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Better Later Than Never, It’s the Mascoma Slalom

  • Competing in the K1 race for the Mascoma Slalom, Silas Treadway clears a gate on the Mascoma River in Lebanon, N.H., on May 3, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Competing in the K1 race for the Mascoma Slalom, Silas Treadway clears a gate on the Mascoma River in Lebanon, N.H., on May 3, 2014.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

  • Race organizer Milo Johnson speaks to kayakers about the race before the start of the Mascoma Slalom in Lebanon, N.H., on May 3, 2014.   <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Race organizer Milo Johnson speaks to kayakers about the race before the start of the Mascoma Slalom in Lebanon, N.H., on May 3, 2014.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

  • Competing in the K1 race for the Mascoma Slalom, Silas Treadway clears a gate on the Mascoma River in Lebanon, N.H., on May 3, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Race organizer Milo Johnson speaks to kayakers about the race before the start of the Mascoma Slalom in Lebanon, N.H., on May 3, 2014.   <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Lebanon — After two weeks of postponements because of dangerously high water levels, the 51st Mascoma Slalom finally took place Saturday near Lebanon’s Packard Hill covered bridge. The venerable race proved to be worth waiting for — and traveling to reach.

Former U.S. slalom team competitors Hank Thorburn, David Su and Bill Hearn joined a dozen other canoe and kayak racers for a challenging, 15-gate course through Class I/II rapids. All three drove at least 100 miles to be part of a race they hadn’t competed in for years.

The largest gap between races came from Thorburn, 53, who was a U.S. slalom team member from 1978-82 and competed in the Mascoma Slalom four times in the 1980s. He traveled more than 200 miles from his home in coastal Harpswell, Maine, to race on the Mascoma River for the first time in 31 years.

“I’m the oldest one here, so that should count for some points,” joked Thorburn, who won the event in 1983. “It was a blast here when I was younger, and I’m sure it will be a blast today.”

It was for Hearn, 48, who traveled just over 100 miles from his home in Fitchburg, Mass., to take part in the race for the first time since 1991. At that time, Hearn was in the midst of a 10-year stint on both the national slalom team and the U.S. whitewater canoe team, competing in the World Championships of the C2 (two-person canoe) in ’91, he said.

Sporting an ice hockey helmet — “It gave me the most protection of anything I had” — Hearn lingered at the finish line long after his runs were completed Saturday, seeing other competitors through and urging them to paddle “Up! Up! Up!” to reach the tricky-angled finish line.

Hearn paddled in a composite fiberglass canoe he built himself and that was designed by his brother, Dave, in 1989. While patched with duct tape in a few spots to cover wounds inflicted by rocks, the vessel is probably the most durable boat Hearn has ever owned.

“When you hear people talk about ‘glass boats,’ they mean fiberglass, but they’re not made only out of fiberglass,” Hearn said. “There’s resin, Kevlar and other materials. I know because I’ve built a lot of them. We all used to have to build our own (racing) canoes, because there just wasn’t any being manufactured.”

Su, of Amherst, Mass., had last paddled the Mascoma Slalom in 1996, three years after competing in the Olympic slalom trials. He traveled from western Massachusetts with his friend, Tom Le, on Saturday after getting a hankering to return to the water.

“Slalom races are special because every one of them is different and has its own challenges,” Su said. “It’s a chance to get in the river and spend time with people. It’s also an opportunity to challenge yourself.”

Designed by volunteer members of the Dartmouth College-based Ledyard Canoe Club, the course featured 15 red- or green-colored gates. The green ones signaled downstream navigation, ushering paddlers to pass through naturally while negotiating the current. The red or upstream gates required participants to slow themselves in the swift currents, find eddies to idle in and paddle through them upstream.

A 50-second penalty was imposed for missing a gate outright, with two seconds added for making contact with a gate.

The most difficult section was just below the covered bridge — a perfect spectator spot. Gate four, an upstream one, sat just above and on the same trajectory as gate five, a green one. Since the gates must be passed through in order, the section forced racers to float past gate four, elude gate five while turning around, paddle upstream through four and then make a sharp turn to angle back through five. Only a few of the 15 paddlers executed it cleanly.

The section was a challenge even for experienced slalom racers like Alex Toth, 26, a 2010 Dartmouth graduate who races almost every weekend and is a member of the Jackson Kayak Whitewater Regional Team.

“It basically makes you have to do a 180-degree turn in a really tight space if you want to get through five,” said Toth, a former offensive tackle for the Big Green football team. “And it’s right below the spectators, so everyone sees it if you mess up.”

Spectators also lined parts of the Northern Rail Trail to watch as paddlers raced one at a time, two runs each, in either the “K1” (one-person kayak) or “C1” (one-person canoe) division.

The race was originally scheduled for April 20 as part of Ledyard’s Riverfest, but heavy spring runoff caused by unseasonably high temperatures and rain forced its postponement for the second straight year. Ledyard member and 2013 Dartmouth graduate Milo Johnson estimated Saturday’s water volume at between 800-1,000 cubic feet per second.

“It’s a super fun event, and really traditional,” Johnson said. “It’s the longest running (collegiate) slalom race in the country, so it’s a great thing to be a part of.”

Kyle Landis-Marinello, of Montpelier, won the men’s K1 division with a time of 2 minutes, 35 seconds, four seconds faster than Strafford’s Silas Treadway (2:39). Thornburn placed third in 2:47.

Hearn (2:44) edged Su (3:13) in the men’s C1 division.

On the women’s side, Lyme’s Gray Kelsey won the K1 with a time of 4:35. Cat Mejia, a Dartmouth senior, placed second in 5:10

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.