“A.J., at the start, go right to get away from those other canoes,” shouts Bob Miller, a leader of Venturing Crew 313 from Bogalusa, La., to Scout A.J. Holmes, one of the novice paddlers tensely awaiting the start of the annual BSA National Invitational White River Canoe Race.
A spectral fog covers the river here below Bull Shoals Dam in northern Arkansas, where the release of frigid water (despite the July heat) creates a swift current. Race officials warn the paddlers to beware of rocks and stumps and especially the dock on the river’s left side a few miles down.
Eighteen boats are poised to start one of the oldest canoe races in the country, a three-day, 120-mile marathon that’s been held annually in Arkansas since 1966.
Miller, a retired Marine colonel, has led teams here since 1977, and his Bogalusa Venturing crew ranks as the defending champ in the race’s top class: Open Cruising. The 84-year-old Miller keeps bringing teams back for many reasons: the camaraderie, the nightly cookouts, and, of course, the crucible of character that the competition provides.
He’s not alone. For many teams like the families and Scouts from Bogalusa, the White River Canoe Race has become an annual reunion in addition to a competition — a chance to renew old friendships, refresh fading memories, and experience again a seminal moment in their young lives. All in three exhausting and exhilarating days.
A.J.’s father, Mark, watches from the bank as his 14-year-old son and his son’s paddling partner pull ahead of the other racers in the Novice class. Mark competed in the race from 1979-82. “We all come up every year,” he says. “It’s a family thing.”
Stephen Lynn of Russellville, Ark., helped organize the race. He agrees that the impression lasts a lifetime. “I did the race [from 1973-76] when I was a Scout, and it still stands out as one of the best accomplishments and neatest events I’ve ever done,” says Lynn, who still races canoes. “It was just a monumental undertaking for a teenager.”
George Latus, another organizer, brought a team from nearby Batesville, Ark. The race and the preparation that goes into it are special to him. “I’ve done a lot of Scouting activities,” he says. “This is one that has a tremendous value for these kids. They learn determination. They learn teamwork. Heartbeat for heartbeat, stroke for stroke, breath for breath, you have to become one person in that boat.”
Those heartbeats soon accelerate as the racers take off in staggered heats, each with a handful of adult leaders who paddle their own canoes alongside the participants for each leg of the race.
A.J. competes for the Bogalusa crew in the Novice Aluminum class, and he and his partner follow Miller’s instructions, furiously paddling to pull away from the other canoes and take the lead. Bogalusa’s teams are easy to spot in their bright yellow T-shirts. Other teams go with neon orange, lime, and powder blue.
The race’s first leg spans 17 miles to the small town of Cotter, where crews change paddlers. Then it’s 13.3 miles to Buffalo City, and another change, before the third and final leg: 12.3 miles to Norfork. Here, racers know a group dinner awaits near Lake Norfork Dam.
At the transition site for the second leg, Jim Stillwell waits and watches for the first crews as he chats with Miller.
Stillwell, whose son is 12 and not old enough to paddle in this race, brings his family back every other year or so to cheer on the team from Bogalusa. His experience dates to Miller’s first year, 1977, when the Bogalusa and Faribault, Minn., rivalry was the biggest. Stillwell remembers that Faribault was the first team to use offset paddles but offered to teach the Scouts from Bogalusa how to use them. “We were competitors,” he says, “but they wanted us to know how to use those paddles. It was a camaraderie.”
Now, he notes, Bogalusa and Russellville have become the fiercest competitors. Though Bogalusa came into the race as the defending champ, Russellville won the five previous years, including in 2008 when it demolished a 25-year-old speed record by completing 120 miles in less than 12 hours.
At Cotter, crews hop out of canoes, sometimes lifting them over their heads to dump water from the bottom, and switch paddlers. Shannon Perry, Advisor for Venturing Crew 27 from Little Rock, Ark., stands on a piece of the rocky shoreline cheering for the incoming teams and watching for her crew, which includes her daughter, who is here for her third year.
Perry, another race alumnus, competed from 1983-85. Her crew climbs rocks and does other activities in the winter and then begins training for the canoe race in March, weather permitting.
Canoeing as a team, Perry says, builds leadership. “The kids who do the race for us, those are going to be our officers next year,” she says. “It also gives kids a chance to succeed when they’re maybe not succeeding in other places and they don’t fit into other Scouting programs.”
Bogalusa has a good first leg. The crew’s Open Cruising team finishes nearly a minute in front of rivals from New Brighton, Minn., and Russellville. In the Novice category, A.J. and his teammates earn first in their leg, more than nine minutes ahead of second place.
And as the grueling first day ends, the novice Bogalusa crew leaves its competitors in the wake with more than an hour’s lead. But in the top class, Open Cruising, only 38 seconds separate the three teams, with New Brighton taking the lead going into the evening’s pizza party on the campground at the dam.
The next morning, 19-year-old Lilly Manns tapes protein snacks to the inside of her canoe before the second leg of the race — 18 miles to Calico Rock. Her team from New Brighton formed a Venturing crew just to compete in this race. Back home, they’re usually paddling against tougher competition. “In Minnesota, we’re the kids who show up to race the adults,” she says. “Here, it’s nice to meet other kids from around the country as crazy as us. This is my favorite race of the year.”
Lilly says she and her fellow crew members practice a couple of days a week, going out to paddle for two hours, and then they practice or race on the weekends as soon as the Minnesota weather permits.
