A group of hard core Northern Michigan paddlers decided to organize for a “Virtual Chattajack” this year. I was fortunate enough to get the blow by blow details from a great friend and fellow paddler Billy Bellinger. Below is his story, broken down into 4 parts. I wanted to share this not only because it is a great read, but also because it is very educational. Although I do a lot of cold weather paddle sessions, I almost never go more than 50 minutes. The difference between an hour and four hours in cold conditions cannot be understated.
Just for a little more context, Billy is a life long pilot, he flew P3s tracking submarines for the US Navy during the cold war and then spent 30+ years as a commercial airline captain. Suffice it to say, he’s been in a few stressful situations and is well trained at identifying problematic scenarios.
Greetings Race fans,
Saturday was the day for the 31 mile event/race on the Manistee River in Northern Michigan. I had been waiting and training for this day the last 3 months. I’m psyched.
Only about 20 showed up for the only paddle event in 2020 for most of us. There were 5 fast kayaks, two racing canoes and a bunch of stand up paddle boards.
What kind of guy and one girl would show up on a cold day, for 31 miles with a paddle on a river they have never seen. Well I can clearly say they were all really great people and maybe a little nuts.
I arrived at the Baxter Bridge with my buddies Nate and Rob at 9am and it was 33 degrees with frost on the ground and ice in the seat of my surf ski from the previous night. That’s Ok. I’ll take it down to the river and wash it out. Start time is still one hour away at 10AM. Hope it starts to warm up in the next hour. The forecast is for 38 degrees at start time and 48 degrees 4 hours later around the finish time. We are all wearing wet gear, and will be paddling hard so we should be OK.
More guys and one girl are starting to show up. Oh NO !!!!! My rudder pedals are frozen. Actually it’s the chord that runs thru a tube to the rudder where it is frozen and no matter how many times I flip Epic V10 surf ski over in the river it is still frozen. I dare not force it. Nate and Rob are staying warm in the truck while I am standing in the cold water dunking my boat. That’s it. The warm truck. Back to the truck with my 21 foot ski. Move over Rob. I need to get the back of my boat into the truck and warm up my rudder. 5 minutes later I am all set to go.
It’s 10 AM and everyone is in the river lining up, they blow the whistle and all of the paddles start digging in. Almost immediately the faster surf skis and racing canoes leave the stand up paddle boards behind.
Rob Hartman is in first. We all knew that the day he signed up for this race. 29 year old Wes is in second with his racing canoe and I am getting an easy ride on his wake. With 30 miles to go it’s a good place to be. Wake riding can save a lot of energy for later.
The first mile goes by fast taking just a little over 7 minutes with a strong current helping with the speed. Over the course of this paddle we figure the current will average about 1.5 mph effectively cutting the paddle down to about a 26 mile trip.
OH OH!!! Rob is off on the side of the river and as I go by he hollers something about pogies which are like mittens attached to the paddle that you put your hands inside. Must be his hands are getting cold. Yes. It’s cold. I chose some wet gloves instead of pogies today. I’m OK. I can feel my paddle pulling on the water with a very efficient stroke and the boat is easily hanging in there with the fastest guy now.
Then it hits me. What are you doing Billy. 50 yards back your buddy is off the water. You have no idea what his problem is. What’s more important, your race or your buddy ? I was so into the race and so happy with my present position I actually had to ask myself that question twice. Finally I broke it off and turned back to see if Rob needed help. Little did I know but, looking out for your buddies was going to become an issue over the next 4 hours of this event.
I will be writing more on this later , but as it turned out the 31 miles was not that hard and my padding was fast and efficient. I am real happy with that. But the temperature would never reach 48 degrees this Sat. It would peak at 42 degrees. The wind would pick up and the rain would begin. I learned it is one thing to paddle one hour in wet gear on a cold day and it is a whole other story to be out in this weather for almost 5 hours in soaking wet gear. And the river, the river went on and on thru the vast wooded territory without a road or house or car in sight for 30 miles. If you had to go ashore you would merely be lost in the woods on a cold day as it got darker each hour.
There is only one way out. And that is to keep paddling. God forbid your rudder breaks or you crack the boat on a rock or stump in this river. Without a manageable boat you are in serious trouble. Hypothermia is knocking at the door. That was not apparent at the beginning, but became obvious as the day wore on.
One mile into our 31 mile event Rob had pulled off to the side, to put on his pogie mitts to keep his hands warm. It takes 3 minutes and he is now back in the race. I had stopped to check on him and now both Rob and I were 3 minutes behind Wes who was making remarkable fast speed with his racing canoe.
