Debie Whiting
Erik Whiting rests on the dock at Lake Flower in Saranac Lake at the completion of the trip.
 
Debie Whiting
Erik Whiting carries the canoe, while his father the other gear.
 
Debie Whiting
Will and Erik Whiting paddle a stretch of the 90-mile route.
 
Debie Whiting
Will and Erik Whiting paddle a stretch of the 90-mile route.
 
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We started thinking about doing the Cannonball a couple years ago after talking with 90-Miler organizer Brian McDonnell while working on the boardwalk at Brown’s Tract. We knew we wanted to do something different and to be the first.

An aluminum canoe would be the answer. Not the best choice for speed or weight, but hopefully we would be the first and set the record for an aluminum canoe. After all, what other fools would use an aluminum boat for a 90-mile endurance test?

To add even more challenge we would not use wheels. Our plan was to do single-man carries, exchanging the load every once in a while. Our goal would be to start in the dark, see the sunrise, see the sunset and hopefully not see another sunrise.

Our slogan would be: IRON MAN ALUMINUM CANOE.

On June 22, I confirmed with Brian McDonnell that no one had attempted an “Aluminum Cannonball” so we started finalizing our plans.

While my son Erik had talked about doing the Cannonball with me, he was concerned about only having had a few hours in the boat this year because of college and track and field schedules. I told him not to worry, that he has been preparing for this since the day he was born.

We chose Saturday, July 3. Not the best date due to the busy weekend, but it was the only time that we both had available. Besides, it was still close to the summer solstice and there would still be a half moon for navigating in the dark (at least at the start, more on this later).

We reserved a room in Old Forge for Friday at the Adirondack Lodge and a room in Saranac Lake for after the finish. Our neighbor, Cody Stoliker, created some bold vinyl graphics for the side of the canoe. It said, “ALUMINUM CANNONBALL 90 miles non-stop.”

Of course it goes without saying that they were in our family colors of red and black. My wife Debie made preparations for our pit supplies. She has been our pit crew chief for over 26 years and rarely misses a race. Thanks again, hon.

We arrived in Old Forge with lots of anticipation. We went to Mountain Man for some last-minute supplies, a headlight and taillight. I thought we would need something to make us visible to other boats.

Later we had a pasta dinner and returned to the room for rest. It was difficult to get to sleep, but we finally dropped off about 10 p.m.

The launch

The alarm went off at 1 a.m. When we got down to the dock at just about 2 a.m., there were people out walking on the dock. Were they there to see us off? Had they heard about our attempt? No, they were still awake from the night before and just enjoying the nightlife in Old Forge.

It felt strange prepping the boat in the dark. I didn’t even know that my GPS speedometer had a backlight for the screen. We launched at 2:20 a.m.

The moon was very bright and many of the camps had lights to show us the way. It took some getting used to, but we got up to speed after our eyes adjusted. We traveled almost 10 miles and two hours in the dark, definitely the most we ever have.

On occasion we would notice a mist rising from the lakes, and with the headlight on we could not see to navigate. It was much easier to navigate by moonlight. What would we have done in a heavy fog with no moon in the dark?

The exchange

We arrived in Inlet while still dark. On the carry, as we approached the turnoff from Rt. 28, Debie flashed her headlights so that we could see her. It seemed like an illegal exchange of some sort and we were there to pick up our “stuff,” with a canoe for a get-away vehicle. I wondered what a passing driver would think of our carrying a canoe in the dark down the road.

The sun was just beginning to light up the horizon by the time we got to Sixth Lake. Debie snapped a beautiful picture of us taking off on Sixth Lake with our headlight and taillights shining, paddling into the sunrise.

The sun was definitely on the rise now and we paddled through a beautiful sunrise across Seventh Lake. The Eighth Lake campground came up quicker than expected.

As we carried across the campground, we noticed that no one was up and yet we had already paddled over three hours.

