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Untamed New England, Leg 1: Packrafting, Paddling, and Sinking, Oh My!

By Brent (also posted on his blog):

After a year off, Untamed New England returned in fine fashion last week with an epic four day course in the western wilds of Maine. After an amazing race in 2010, we went into this race with a vastly different line-up but with similar ambitions: run a clean race, finish the full course, and do as well as possible in a stacked course. Easier said than done, as always, especially since the field made the last edition’s look relatively easy. With several US national champions, several more of the very best teams from the United States and Canada and a strong international field highlighted by the defending world champs, Thule, we knew our top five finish from 2010 wasn’t going to happen again. With that in mind, Abby and I joined forces with Mark Lattanzi and JP Bordeleau, and while I was the only returning member from the 2010 team, I felt confident we could do well, hoping we could finish somewhere in the top fifteen when all the dust settled.

After a relaxing day at the amazing Northern Outdoors Lodge in Forks, Maine, we spent the evening before the race poring over maps and finalizing our packing and gear bins, which we would see an amazing six times this year. A two hour bus ride the following morning left us at the headwaters for the Kennebec River. The race started with a bit of chaos as teams inflated packrafts and milled about below the starting arch with 20-25 pounds of gear, inflated boats, and the pre race jitters that come with the beginning of an expedition race. When the race began, half the field made their way straight to the water, diving into miniature rafts and heading off into the surprisingly large whitewater that waited around the first bend in the river. The remainder of the field set off at a trot along a road heading toward CP 1. We decided to hit the water as soon as we could find an opening.

We entered the water efficiently, but before long we found ourselves falling toward the back of the pack as JP struggled to keep up. His boat had not properly inflated, and after finally sorting this out, we set off in hot pursuit of the field. The first two controls were easy enough to find, and other teams were likewise struggling with their packrafts since few racers had any experience with these small, delicate and personalized boats. With the second point behind us, we found ourselves emerging on a lake, paddling under a hot sun toward the third control where we would transition to the real boats for a couple of hours of flat water paddling. And here began our problems…

As we paddled the river, I had been comfortably floating along, paddling well and skimming through the rapids, but as we transitioned onto flat water with our rafts, I slowed significantly and found myself falling considerably behind my teammates. After a short while, Mark, our lone packrafting expert, fell back, and we determined we would tether up and tow for the final kilometer plus of paddling. Sounded good. Except for the sound that I heard a few minutes after tying together.

“Hear that hissing, Mark?” I called after first noticing the escaping air. Mark stopped paddling and we both listened. Nothing.

“Guess it was nothing,” I said, and we resumed our labored journey toward CP3. A moment later the hissing resumed. “You seriously don’t hear that?” I called out. We stopped again, and again we heard nothing, Mark surely thinking I was going to be a tough teammate for the next few days as I was already imagining things on a full night’s sleep.

“No,” he said. “We’re close to the boats, let’s just get there.” We continued on, and all seemed fine until it wasn’t. The hissing returned, and the next thing I knew the pontoon of my raft began to rapidly soften. Considering that I had all of my mandatory gear for the race and all the maps in my boat, I gave it a moment’s thought and decided to bail out, scrambling out of my boat into the chilled waters of the lake.

“Get my gear!” I hollered to Mark who quickly rafted up to my sinking boat and began the salvage mission as I swam to shore. I made it to the wooded shoreline in good time and looked back briefly to see Mark hauling my dead raft onto his lap before setting off, bushwhacking along the water toward the TA. I soon caught up to JP and Abby who were floating around the next point. Bursting from the woods, I gave Abby a start as she thought she was about to see her first moose. Instead she looked at me with bewilderment, and after hearing the story of my personal Titanic she and JP continued along as I swam across a small inlet, cutting the distance to the TA.

Moments later I emerged to find the canoes and kayaks and the rest of my team pulling up on the small beach. A quick look at the raft confirmed that the seam of the strap we had tied into on the bow of my boat had torn, and we decided we’d deal with the raft when we needed to, which wouldn’t be until the next day. After our less than stellar start, we set off on the paddle, somewhere in the bottom third of the field of forty nine teams. The paddle went well enough, we made up a spot or two, and we joined up with the Soggy Bottom Boys for the next section of Leg 1, a 13 mile journey down class three and four rapids on the Kennebec River.

I had been dreading this section a bit, but I had successfully blocked it from my mind. After finishing high school, I had my one and only rafting experience on major white water in Costa Rica. After three days of enormous water and several close calls involving flipped boats and holes that continued to suck me to the bottom of the river, I had successfully avoided further rafting adventures…until now. Twelve years of adventures and the necessity of making it through the rafting for my teammates helped ease my psyche a bit, and by the time it was all done, I found myself wishing the rapids had been a little bit bigger, that I had gotten a bit wetter, and that we had a bit more time to enjoy the whitewater before leaving the boats.

That said, the raft came to a quick end, and after repacking our packs, we knocked out a short three kilometer trek to the gorgeous Moxie Falls (which I personally didn’t even see) and on to the first real transition where we were able to ditch our paddling gear and weight before setting off on our bikes for Leg 2, ropes, and Flagstaff Lake. We’d have to figure out the packrafting for Flagstaff, but thankfully it happened a kilometer from a TA and only 50 meters or so from shore. Had we been in the middle of Flagstaff Lake, our near disaster in the first two hours of the race could have been a catastrophe.


4 responses to “Untamed New England, Leg 1: Packrafting, Paddling, and Sinking, Oh My!

  1. Kate July 1, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Wow, that stinks about the packraft. Blocking out things that freak me out until I absolutely have to deal with them is something I do, too.

    Looking forward to the next installment…

  2. Julie@ACaseoftheRuns (@nobel4lit) July 1, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Great guest post, Brent! Glad you had enough expertise on the team to keep things going…

  3. Johann July 2, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Great stuff! Glad you could cope in the way you did. This is a serious race and incredible challenge. Well done! Waiting for the next part…

  4. Pingback: Untamed New England, Leg 2: A Semi-Charmed Kind of Day « Have Dental Floss, Will Travel

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