Over the next few miles we would both paddle hard to catch Wes. Checking my heart rate monitor I was hitting well above 140 beats per minute which I know I cannot sustain. I had set a limit of 135 for my max at this event, but being as high as 149 was not bothering me as I pulled on the water to chase down Wes who was leading.
The Manistee river has hundreds of sharp 180 degree turns it. At no point could you ever see more than about 1/4 mile before another tight turn would have to be negotiated. Finally I spotted Wes in his canoe. I had no idea a canoe could be so fast. But I suppose a lot of that depends on who is paddling it and Wes has competed on a National level. He’s young strong and would demonstrate incredible endurance over the next few hours.
It’s been about 45 minutes since I dropped off of Wes’s wake to check on Rob , but now I am back and I can relax on his wake for a few miles. My heart rate starts dropping down to about 128 which I can sustain for a long time. I holler to Wes how impressed I am with his paddling and ask him if he minds if I ride his wake. He’s cool and for the next 3 hours Wes and will I paddle together encouraging each other and becoming friends. What a great guy and I will see him again at other races. This is one of the things I like best about this sport. I meet the best people and we all look out for each other.
Mile number 16 passes by after 2 hours and the wind starts to pick up. It’s a cold wind. Even with my gloves my fingers are freezing. And then the rain begins. Rain is not that much of an issue because it just bounces off the wet gear and I am already soaked from my kayak paddle that drips on me at the top of each stroke. I wish I had chosen pogies instead of gloves, but the pogies are attached to the paddle and they add weight to it. And ultimately it is the paddle that you have to muscle thru the water on every stroke. It takes about 16,000 strokes to complete this event, if they are effective and efficiently done. And adding weight to the paddle for that many stokes costs a lot.
But my fingers are so cold that I would gladly make that trade off for pogie mitts had I known the temperature and wind would be this cold. I am starting to seriously worry about my fingers.
The Manistee river is in the middle of no where, surrounded by miles upon miles of National forest. Not a single road for the first 20 miles. No houses, nothing. If anything goes wrong and you cannot paddle down river you are stuck wearing soaking wet suits and the only reason you are not hypothermic yet is because you are paddling hard and creating heat.
If you stop with a broken boat or rudder, there is no where to go. You will merely be lost in the woods, with no cell phone reception. The only way out is to keep paddling, if you can. At mile number 16, two hours into the paddle, the kayakers are getting cold. It is one thing to paddle with your wet gear on a cold day for an hour but it is a whole different story to stay wet and cold for 4-5 hours and the only way out is to keep paddling.
My body is cold, but my fingers are freezing. I cannot feel the paddle in my hand. I have to keep looking to see if my hands are holding it in the right spot. And then it happens. Instead of catching the water and pulling on it my paddle slices the water as I put my weight and power into the stroke. With no resistance due to the blade slicing the water I almost go over. Only because I am so use to paddling in choppy water do I react instinctively and avoid getting dumped. Ten minutes later it happens again. Slicing the water is something that occurs maybe once a year for me and now it is happening frequently.
I cannot feel the paddle and am having trouble getting a good catch at the entry and have to concentrate on watching the blade enter the water. not good with 2 more hours to civilization.
I stop and try making a fist to warm my fingers, then shake my hand. Wes in his fast canoe is pulling away. It is more important than ever that I stick close to Wes now. So I sprint for a short distance and drop back in behind him.
My V10 Surf ski can glide for a long, long distance and when I catch Wes I stop paddling again and this time I stick my fingers in my mouth to see if that will warm them up. My boat falls back and Wes is pulling away 30 yards ahead of me, so I do another sprint to catch up.
Trying to warm my fingers in my mouth seems to keep them from getting colder but they do not warm up. 5 seconds in my mouth is just not long enough to have much effect. Time to sprint again and catch Wes in his fast canoe. He knows I am struggling. And no one else is even remotely in sight. Rob is way ahead of everyone. And Wes and I have probably have a several minutes lead on the stand up paddle boards behind us.
20 miles. I am calling out the miles to Wes. We are 20 miles down river from the start. 11 more to go and still not one sign of civilization except one small rusted out bridge that we just passed. I am not sure that bridge is even used anymore.
There are ripples everywhere in the water. Usually it means shallow water and probably small rocks that could damage the rudder or boat. What ever you see on the shore that is what is in the river. If all you see is sand then it is sand. If you see boulders then you can bet there are boulders just below those ripples of water.
