Gentle River or Tough Mountain?

. . .or have “fun” in a running race through an obstacle course designed by people with evil minds? It did look like fun—when you finished! (Tim Jones photo)

Would you rather paddle down a peaceful river, . . . (Tim Jones photo)

It was one of those gorgeous late-summer mornings in northern New England, the kind you look forward to as you swelter through summer heat. Before the sun rose, the temperature was in the upper 40s, no humidity, and the blue, blue sky promised warm sunshine.

My sweetheart Marilyn and I were in Bethel/Newry, Maine to watch and photograph our friends David and Susan in the first-ever Tough Mountain Challenge race at Sunday River Resort . You can read their first-hand account of the race here.

The race was at 1 pm. Marilyn and I got up early, ate a hearty breakfast at the Crossroads Diner and got to Bethel Outdoor Adventure on the banks of the Androscoggin River in plenty of time to rent the kayaks we’d reserved and catch the 8 am shuttle up the river. They’ll also shuttle your kayaks if you bring your own. They dropped us off in Gilead, about eight river miles above Bethel; other canoeists and kayakers went farther upriver for a longer day.

Marilyn had never paddled on a flowing river before and she immediately discovered the joys of quickwater. There aren’t any real rapids on this section, but there are places where you have to avoid rocks and where the waves are high enough to splash into your boat. If there had been loons on the river that morning, I am sure they’d have answered Marilyn’s shrieks of laughter.

The kayaks we were using were Old Town Otter XTs which are much shorter and wider than the kayaks we normally paddle. They turn on a dime (sometimes whether you want them to or not . . .), are very stable, and tough enough to bounce off rocks. With the current of the river propelling us, and a stiff tailwind, even these little peapods moved along smartly.

We weren’t in any real hurry on this lovely, lovely morning. But we couldn’t linger, either. The trip normally takes almost four hours and we had to be at the race.

Bright sun and flowing water, what a wonderful way to spend a fall morning! (Tim Jones photo)

Marilyn has been paddling kayaks a lot this summer, but this was the first time she absolutely had to paddle a long distance in a short time in an unfamiliar boat. She had to learn to keep her kayak tracking where she wanted it to go in the wind and the current—not an easy task with boats that would spin in circles if you only paddled on one side. By the end of the trip, she was handling her boat like a pro, paddling straight when she needed to, nimbly avoiding rocks as needed.

Like many relatively new kayak paddlers, Marilyn uses her arm muscles instead of the stronger core muscles in her torso. Her arms wore out pretty quickly on this trip so she had to learn to use her torso for power. All in all it was a great paddling lesson for her, and she loved the experience.

It was great fun to be out on the river on a beautiful morning with eagles and ospreys soaring overhead, cormorants, mergansers and mallards flying along the river, and kingfishers chattering from the banks. We spent about two and a half hours paddling and, at the take out, all we had to do was pull the kayaks up on shore, check in to let people know we were safely off the water, and drive away.

Next time, we’ll make sure we don’t have to be anywhere afterwards so we can linger longer, swim, watch the eagles soar, have a picnic on the riverbank, and play more in the quickwater.

Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out on a river this fall and enjoy!

Wicked Fun On Sunday

Mud, barbed wire, and a hundred other racers ready to blow by you. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? (Tim Jones photo)

Almost 200 totally insane people showed to race in the First Annual Tough Mountain Challenge. Races aren’t normally my thing, but this one was a great spectator event and I got a fair workout running from place to place to shoot photos. You can find a full description here.

Evil minds were obviously at work! A 5K running race uphill at a ski resort should have been enough challenge, but they routed the race through blasting snow cannons creating hurricane-force winds and rains, over and under terrain park features, through drainage culverts, across safety nets, down the world’s largest slip-and-slide, crawling through rocky mud under barbed wire, etc. —you get the picture. Racers were supposed to run between two towering infernos of burning haybales, but the local fire marshal vetoed that in a drought year (something to look forward to next year?).

The racers all looked like they were having fun—at least when it was over. So did the spectators. The race only took the fastest runners about 20 minutes and even the slowest were back at the finish an hour later than the winners. That much pain is manageable.

Everyone seemed to enjoy being outdoors on a perfect summer day—especially at the barbecue and beer-fest following the race. In the meantime, a steady stream of downhill mountain bikers loaded their steeds onto a chairlift, which whisked them to the top of the hill. By the time they got back down, they were almost as muddy and smiling as broadly as the racers. Great day to be on a mountain.

A peaceful moment on a flowing river sounds like a good choice to me! (Tim Jones photo)

To Race or Not to Race?

Marilyn and I weren’t running in the race but our friends David and Susan were. The way we see it, you have to draw the line somewhere about what you want to do and not do, and this was an easy line to draw. Running up streambeds, and crawling through mud absolutely sounds like fun, but why spoil it by competing against other people and the clock?

Besides, not competing gave us time to do other things. While Susan and David woke up worrying about when to eat for maximum performance in the race, warming up properly, and getting themselves to the race before the 1 pm start, Marilyn and I went out and had fun paddling down a river and got back in plenty of time to enjoy watching the people who chose to race.

Different strokes I suppose…. As long as you get outdoors and do something (not just watch others doing . . .) it’s all good.

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About Tim Jones

Tim Jones, Founder and Executive Editor, started skiing at age 4 and hasn't stopped since. He took up Telemark a few years ago and is still terrible at it. In the summer, he hikes, bikes, paddles and fly fishes. In addition to his work at EasternSlopes.com, Tim also writes a pair of syndicated weekly newspaper columns.