:44:06
David Robinson / Adam Walls 2:45:09
Steven Horney 2:17:12
See you all at Wildcat!