It takes a unique skill set to race the Tenandeho Creek when the water is low.
You have to know how to paddle, of course, but it also helps to know how to read the water, dodge the rocks, and how to spin, “skateboard” and swim.
Water levels were up an inch or two Sunday from last year, when the water was the lowest it has ever been in the event’s 40-year history, an organizer estimated. But in many spots, rocks were still dangerously close to the surface.
The derby, sponsored by the Tenandeho Canoe Association, runs a winding, 41⁄2-mile course that is challenging at any water level.
“It has everything in it — flat water and tricky little sections, and white water, big waves,” said Simeon Hughson, one of the race’s organizers.
About 40 canoes and kayaks took to the creek Sunday afternoon, some holding a single paddler, others holding two.
Canoes were in the minority. Most racers paddled colorful kayaks — a change from years past.
“When we started there was a lot of aluminum boats and fiberglass boats and now you can see there are all the high-tech plastic things,” said Hughson, pointing out that the new canoes and kayaks are shorter, with bottoms that are more curved, for ease of turning.
Ray Krumenacker of Berlin and his 14-year-old son, Keel, were surveying the creek from Coons Crossing Bridge, where the race began. Their vessel of choice was what the elder Krumenacker called a high-rocker plastic slalom racing canoe, designed for turning in white water.
“We brought that one because we can beat it on the rocks, we don’t have to worry about hurting it and we save our race boats for the big races,” Ray Krumenacker said.
The father-and-son team won the short-class division in 2008 and were hoping to do the same Sunday.
Their plan to make it to the finish in record time: read the water, keep to the deep channels and avoid the rocks.
Jeff McCrea and his canoe partner Dan Petronis, both of Mechanicville, didn’t have much of a plan at all.
“We’re just going to try to stay off the sides, stay in the middle and try to stay dry,” said McCrea, who was standing on the bank right before race time. The two-man team, dressed in matching pink tie-dies, were racing in their buddy’s well-used yellow fiberglass canoe.
They’d watched the race many times over the years but had never been in it. In fact, they’d never been in any sort of a canoe race.
“We’re just going blind,” McCrea admitted cheerily.
A spattering of spectators dotted the winding race route, shouting encouragement as participants glided, spun or bumped by. Many racers got hung up on rocks along the way.
Just beyond the finish line, where the creek dumps into the Hudson River, is a stretch of slippery rocks that form a rough staircase that the water surges over and around. Many paddlers chose to brave it, but few traveled through unscathed.
“It’s pretty low. It’s very dangerous. This is pretty rugged,” said Charles Westervelt of Guilderland, who has kayaked in the race since 2002. “If you don’t plan it right, you’re going to dig into it with your boat, put a hole in your boat and if you come out of it you’re gonna get tore up pretty bad,” the 52-year-old said.
He flipped his blue kayak over to reveal the gouges it suffered during the race. Despite the scrapes, he was proud of his run, and credited some of it to advance research.
“It’s all about recon — it’s like being in the military,” he said. “You should always check out a creek before you run it.”
Mike Gutch and his 15-year-old son, James, did their homework before the race and passed through the rapids near the finish line in their canoe almost seamlessly.
The two traveled from Pelham, near New York City, and did three trial runs on Saturday just to make sure they wouldn’t wind up wrapped around a rock.
Not everyone was so lucky. One yellow fiberglass kayak got stuck sideways in the creek and cracked in several places. Three rescue workers struggled to removed the waterlogged vessel from the rapids once the two paddlers had jumped ship.
After getting hung up on the rocks in just about the same spot, Christopher Morris and Bryan Lussier, both of Castleton-on-Hudson, stood up in their canoe, stuck a foot on the rock of issue, and pushed.
“There were a couple spots where we had to ‘skateboard’ through because it was getting a little shallow,” Morris explained.
Their final skateboarding attempt ended with an off-balance Morris flipping out of the canoe into the water.
“It was refreshing,” he joked, standing dripping on the shore.
Following the derby was an “Anything That Floats” race sponsored by the city.
A raft decorated with pink balloons, pink railings and wildly spinning pinwheels bumped and spun down the creek to victory. Truth be known, the raft, paddled by three women, was the race’s only entry, unless you count the mallard duck that paddled downstream a few minutes later, navigating the rapids with no trouble at all.