MERIDEN — It was smooth paddling for the Quinnipiac Downriver Classic canoe and kayak race this year, with plenty of rain leading up to Sunday to buoy water levels and the river clear of major obstacles for the first time.
“It’s probably a half hour faster,” said Dan Pelletier, race organizer and a member of the river’s watershed association. He believes this is the first of the race’s 39 years in which all the participants finished in under two hours.
Turnout was up a bit from last year, with 35 paddlers, but still hasn't rebounded to the approximately 70 participants seen in 2017. Pelletier said he’s working on special plans for next year’s race in recognition of it’s fourth decade running without interruption, which he says makes it the longest consecutively running canoe and kayak race in the state.
Racers had previously been challenged by a dam which was removed prior to the 2017 race, however, a defunct water main was left in the same location until it too was removed in April. While more daring contestants would speed up to clear it, those who wanted to stay on the safe side were forced to get out and carry their boats over, especially those in canoes.
The five mile stretch the course takes from the Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike to the Red Bridge on Oregon Road still has its challenges. Paddlers sometimes have to push their way through low hanging branches or steer around rocks and tree trunks along the banks in some spots, although the current is slow enough that none of these obstacles poses a real danger.
Derek Grauer, who raced with his daughter Gracelyn Grauer, 10, said it was a calm enough ride that he plans on bringing the Boy Scout troop he leads down the river to earn their paddling merit badge.
“It was pretty much smooth. The current pushes you most of the way,” Gracelyn Grauer said.
The race even saved the watershed association another trip down the river to collect a metal sink they found on its bank during the pre-race cleanup.
While it may have cost him a few minutes off his finishing time, Dan Jalbert, of Cheshire, scooped it up and carried it down to the finish line, though it may have gotten a few scrapes from a tight outcropping of rocks.
The classic is one of more than 30 races in the New England Canoe and Kayak Racing Association’s Point Series, which includes races as far apart as Maryland and Maine, and sees a fairly even mix of local and out-of-state paddlers.
Ted Kenyon, of Montville, Connecticut, participates in most of the point series each year with his son, Theo Kenyon, 10, and said this race is a welcoming course for those looking to get started in the sport and many locals can be found going down the river alongside the stalwarts who go to every event in the series.
“While it’s tricky, it’s not dangerous, so people of different abilities can do it and have a good time,” Kenyon said.