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All that snow and ice that piled up during a winter that never quit has to go somewhere when it melts, and the long-awaited thaw has finally gotten rivers, streams — and the blood of whitewater enthusiasts — flowing.
This Sunday, March 30, was to have marked the unofficial start of the whitewater season with the 23rd year Annual Scantic Spring Splash Canoe & Kayak Race in Enfield, the largest downriver competition in Connecticut, but the weekend's torrential rain brought up the river to dangerous levels and organizers wisely decided to postpone the race until May 4. With 17 different divisions and a choice between 2.5- and 5-mile distances, it's partly a serious race for experts, partly a challenge for novices, partly a madcap event featuring colorfully clad competitors, and mostly a fun time on the water.
That was my experience last year when I competed in the 5-mile race, even though I took about 400 gallons of water over my ill-fitting spray skirt, got hung up on rocks in the last set of rapids only yards from the finish line and had to scramble out my kayak, bail frantically and stumble through frigid, knee-deep water while throngs of spectators cheered and jeered. At least I survived a notorious portage up and down "Heart Attack Hill" in the middle of the race and made it cleanly through the gnarliest obstacle, Stocker's Rapids, a 4-foot drop complicated by overhanging rocks and a tricky hole that capsizes about a third of those who dare to run it.
My pal Phil Warner of Massachusetts, who usually winds up with a medal in any kayak race he enters, made a test run on the Scantic the other day in extremely high water and told me Stockers and the river's other rapids, Chimney and Staircase, more than lived up to their reputations.
"Stockers was a frothy mix, you could hear Chimney roaring before you got there, and the standing wave at the bottom of Staircase was at least 4 feet high," he said. "It was a great day to be on the water."
Phil abides by the dictum, "If it's not dangerous, it's not as much fun," and reported, "At this flow rate and level, the danger aspect was lurking just beneath the surface. This became reality when there was a swimmer at Chimney. For even such a brief swim, hypothermia was a factor. Others had to help get the spray skirt back on because the hands no longer had dexterity.
"This was the one day I didn't wear my rescue vest and I could have used it to paddle upstream and then pull the boat to the swimmer instead of having him walk down a steep and slippery bank and expose his feet to more cold water. Whitewater guys have a different way to do rescues. In whitewater it is better to be separated from your boat to reduce potential for injury, but if someone doesn't catch it, you could have a long, difficult, and cold walk to catch up -—unless you want to swim more."
Phil had hoped that by Sunday the river would be more manageable than it was the other day.
"The race would be too dangerous to run at this level. Novices would be pulled out at the dam and only experts would be allowed on the southern section of the river, and even that could be dicey. I wouldn't want to try to overtake anyone in those conditions and be pushed off the line. The danger aspect is too high. A multiple capsize at any of the rapids would logjam the river and really create a dangerous situation. I hope it settles down just a little, but not too much," he said.
The Scantic Spring Splash, sponsored by the Scantic River Watershed Association, raises money and collects food for the Enfield Food Shelf, a worthy cause. Competitors are encouraged to donate non-perishable food items. The novice paddlers start at 11:30 a.m. followed by more serious racers at noon, at Quality Avenue in Somers. There's a free shuttle bus for competitors and spectators from a parking lot at the corner of Moody Road and North Maple Street near the start to the Powder Mill Barn at the finish.
The Scantic Spring Splash is among dozens of paddling races scheduled from now through the end of the year. For a schedule check out the New England Canoe and Kayak Racing Association website, www.neckra.org.
Of course, you don't have to race to enjoy whitewater caneoing and kayaking.
Paddlers in eastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island can enjoy sporting conditions now on sections of the Salmon River near the Colchester/East Hampton border; the Shetucket and Yantic rivers north of Norwich, the Eight Mile River in Lyme and the Wood River in Exeter, R.I.
More adventurous paddlers can tackle sections of the Farmington and Housatonic rivers in Connecticut, and dozens of more challenging rivers throughout New England.
While spring often produces the best water flow, a number of rivers also have scheduled dam releases that make for epic conditions. American Whitewater maintains a website, www.americanwhitewater.org, that lists where and when these releases will take place.
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