Justin Crannell’s voyage down the Tenandeho Creek was off to speedy start until he happened upon an errant tree branch sticking out from the shore.
The limb jammed into the Queensbury man’s life jacket, tearing through the fabric and becoming lodged into its foam material. The snag caused his kayak to list and then tip over into the near-freezing water of the rushing creek also known as the Anthony Kill.
“I got impaled by a tree and stuck underwater for an extended period of time,” he said Sunday. “My time might have suffered from that.”
His friend, Brian Hart of Ballston Spa, grinned. His venture down the creek was comparatively uneventful, save for an encounter with an overly exuberant canine.
“The only thing I faced was a Lab trying to jump on my boat,” he said.
Such is life during the Tenandeho White Water Derby, especially when the creek decides to masquerade as a raging rapid and the experience level of the paddlers ranges from zero to extensive. With rushing water roughly 3 feet deep, this year’s event took its share of casualties — mostly among the less-experienced kayakers and canoers.
The thudding of overturned and unmanned watercraft slamming into the creek’s concrete retaining walls in Mechanicville became a sound the cheering crowd of several hundred got accustomed to at the finish line, near the creek’s confluence with the Hudson River. Paddlers who didn’t take the last of the creek’s rapids in just the right sequence often found themselves flailing about in the flume as it blasted out into the frigid Hudson.
“When they drop the paddle down and hold onto the side of the boat, you know they’re in trouble,” mused Sam Carabis, the Tenandeho’s longtime announcer.
Of course, there were roughly dozen emergency responders split between either side of the creek to accompany a pair of rescue boats ready to pluck any wayward paddler from the turbulent water. Those emerging from a tumble down the rapids seemed no worse for the wear, save for a few minor scrapes and a nice case of the shivers.
“I wanted to run the whole thing, but I got turned sideways,” said a still-dripping Jeremy Urquhart of Slingerlands. “All of a sudden, there were these huge rapids.”
And the rest was history. Urquhart abandoned ship, took a few knocks into the rocks and then got flushed into the safety of the arms of water rescue crews gathered in the shallows at the creek’s mouth.
Not that he’s complaining. Urquhart, who acknowledged being a novice with rapids, said the experience was exhilarating.
“It was so much fun,” he said.
Now in its 41st year, the Tenandeho almost always draws a good crowd of spectators and a decent roster of paddlers. This year’s race garnered more than 60 entries, though it wasn’t clear whether all of them made it to the finish line.
Shortly past the midway point of the four-and-a-half mile course near a former trolley bridge, a notorious patch of rapids was wreaking havoc on canoes and kayaks alike. One paddler said he saw four empty boats tumbling in the whitewater as he passed by.
“It’s big water this year,” said Jim Underwood of Queensbury, who was the 14th to start and the second to finish the journey. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing or you’re going to get in trouble.”
That’s part of the beauty of running the Tenandeho — you never know what you’re going to get. After dry winters, the creek level will be low enough that paddlers need to walk part of the way.
On winters where there’s been a particularly heavy snowfall, however, the creek offers a much different ride. This year, the experienced paddlers were completing the course in about a half-hour, which is still nowhere near the speed record.
“We saw a lot of wrecks, said John Earmo, one of the derby’s organizers. “I don’t know about records.”
But with sunny skies and temperate weather, the Tenandeho seemed to be a hit with paddlers and spectators alike. For some, it’s not spring until a rush down the creek, regardless of its depth or conditions.
“It’s like a rite of passage for spring,” said Underwood.