A quick paddle across Eighth Lake and we were on the Brown’s Tract carry. At the middle of the carry, Debie met us with breakfast — hardboiled eggs, bananas and chocolate milk. Of course, we also took Gatorade and Boost.

Brown’s Tract had great water and we had a smooth ride through with few beaver dams to slow us down.

A family affair

Raquette Lake was calm in comparison to other days when we had to cross, another advantage to our leaving early. My oldest son Bryan and his wife, Jenn, had planned to camp on Raquette Lake on Outlet Bay and they hoped to meet up with us.

Bryan has done the 90-Miler with me several times and knows the importance of having a good support team. As we were approaching one of the lean-tos, we noticed several canoes near shore.

As we came closer, we noticed that one of them was Bryan and Jenn. They were going to occupy the lean-to that the others were leaving, but when they noticed us they followed us to the carry.

Even with a full load of gear they were able to keep pace with us all the way to the carry. I made a mental note to hold Jenn to her promise to race with me soon.

Bryan and Jenn followed us across the carry. And when we got to the road, Debie was there and followed us with the car, snapping pictures as she drove.

The whole family was there to support us! Our spirits were high and it was definitely the fastest carry we did that day.

Moving on

Entering Forked Lake, it was disappointing to have to leave everyone behind. It was a quick paddle across Forked and then on to the series of carries from Forked to Long Lake.

This group of carries is definitely the most difficult. I began to question my decision to use water shoes. I started to feel the gravel on the road and the rocks and roots on the trails through the thin soles of the shoes.

Finally, we got through the last carry and down to the lake. It was a welcome feeling to sit back down in the canoe and know that we could stay there for a while.

Sleeppaddling

We met Debie again at the Long Lake Beach for lunch. We had turkey sandwiches, chocolate milk, grapes and of course Gatorade and Boost.

Near the beach and all the way to Round Island we encountered a lot of boat and plane traffic, which was expected due to the busy holiday weekend. Most were very courteous as they passed and we encountered no problems other than some large wakes, which in the aluminum boat are a blast.

Past Round Island, the traffic diminished and we settled down to a steady pace. At this point in the day, Erik told me that he was having a hard time staying awake. He wasn’t physically tired, but mentally.

I thought it was interesting that his pace did not slow even though he was on the verge of falling asleep. I guess all the time in the boat over the previous years was paying off. He was instinctually paddling with good form even though his mind was out of it.

We began talking to help Erik stay awake. We were looking forward to the Raquette River and the boost of speed it would give us.

Not bad for an old man

Entering the river was easy. The water was high and there was no need to try and find the deepest channel.

Just as we hoped, the river began to work it’s magic and gave us a boost of an extra mile an hour or more. This was also a boost to our morale after the long slog across Long Lake.

Raquette Falls came up quickly. As we approached the carry, we noticed some college-aged guys on the shore with their beached canoes. They were contemplating the best strategy for the steep climb up the carry with their boats.

We had to stop here to refill our drink jugs and when we did they noticed the graphics on the side of the canoe. “Were we really going to paddle 90 miles non-stop?” “What time and where did we begin?” “Where would we finish?” “How heavy was our boat?”

After Erik emptied the paddles, life jackets and drink jugs, I rolled the canoe up to my shoulders and proceeded straight up the hill. I heard as I climbed away, “You guys are some Bad-Ass Dudes.”

I vowed at that point that no matter how much pain I was in I would not switch loads with Erik until we were well out of their sight. This was just the comment needed from some 20-somethings to keep this 50-year-old man going.

Familiar territory

Back down at the river we met another couple who had questions and words of encouragement. We launched after thanking them for their kind words and continued down the river.

This stretch is like home. My son Bryan, my friend Gerard and I usually plan our fall hunting trip for this stretch of river and know most of the turns by heart.

Entering Stony Creek, we were dreading the twists and turns of the upstream chore, but surprisingly the water was deep and the current was negligible. We crossed the Stony Creek Ponds quickly.

