by: Jeff Shultis
The race begins on beautiful Otsego Lake, where conditions can vary from dead calm to foggy to windy with considerable choppy water. The starting line is an imaginary line between two points, usually, buoys and a dock, then proceed to the mouth of the river in a left to right direction. The mouth of the river is narrow and shallow which creates havoc and excitement.
The first obstacle, Bassett Dam, comes about half a mile later. The dam is portaged in organized chaos. Most teams elect to use the left side of the river for the ease of stepping out of the canoe and the short run. There are different paths to take, the most direct is the furthest to the left. Once you put back in, the next 12 miles are the ones that could make or break any team. This stretch of river contains narrow hairpin turns with difficult obstacles, including: logs, branches, rocks and challenging water current. Sometimes, it seems these obstacles appear out of nowhere, sitting just below the murky surface. Usually, the higher the water, the better the conditions. However, more care is required since the higher, faster water means split second decision making. Practicing this section is important to familiarize yourself with the route and the obstacles. It is customary for practicing paddlers to take along saws to clear out log jams and debris to make race day a little bit easier.
Milford is the town along the route, about two hours into the race. The river widens and has less current at this point. It is a perfect spot for your first pit stop. Teams are given fluids and food from their support crews either from boat or from the shoreline. It is also a good time to gain information about the race: your position, your splits from the competition, etc. After Milford, the turns are more gradual, but continue to set yourself up for every anticipated turn.
Your goal should be to conserve energy while trying to maintain a good pace. At this point, teams tend to pack up, especially in the pro race, to ride wake, while getting a sense for Goodyear Lake and down river strategy. Remain vigilant for obstacles for they can still pop out at you! As your pack approaches Goodyear Lake, on the curve below Portlandville Bridge, a major sprint may occur intended to test the health of the competition. The shallow water forces every team to work hard to stay up with the pack. Leads are often built or lost here.
At the end of Goodyear Lake is a difficult, hilly portage which will take all of your energy. The footing is always slippery and the area tends to get bottle-necked with canoes. If the water levels are high, brace yourself for a ride on the wild side to Southside Dam after Goodyear portage. A particularly difficult and dangerous section is just after the F & F Airport where the river narrows and drops quite a few feet in less than a mile. The last portage, Southside Dam, is fairly routine. From this dam to the sewage treatment plant, the river can be quite fast. It helps to be able to read where the best water is. The two miles after the plant can literally become a drag. I usually refer to this section as junk water. It is hard to get the boat up unless you are fresh.
As you near Otego, the river deepens and is fairly easy to read. From Wells Bridge to the finish line, the river is mainly shallow. You need to be alert and ready to hit a sprint when the water is really shallow. This is the point in the race that the hours of training really pay off.
Entering the village of Unadilla, you will be paddling over the remains of a dam. Follow the water flow where it comes to a Vee, there will be a slight drop and then you hit the shallows again. The final major obstacle (excluding a possible finish line sprint with the competition), is what is commonly referred to as Green Acres, located just above Sidney. The river divides into two channels, stay right! It is important to watch for downed trees, sharp turns and strong current. This is another section of the river that warrants a pre race run. It is difficult to anticipate the direction the river will take you, because of the sharp corners and obstacles. Once you are under the Sidney Bridge, you have about 5 miles of relatively fast moving current with a few sets of shallows and gravel bars to negotiate. Midway to Bainbridge at the railroad tressle, you need to maneuver through some eddies and narrow shoots of current. Then it's off to the Finish Line, your finishers patch and chicken dinner!