At Calico Rock, the local Chamber of Commerce has set up a table with sandwiches and homemade cookies — lots of homemade cookies — on the riverbank beneath a huge bluff, one of the race’s scenic highlights.
Paul Dauterive and Pete Fortenberry paddled the first leg for the Bogalusa Open Cruising team, and Paul, 17, the team captain, lobbies Miller to go right back and paddle the second. It’s Paul’s fourth year in the race, and he’s determined to win. “I can do it again [another leg],” Paul says. “That’s what we train for.”
Because the top-tier race is tight, though, Miller denies Paul’s request — this time — but Paul will persuade Miller tomorrow to let him do back-to-back legs on the final day.
Miller wants his charges to win, but he wants them to win the right way. “We win with humility, and we lose with dignity,” he says, words printed above the door on the inside of the school bus the crew rode in from Louisiana. “We’re not excitable when we win. We don’t come up with excuses when we lose.”
Miller left two of his veteran paddlers behind, he says, because they violated team rules. Their pleading to make amends didn’t sway him. To Miller, building character through lessons learned is more important than winning the race.
To celebrate another day on the river, Miller pulls the Bogalusa bus up to the Family Shoe and Dry Goods Store on Main Street where, in an annual tradition, the team orders sundaes.
By the end of the second day, the Novice, Advanced and Coed Cruising classes all contain comfortable leaders. But the Open Cruising class has turned into a battle. Less than seven minutes separate the three teams, with Russellville holding a 2-minute, 35-second advantage over New Brighton and a 6-minute, 45-second edge over Bogalusa.
That night, the teams and their leaders gather at the Sylamore Creek Campground for a cookout featuring burgers and a talent show with songs and bad jokes, ending with a ninja pantomime.
The night also gives leaders a chance to talk. Three years ago, the race fielded 38 teams, but organizers say a conflict with the national Scout jamboree and the economy reduced the 2010 field. Ideally, they’d prefer that about 50 teams participate.
John Murphey brought his Crew 84 from Rolla, Mo., for the first time. “I heard about the race five years ago, and I’ve been trying to get a group to come down,” he says between bites of a burger. “This is the first group of guys who had it together to come.”
Murphey brought a team of six who have canoed the Boundary Waters, hiked 75 miles, climbed rocks, and floated rivers. Only two of the Venturers had been in Scouting before this year, but they were lured by the promise of adventure. While veterans of multiple races comprise some other crews, this is their first race, and they’re sore. “Maybe we were a little bit underprepared,” says Andrew Rhoads, 19. “This is a lot like a marathon.”
Indeed, Crew 300’s Stephen Lynn says it’s easy for youths to underestimate the effort. “When you get into a race like this you’re going maxed out for the whole 17, 18 miles of a leg.”
Lynn and other veterans say the final day and, in particular, the final leg, is the toughest. The legs are 21 miles, 12 miles, and then 8.8 miles to Batesville below a lock where the water is low and flows slowly. And, making it even more difficult, the day turns out to be the hottest and most humid of the race. One paddler is pulled from a canoe and treated by emergency personnel after the second leg.
In the final leg, two lean teens — Jared King, 17, and Chris Williams, 16, are paddling for Russellville, needing to hold a slim lead over New Brighton. “We’ve just got to stick with them,” King says.
“You can do it,” replies a paddler from another team.
They can. Jared and Chris beat New Brighton by a narrow 14 seconds, securing Russellville’s win in the Open Cruising class by a cumulative 2 minutes and 26 seconds during the 120-mile race. Bogalusa comes in third, a little more than 8 minutes back. But A.J. and his teammates from Bogalusa Crew 313 dominate the Aluminum Canoe Novice class, winning by more than an hour and a half.
Latus says, though, that some of the most coveted awards from the race don’t come for winning any particular class. They’re the Sportsmanship Award, which goes to the other team from Bogalusa, Crew 785 (a team with a bare-bones budget that recycled aluminum cans to raise money for their trip) and the Spirit Award, which went to Crew 27 from Little Rock.
Latus, Lynn, and others say winning isn’t what makes the race great. It’s meeting the challenge. “You never fail until you stop trying,” says Dora Mohon, a longtime veteran of the race and an Advisor with Crew 200. “Anybody who paddles the race and finishes is a winner.”
Jim Morrison has written for National Wildlife, This Old House, and Family PC magazines and regularly contributes to smithsonianmag.com.
- Racers travel 120 miles — roughly the distance from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. The race is split into eight legs that range from seven to 21 miles.
- A typical team consists of four to six paddlers, an onshore support team that helps transport equipment and set up camp, and two or more adult leaders who supervise youth and transport the support team between checkpoints.
- Canoes travel between 8 and 10 miles per hour during the race — especially impressive considering the White River is more or less flat water.
- Crew 300’s speed record from 2008 may never be broken. The team finished the 120-mile
course in 11 hours and 41 minutes — more than two hours faster than any other team in the race’s history.
- This race isn’t for everyone. Competitors must be at least 14 years old and registered members of a Venturing crew or Scouts BSA troop.
- Each category includes three divisions: Beginner, Novice, and Advanced. Beginners only compete on the first day of the race, meaning it’s the perfect opportunity for newcomers to get their feet wet — so to speak — before watching experienced racers on the other days.
- Adults can join the fun, too, by entering in the appropriately named Old Timers’ division.
- Swimming in the White River is discouraged. Not only will it slow your team down, it’s also dangerous. Water temperatures, even during summer, are between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Find more information about the race at www.whiteriver120.com.