Our Man in the Water Competes in the Powell River Canoe and Kayak Regatta

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The Powell River Canoe and Kayak Regatta in Claiborne County near Tazewell.

may have had a bad attitude about my first canoe and kayak regatta because the idea of racing in a kayak is counter to the reason I paddle in the first place: to slow down and go with the flow, to admire the scenery, in short, to loaf and daydream.

But I’d never been on this portion of the Powell River, I’d never been in a race, and I wanted to see if I could at least avoid a last-place finish.

The Powell River Canoe and Kayak Regatta was up in Claiborne County near Tazewell, above the river’s confluence with the Clinch at Norris Lake. The starting line was at the Well-Being Conference Center, run by Patty and Don Oakley, the organizers of the race.

I knew several other entrants from having spoken at the Soggy Bottom Kayakers club at the Tellico Yacht Club earlier that week. They seemed like a friendly bunch, but there had been trash talk about sabotage and the like, and I couldn’t tell if they were kidding or not.

I was entered in the age 55 and over solo kayak group, which was to embark at 12:15 p.m., and when I got there around 10 in the morning, I met two Kentuckians who would be racing a tandem canoe. Bryan Stewart from Bell County was the champion of a Cumberland River race that started near Barbourville. In the stern was Randy Orchard from Richmond.

They started off at 11 and I would never see them again that day. As winners of the Double Kayak or Canoe Open category, they finished the 12-mile course in a little over two hours and were probably back in Bell County with their feet up by the time I crossed the finish line.

I began to notice that most of the boats were these long, sleek kayaks, at the very least 15 feet long. My 10-foot-long touring kayak, by comparison, looked sort of blocky and slow like a bathtub.

One woman, starting in the 11:50 group, had a sit-on-top fishing kayak, and another was in a stubby whitewater boat about 6 feet long. Surely, I thought, I could beat them, even though they would have a half-hour head start. I would never see them again that day.

Somebody started calling our group “the geezers,” and the volunteer who was supervising the put-in had to keep announcing the start time in an effort to get us to move faster to get into the water.

OUTDOORS_0505_neilsandersKim Trevathan

Neil Sanders at the Powell River Canoe and Kayak Regatta.

We waited behind a line of buoys, paddling to stay in place in current that was pushing us forward. One guy, Neal Sanders, wore a helmet with his entry number duct-taped to it. He had duct tape all over his boat, so much so that I commented on it, complimenting his foresight in having taped the map of the race course to his deck for quick reference.

He told me that he’d just won a canoe race on the New River. Unlike most everybody else, who kept saying they didn’t care if they won, Sanders had an intense look about him that said otherwise.

In each category there was a cash prize of $150 for first place and $50 for second place. No matter how much a tree-hugger you are, everybody’s motivated by cash and glory.

I chased one guy with a blue shirt and red kayak the whole 12 miles. No matter how fast I paddled, I could not close the gap. I kept thinking I could catch him because my short boat was a little more maneuverable over ledges and shoals, of which there were many, because the water was low. I did not pause to take pictures, and I wish I had because it was a beautiful river, almost completely undeveloped, woodlands and pasture throughout. I remember a blue heron, some buzzards overhead, and bluebells beginning to bloom, though it’s all a blur.

No one passed me, I can say that. And I passed six boats. Two of them, canoes, were on the bank. Three kayakers I passed were so engrossed in conversation that they didn’t even notice my huffing and puffing to get around them. And in the last canoe I passed the guy in the stern was fishing, not paddling.

At the finish line, the volunteers blared the Rocky theme from loudspeakers and cheered on each entry as if it mattered. And at the put-in and take-out, they steadied our wobbly boats while we embarked or disembarked and helped us carry them to waiting trailers for a shuttle back to the starting line.

Soggy Bottom kayaker Steve Lancaster says the race was “incredibly well-organized and a great weekend.”

Don Oakley, founder and president of the Well-Being Foundation, whose motto is to “promote harmony with nature, wellness of body, and peace of mind,” says he organized the event to “get people outside interacting with nature and testing their physical limits.” He also wants people in the area to enjoy a clean, free-flowing river that’s underappreciated.

Proceeds from the race (which had a $30 entry fee for single kayaks, $50 for canoes and tandem kayaks) go to the Powell River Blueway Project. The long-term goal, Oakley says, is to improve access to the Powell, which has no public access in the 70 miles that it winds through Claiborne County.

Oakley says 54 people volunteered to help at the race, most of them Claiborne Countians, but many from as far away as Asheville, Knoxville, and Nashville. Among the sponsors was River Sports Outfitters of Knoxville. Last year, 49 boats participated, this year 82.

The fastest time was 1:47:56 by 60-year-old Rick Carter, from Eutawville, S.C. He was in the “racing kayak” category for boats longer than 18 feet.

I didn’t come in last in the geezer division, as I had predicted, but only because these three guys from Knoxville must have stopped for a picnic lunch and ended up finishing almost an hour behind me. Neal Sanders, who I was feeling sorry for, thinking he was behind me, ended up finishing third, over a half hour in front of me. Two Soggy Bottom boys, Barry Brandt (two hours and five minutes) and Lancaster (2:04), finished second and third in the 55 and over. A couple in a fiber glass canoe had sprung a leak in the stern, the water spouting up like a geyser the last 2 miles. They had a better time than me.

The guy in the blue shirt that I was chasing for 12 miles was Tom Schemberger, also a Soggy Bottom kayaker. It was his first race ever, he said, and he “had no clue” that I was pursuing him the entire race.

Next year, I think I’ll take Lancaster’s advice and rent a longer sleeker kayak from Riverside Rentals at the takeout. After all, finishing so far out of the money had to be my boat’s fault, right? 

Kim Trevathan will teach an outdoor writing workshop on May 21, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Central United Methodist Church (201 E. Third Ave.). Info: knoxvillewritersguild.org.

Outdoors Columnist |

Kim Trevathan's Voice in the Wilderness takes readers on an exploration of the Knoxville area’s outdoors. An associate professor at Maryville College, he teaches creative nonfiction, journalism, fiction, and nature writing. His books, all published by the University of Tennessee Press, are "Paddling the Tennessee River: A Voyage on Easy Water" (2001), "Coldhearted River: A Canoe Odyssey Down the Cumberland" (2006), and "Liminal Zones: Where Lakes End and Rivers Begin" (2013).

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