Rowing on the River 

On the Scene with Mary Cashiola at the Outdoors, Inc., Canoe and Kayak Race

there are some stories you just don't want your byline on. This is one of them.

My canoeing partner and I got to the 24th Annual Outdoors, Inc., Canoe and Kayak Race a little after 8 a.m. Saturday morning. The starting area at Mud Island's Green Belt Park was controlled chaos, with people unloading canoes from trailers and the tops of their cars and hauling them to the inspection area. It was chilly, but everyone seemed to be in good spirits. Friends For Our Riverfront was out, putting bumper stickers on boats, and two racers dressed as glam rockers walked around with mullets and mesh shirts.

Some of the kayaks were beautiful, streamlined crafts that looked state-of-the-art, while some of the canoes looked like relics from Camp Kankakee's summer of 1973.

About a week before the three-mile race, a friend gave me a crash course in canoeing, using an ax handle to demonstrate the J stroke -- the twist at the end of the paddle stroke that lets you steer the canoe.

"If you wear your PFDs -- your life jackets -- and you stay close to the shore, you should be okay," he said.

And so we carefully launched our canoe into the Wolf River and paddled behind the starting buoys. Soon, all the canoes were clumped together. At times, I couldn't even put my paddles in the water because there were boats on both sides of us. We bumped and jostled our way to a semi-empty spot and someone near us remarked, "Number 161's going in." My partner laughed and then looked down at the number on her PFD.

"Hey, that's us!" she said. We then made a pact to not fall in.

And then it started. The kayakers took off, their paddles a whirl of motion. Apparently, Olympians Greg Barton and Jeff Smoke were duking it out for first place, but we never saw them.

When the canoes started three minutes later, in an ugly frenzy of their own, we quickly realized the J stroke wasn't working for us. As we zigzagged down the Mississippi River, there were only a few canoes near us, but it didn't seem so bad until we passed by an older couple in a canoe near the shore.

"Do you need help?" they asked.

They were a safety boat. We assured them we were okay and continued on.

Another safety boat, this one piloted by a middle-aged man, paddled up to us a few minutes later. This time I admitted we were having problems.

He quickly taught us some steering techniques, but it was just about this time that the canoe trying for last place overtook us.

We rowed past Harbor Town and under the I-40 bridge, our personal safety- boat escort never very far away. When we got to the tip of Mud Island, we turned left into the harbor.

The end of the race was rough. The wind was against us. We didn't have the current anymore, and we were tired. Up on shore, our friends yelled encouragement. (They assumed that the safety boat next to us was our competitor in the race for second-to-last place.)

In Jefferson Davis Park, a bluegrass band was playing and boy scouts were selling hamburgers. It had taken us 43 minutes to get there.

The race timers, standing at the finish, took pity on us and helped us land our canoe. Then several Boy Scouts appeared like little elves.

"Can we carry your canoe?" they asked. Each grabbed a side and scurried the canoe up a very steep hill.

It seems there are some perks to being last.

And there's always next year.

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