Take Me To the River
The course of the Neches River Wilderness Canoe Race is the 22 miles of the Neches in Anderson County between Lake Palestine and U.S. 79, where the muddy channel winds through thick forest.
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Ed Furman checks the mirrors carefully as he backs a shuttle van up the dirt track that leads down to the Neches River by Texas Highway 75. “I don’t want to run anyone over on my last day as club president,” he says. His silver hair is slicked back into a thinning rockabilly quiff. The 2010 Neches River Wilderness Canoe Race is over; the last stragglers are drifting wearily over the line, medals and T-shirts have been handed out, and this busload of canoers and kayakers is being ferried back to their cars, left at the start. For the past twenty years, Furman, with his wife, Bettie, and Candy Dillon, of the East Texas River Runners, have organized the “toughest little canoe race in the Republic of Texas” and during that time raised approximately $30,000 in scholarship funds for students of the Palestine campus of Trinity Valley Community College. These three were presented with plaques commemorating their hard work at a heartfelt ceremony before the race began. Most of the people there were participants, many of whom were from the surrounding area.
In fact, there were only a handful of outsiders present—two from the Austin area (myself and veteran racer Erin McGee, whose kayak bore a sticker that read “I make boys cry”), three or four from the Dallas area, and one woman from Montgomery—in a field of 78 boats. Perhaps the race’s reputation as the second-toughest in the state—after the Texas Water Safari—kept non-locals away, though there were plenty of regular-looking folks with recreational boats alongside the pro racers in their stripped-down crafts. The course is the 22 miles of the Neches in Anderson County between Lake Palestine and U.S. 79, where the muddy channel winds through thick forest. Along with the heat and the sluggish current, the race’s main challenge are the many logjams, where huge trees have fallen across the river, completely blocking the channel. Although someone had gone through and chainsawed canoe-size gaps out of many of these obstacles, there was still a lot of maneuvering and ducking required, and a few places where a portage was required. My boat (even though it’s fairly short at twelve feet) is designed to be a stable fishing platform but was hard to navigate through the thickets of dead branches; the aluminum canoes, though wider and longer, seemed to zip through the barriers as though greased. Fairly early on, I was passed by one tandem crew, the Parker brothers from Bullard, two men in their sixties instantly recognizable by their long white beards. Charles Parker, in the rear, kept up a steady conversation punctuated every few seconds with a “hut,” at which point the brothers seamlessly switched their stroke to the other side, a method favored by all marathon canoeists. The weirdest boats in the race were the solo unlimited kayaks, long narrow boats that looked a little like experimental jets. They flew past me, their occupants bent forward in concentration, paddles whirring through the air like windmills. One of them made it to the finish in just under four hours. In the end, my time wasn’t so bad—just over six hours. I had became resigned to the idea that I was not going to complete the course—certain that I had done six or seven miles at most, I was not even sure that I could make it to the fifteen-mile point. But miraculously the checkpoint appeared, and though the last seven miles were hot and sore, I finally paddled across the finish line and hobbled onto dry land, where there was Dr Pepper, hamburgers, and a bright green souvenir T-shirt.
Kayak and canoe racing is a far cry from a relaxing day on the river. When I spoke to Ed Furman after the race, he asked me if I had enjoyed myself. When I responded with a “yes,” he smiled and said he doubted it. “What makes a good race are the war stories told after, ” he added. Indeed, the contestants were swapping details of how they got through this or that logjam, like Formula One drivers discussing Silverstone. There was a noticeable lack of competitive bluster, though, and it seemed that the purpose of these stories was mainly to add to the sum of local knowledge of the river, and to bind each person’s experience into that of the group. Many of the contestants have been running this race since the early years, and my impression is that this race is one of the things you do in Anderson County to be part of the community. Although he and his wife are stepping down from their leadership roles, Furman had no doubt that other club members would take the reins, and that this East Texas tradition would continue.