Thud. My delicate surf ski is going about 8 mph with this current and it just hit something that lifted it about an inch higher in the water. First the bow lifted then the boat tilted sideways and then the stern lifted. I missed it. I did not see it. I just went over a fallen tree that was just below the surface. That is not good. That impact can easily put a hole in the boat or a crack in the bottom and we could start taking on water. So far it seems OK , but for the next 30 minutes I keep watching and worrying. Is my boat getting lower in the river and heavier. Am I taking on water ?
I need to be more careful and pay more attention to those small ripples in the river. After 30 minutes I conclude my boat is OK. After another sprint to catch Wes my fingers are back in my mouth and two of them have no feelings left. I pinch the finger tips and cannot feel anything. Another sprint, another slice of the water with my paddle that once again almost tips me over, but I am able to react in time and mile number 24 is behind us. I still cannot feel the paddle with my fingers. I constantly have to keep looking at it and adjusting my grip.
Mile number 24 with 7 more to go. It’s been about 3 hours now, fighting the cold, going down the Manistee River.
I am loving the beautiful fall scenery, but so preoccupied with cold fingers and having to watch every ripple in the water so I do not hit a log or rock and damage my delicate V10. The speed is still holding about 8 mph, with the help of a current.
At about mile 28 I start seeing some homes along the river. I am thinking of stopping and asking if I can put my hands in some warm water. But it is only 3 more miles to finish , so I keep pressing on. I have never paddled this far and am amazed that I am not fatigued. All of my previous races had a heart rate above 140 but now I am paddling at 130 beats per minute , which keeps me from going anerobic and my muscles from building up lactic acid which brings on fatigue. I had been told that this is how you manage long events.
I have been frequently sipping on water with cytomax mixed in which supplies me with carbs to burn and also ate a high carb oatmeal bar. Apparently it’s true. Water carbs and lower heart rate and you can go forever.
One mile to go and Denny Paul is coming up behind me. Denny is one of the top athletes in the State and I could never beat Denny but he got off to a late start with a rudder problem.
The river is starting to spread out. Which way do I go ? And as I look behind me to see if Wes in his canoe is there, I don’t see him. Denny is closing in and I ask Denny where’s Wes. I’m worried he might be in trouble. Denny says he chose a different route. So I crank it up to see if I can keep up with Denny for the last mile and in another minute the boat goes aground in about 2 inches of water. Stuck. I’m stuck in mud and sand. There is only one thing to do and get out and drag the boat thru the shallows for the next 1/4 mile. Finally the water gets deep enough to start paddling again and I think I know why Wes didn’t follow me. He’s about 200 yards ahead and has just reached the finish line. This is it ?
Denny , Wes and myself are all sitting at the finish line. There is nothing here. How do you know this is the finish. Wes points to a buoy hanging off a tree that says finish. Wow ! I never would have seen that.
Total time 3 hours 57 minutes.
It’s over. I paddle over to the shore with Denny and discover a small park where his wife is meeting him. And then Denny hollers for his wife to help him get the boat up the hill. What does he mean. It’s only a 21 LB boat and she will have to slide down the hill and maybe walk in water to help him.
So I toss my boat on the shore and grab the front of Denny’s boat and we get it up the small hill. I don’t get to spend time with Denny but maybe once a year so this is it. Denny drops the tail of his boat and tells his wife to get the heat on in the car. He is bent over and shaking from the cold. Woah ! Woah ! He is seriously close to being hypothermic, if not already there.
My pullout is 2 1/2 more miles down the Lake. 2 1/2 more miles. Since I have stopped paddling I am not producing heat and am getting colder. Out on the Lake I am totally exposed to the wind and the Lake has picked up a one foot chop that I must paddle against. Now my whole body is hurting. After 31 miles I was not tired, only freezing fingers. But after having stopped and getting colder in the 42 degree winds my body is struggling. I’m actually getting a little scared. I elect to take a little longer route to the camp site and hug the shore. I don’t trust my balance, nor my paddle stroke any more. If I dump in deep water or try to hike thru these woods to the pullout, I am starting to doubt myself.
One more point to paddle around and there it is. Oh man. Drop the boat on the shore and head straight for a hot shower. I don’t even bother to take anything off. Just stand in the hot water with all of my gear on and try to recover. Pouring hot water over my fingers is painful, but it is the kind of pain I want. It’s a good pain.
I have never been so cold in my life and for sure the best part of this event is the hot water pouring down on me.
Well that was my Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. Hanging with the guys and doing what I love.
Would I do it again ? Of course. I just need to bring pogies next time so my fingers don’t freeze up. As I write this 4 days later I still have one finger that has not fully recovered but it will get better in a few weeks. Probably just a few dead cells at the tip of my finger.