Inside New York’s 9/11 90-miler

A look into the storied Adirondack Canoe Classic

By Nancy Haggerty

Some took more than 20 hours to finish. But at Sunday’s conclusion of the three-day, 90-mile Adirondack Canoe Classic, a decades-old, northern New York event that featured an international cast of paddlers and even some rowers, grade-schoolers and grandparents alike, it was a seven-paddler voyageur canoe team that toyed with course history.

The Richard Reynolds Express-Forge Racing team rode sun-drenched (and lingering Hurricane Irene-flooded) rivers, swamps and lakes to a winning finish in the notorious “90-miler,” in three days with a cumulative paddling time of 11 hours and 32 minutes—nearly 8 minutes off the mark that Express team paddlers Marc Gillespie and Paul Olney set in 2004 in an Olympic two-man kayak. No one else in this year’s field of 263 boats divided into over 30 divisions came close, the second-fastest boat being a C-4 that finished in 12:09.

“We had a pretty fast crew and kind of pulled away at the start and continued to put time on every day,” said Rochester, N.Y.’s Matt Rudnitsky of the voyageur team, named after a late 90-mile veteran, which also included Reynolds’ daughter, Holly, Al Shaver Jr., Kyle Kiser and Sean Jennings.

The 90-Miler follows routes once traversed by Native Americans and traders, an educational point for 10-year-old Eric Swanson of Warwick, N.Y., who missed school to participate. Swanson teamed with his dad, Bruce, 48, in the Open Touring Division — the largest and only non-competitive division of 31 in the 90-Miler. All participants are still timed and must meet the cutoff times for each day’s course. Eric wasn’t keen on being passed, so well before his canoe finished in 20:41, he was already talking about using a faster kayak or war canoe, like the Express’s 28-footer, next year.

Benjamin Rochon, who took second place in the nine-boat Adirondack guideboat division with Francois Morier, rowing the unique two-person, rowboat-canoe hybrid craft in 15:50, also got hooked on the race as a kid. The 33-year-old Rochon, has only missed one 90-Miler since age 12.

“I fell in love with the Adirondacks,” Rochon said of the picturesque, rural setting. “When you live in the city—in Montreal—it’s just magic.”

Most teams enjoy free camping with other paddlers at three campgrounds along the course, two run by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which helps put on the race.

Ray Morris of Glens Falls, N.Y., and Holly Crouch of Sherburne, N.Y., have both experienced the magic for nearly three decades. Awaiting deployment to Afghanistan last year, Crouch, an Air Force Reserve medic, teamed with a partner to do a “cannonball,” completing a course that includes 5.25 miles of sometimes steep, rocky and rooty portages within 24 hours.

“Leaving home was not hard,” Crouch explained. “The hardest thing was not being here.”

Afghanistan snapped Crouch’s 27-consecutive-race streak. But this year, after leaving her house with fingers crossed and two sump pumps on due to flooding, the 53-year-old helped her team to a 16:43, second-place finish in C-4 women’s division.

The reason she’s now at 28 90-Milers and will return for more is simple: “The challenge,” Crouch remarked. Morris, 66, is now the only person to have done all 29. “It’s just the people here,” said Morris, who has had different boats and different partners, including his children and grandchildren. This year, he and his daughter, Jodi, 36, finished in 20:52 in Open Touring.

Jodi Morris guesses she’s up to 16 90-Milers now. That was unthinkable to her when they first teamed up and had to paddle long hours through snowfall on aptly named Long Lake. Now, she and her dad are planning for next year.

“I can’t stop,” Morris said, smiling and shaking her head.

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