Heating up

At this point, the heat was beginning to take its toll. Although the it was not oppressive, Erik and I tend to run on the hot side. With both of us over six feet and 225 pounds, a day in the 60s would have been far better, but at least it was not humid.

We laid in the water at the beginning of the carry to cool our core temperatures. We crossed the carry and met Debie who had supper ready for us — cheeseburgers, watermelon and chocolate milk.

Chocolate milk is by far the best recovery drink I have come across and it tastes good too. I must have been starting to show some signs of wear because Debie asked me if I was OK.

I must admit now that the water shoes were a mistake. The soles are just too thin for almost eight miles of carries with an 80-pound canoe.

Something’s missing

We were back in the boat and across the lower end of Upper Saranac Lake to Bartlett Carry. I told Erik that I could almost hear the bagpipe player as we crested the hill.

I think he thought I was starting to lose it. He has never done the Adirondack Canoe Classic and has never heard him. The bagpiper was sadly missed.

Speed demons

We crossed Middle Saranac and went into the channel leading to the Upper Locks. We heard a couple motorboats approaching at well above the 5 mile an hour speed limit, but they slowed when they saw us. I was going to let them pass, but after looking at the GPS speedometer, I realized that we were above 5 mph so we stayed where we were.

As we approached the locks and they pulled up alongside, I thought that they might have something to say about our not pulling over, but they were more interested in what we were doing and how we were able to paddle so quickly.

After talking to them for a few seconds at the lock, they encouraged us and cheered us on as we left. It was not until well out into Lower Saranac Lake that they caught us again and cheered us on once more.

Darkness approaches

We passed under the bridge at Route 3 and again, Debie was there to see us and cheer us on. No drinks or food here, though. We had what we needed to take us to the finish.

“How far to the Lower Locks?” Erik asked.

“Oh, only a couple turns or more,” I responded.

It was definitely more. We still had light at the carry although in the thick trees we definitely needed the headlight. We both began to wonder why we had to carry up a hill of what seems like a couple hundred feet and back down when the river seems to only drop a few feet and you can see the put-in from the takeout.

Out on Oseetah Lake, we turned on the headlight and taillight.

Grinding it out

There was much more boat traffic on Oseetah than I thought likely after 9 p.m. We navigated through, avoiding the stumps and shallows, staying mostly in the navigation channel. The bugs were becoming annoying with no wind to blow them away.

It was beginning to get very dark and finding our way was becoming more and more difficult. There was no moon to light the way. The moon would not be up until after midnight.

I was losing the feel of the canoe and paddle. This was becoming a test of endurance.

Erik was trying to find the reflective tape on the buoys with his headlight and follow the channel. At one point, two motorboats came quickly around the bend and did not slow until they saw our headlight.

As they passed, one of them yelled to turn off the headlight. It must have been blinding him, but without it would they have seen us? Next time, if there is a next time, I must study the rules for navigating with boats at night.

Following the navigation buoys was leading me through parts of the lake that I don’t always see and it did not seem familiar.

Cedar finish

Finally, we saw the lights of Saranac Lake. Debie flashed her headlights from the dock and we knew where we were.

I told Erik that we could not go to the dock, but must head for the cedar tree. He just accepted my statement. He had no urge to argue.

We passed the cedar tree and checked our time. The timer on my watch had stopped at 15:59:59. Even the timer could not keep going for this long. It would not record beyond 16 hours.

Luckily, I considered timer failure as a possibility and we had set our start time as exactly 2:20:00 a.m. The finish time was 10:17:01 p.m.

It took us a while to do the mental math. Our brains were mush. We had been on the water for 19 hours, 57 minutes and 1 second.

Bommerang, anyone?

We paddled back to the dock and crawled out of the canoe. Trying to stand up, I had my first cramp of the day. It took a while to straighten up.

Erik stretched out on the dock and stayed there for several minutes.

We had done it! As we loaded the canoe and gear on the car and headed to our hotel room we began talking about our next adventure.

Would it be possible to do an Aluminum Cannonball Boomerang?