The second weekend in September is quiet. Mornings are cool, still and misty. Soft maples put out the red flag, making a fall statement as other trees pretend summer isn’t over. But a swim is not yet out of the question, and the biting bugs have given way to the singing bugs. Good canoeing weather.
On a northeasterly diagonal across the Adirondack Park, this weekend belongs to the Adirondack Canoe Classic, better known as the 90-Miler. From the day the ice goes out, every other race is practice for this one, a three-day tour of lakes and rivers, and a test of endurance as well as marriages.
The 27-year-old event attracts serious athletes and boatsmen, but it has remained fun for duffers and people who don’t have the latest gear, though I learned from experience—one year of paddling and several more-arduous years of pit-crewing and volunteering—not to skimp on the boat: buy or rent one designed to move fast over flatwater.
The 90-miler is a traveling carnival, and the 500 or so racers are only part of the troupe. Support teams and volunteers double the ranks. If you’re driving through you can track the race’s progress by where cars are parked along the roads between Old Forge and Saranac Lake as family and friends stop to cheer boats on or to hand paddlers food and drink on the carries.
My favorite place both to paddle and to watch is at the bridge where Browns Tract meets Raquette Lake, just off Route 28 at the hamlet of Raquette Lake. Racers have to go single file on the winding little stream and under the bridge in the midst of Day 1, Friday, the longest day. Most of Saturday they will be out of sight on Long Lake and the Raquette River, though the early morning view from the Long Lake Route 30 bridge of 250 colorful guideboats, canoes and kayaks moving north in bunches is a once-a-year spectacle. On Sunday they do the Saranacs and finish at Lake Flower in Saranac Lake village.
This is the 27th year of the Canoe Classic and the 25th that the Department of Environmental Conservation has helped stage it. Terry Healy, a DEC employee who died in 1993, had an “enthusiasm, sense of fun and commitment to the 90-Miler” that’s remembered every year through presentation of a Terry Healy Award to a participant, support team, volunteer or staff member who exemplifies the spirit of the event.
The 90-Miler on Long Lake, 2008, by photographer Mark Kurtz of Saranac Lake