By Penny Lanham
My husband tried this challenging competition for the first time in 2020, and I just had to do a write-up about it! Even as a spectator, I had a blast cheering on the racers, talking with paddlecraft lovers, and seeing a new part of the untamed East Texas woodlands.
This endurance race for canoes and kayaks really tests your upper body strength and overall physical abilities! The race starts on the Neches River below the Lake Palestine dam and goes 22 miles to the intersection with the Hwy 79 bridge. It is held in the hottest part of the Texas summer (August) when the water is the lowest and the current is the slowest. The low water level makes a huge difference in the level of difficulty of the race. Not only is the current not aiding you much in your travel, but the debris that is normally found underwater during high water levels (log jams, fallen trees, silt beds) is exposed. This debris serves as an additional obstacle for racers. Get ready to do the limbo under a leaning tree, climb over or swim under fallen logs, and portage around piled up logs, branches, silt, leaves, and other debris!
You’ll see many different kinds of paddlecraft at this race, from sleek racing canoes to trending molded-plastic kayaks to antique canoes. Personally, I’m a fan of Perception brand kayaks, but you are welcome to bring your Pelican, Sundolphin, Wilderness System, Epic, Old Towne, Jackson, Wenonah, West Marine… whatever canoe or kayak that you own, manage to borrow, or rent on site. Interestingly, the college buddy that invited my husband to the race had a heavy, 2-person, “been-in-the-family-for-years” canoe! Just note that the heavier the boat, the more effort you will have to give to finish the race (but the accomplishment will be greater!).
The racers who finish this physically challenging race are rewarded at the end with a T-shirt that says “I Survived” and has the race logo below. Those that have to quit at a checkpoint, or have to be picked up along the way after the 3pm cutoff time, also get a shirt, but without the “I Survived.” While there are the usual medals for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners in each category, the shirt in itself is a collectible trophy!
If you’re like me and you know you wouldn’t survive this race, you’re still encouraged to come cheer on the racers! The two checkpoints and the finish line are bridges that cross the Neches. Here, the volunteer fire department records racers ID numbers (for safety reasons), hands out water, electrolyte packets, and bananas. Spectators bring chairs to sit in the shade along the riverbank. The racers spend hours on the water trying to get their mind off the pain in their arms. Their faces light up when they hear the cheers from the onlookers. They know that they’ve completed another section of the race length. I went the extra mile by counting the racers as they passed so I could relay to them their current standing and remaining miles. They were glad to get the updates. We really needed more voices cheering at the finish line! This achievement is far too big a deal to let them pass the line of flags without a lot of whooping and hollering. Please come cheer! Also, if you want to show your racing spirit, the shirts are available for spectators too (obviously without the “I Survived”).
Everyone gets hot dogs and hamburgers at the finish line! Winners are announced as they come in and can wear their medal while they enjoy the refreshments. A shuttle service will take you back to your vehicle at the beginning. You can also have your loved ones meet you there to celebrate!
This race attracts a great community of people! Some are local while others drive up to 7 hours to participate. Everyone shares common interests such as love of paddlesports and enjoyment of the great outdoors. They also have an appreciation for the charity that the registration fees fund. Money goes toward scholarships at the Trinity Valley Community College for those special needs students such as returning adults, students with B averages, and single parents.
Because we’re nature-loving Master Naturalists, we gotta talk about the flora and fauna that I saw at the Neches River! The race gives both competitors and spectators the chance to see the Upper Neches River – a Senate-proposed Wild & Scenic River back in 2012 (S. 2324). I observed plant species such as Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), various oak hybrids, Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia), and an intriguing grass with gracefully cascading seeds that I have yet to identify. At Checkpoint 1, I sat leisurely on a very large tree that extended horizontally over the water. Under the Checkpoint 2 bridge, a large flock of barnswallows (Hirundo rustica) swooped around the area where they had built nests. At the finish line, the river bottom offered shade for those waiting to see who would make it and the natural levee provided a spot to place our chairs out of the mud. Given that this race takes an average of 5 hours to complete and racers this year were spaced 15-30 minutes apart, spectators have ample opportunity to look through a pair of binoculars or key out plant species while waiting for the racers to pass. Just bring your binoculars and field guides with you!
You can find more info about the race at https://www.necheswildernessrace.com/