Got up at four a.m. to be ready for my sister to pick us up at five. Excitement about the upcoming race (that and a little Dr. Pepper) kept us alert throughout the two-hour drive to the start point. Then we finalized our registration, unpacked and hauled our kayaks and gear to the riverbank ready for the eight a.m. (nine actually) start time. Announcements were made, the first few groups launched, then into the water, air-horn sounded and off we paddled!
The Neches Wilderness Canoe Race is not about speed, but endurance and ingenuity. It traverses twenty-two miles of narrow, tree-and-debris clogged stream, the difficulty of which varies from year to year depending on weather and other factors. Obstacles include squeezing through, under, and around small gaps and spaces in the fallen trees, as well as other participants when the narrow, awkward and bramble filled gaps create a bottleneck traffic jam. Sometimes you even have to get out and drag the kayak around. As tough as those obstacles are, they soon offer a brief rest from the constant paddling. For the elite few the end result is a prize or medal, for us mere mortals the satisfaction at completing the challenge and a nifty “I survived” t-shirt are reward enough.
A TVCC scholarship fundraiser, in addition to being a fun competition for the adventurous, the atmosphere is light and informal. Most participants will chat with you as you paddle downstream, and offer help if you get hung up in a particularly ornery tree. The one negative is the pro class, the aggressive competitors, are released last. Which means they quickly, and a sometimes rudely, overtake the rest of the field. The staff, though, are all extremely friendly and helpful. They offer aid to those who need it along the way and have water and bananas at checkpoints along the way as well as a fine hamburger/hotdog meal at the end.
It’s a logistic nightmare reuniting participant and vessel with their vehicle unless they have a friend drive it to the finish line almost thirty minutes from the start point. The race does provide a shuttle back to the vehicles and assistance loading boats if needed, but that still makes for an hour round trip to get your vehicle and return for your boat.
All said, participating is well-worth it. The scenery is lovely and largely devoid of signs of people. I particularly enjoy the peace and quiet when I find myself alone on the river. It’s also a great workout. This is only the second time I’ve competed (the race has a twenty-five year history), and I hope to do it again. Perhaps I can get my daughters involved and make it a family tradition.
For more info or if you’re in the east Texas area and would like to enter next summer, visit their website.