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Paddling Into Spring: Warm temps draw record numbers to race

LINCOLN — The nearly snowless winter and dry spring has meant low water on the rivers and creeks around Addison County. But for experienced and novice whitewater paddlers alike, the low water levels were an invitation to come out to compete.
This past Saturday morning, a record 48 paddlers took to the ledges on the New Haven River between downtown Bristol and Lincoln for the eighth annual race — known simply as the “New Haven Race” — organized by the Vermont Paddlers Club.
Club Director Ryan McCall said that in the years he’s been running the race, he’d never seen so many people looking to participate.
“There’s something about the low water that makes it more friendly and more accessible,” he said.
The paddling nonprofit American Whitewater describes this stretch of the New Haven River next to Lincoln Road as a classic Vermont whitewater run. When water levels are at their normal depth, the 1.3-mile stretch of river is classified as a difficult class four, with multiple rapids and drops. (Whitewater paddling runs are classified from one, the easiest, through six, typically described as nearly impossible and extremely dangerous.)
In the spring, melting snows and rain push water levels higher and long-lasting snowpack has even pushed the race back. This year, the low water levels meant rapids on the course — with names like “Rooster Tail” and the final stomach-churning drop “Toaster” — were more approachable. But it also meant the course had to be shortened by about a third of its original length.
“There are so many features higher on the river that are a ton of fun,” said Eric Adsit, of Lowville, N.Y., a regular participant in the race. “But with the water running so low, those features become unrunnable. You simply can’t link them together.”
Higher waters mean a greater number of possible lines through the rock obstacles, but when the water levels drop, paddlers couldn’t be picky.
“Low water levels, mean you have to be specific with your lines,” said paddler Justin Beckwith, who drove over the mountain from Waitsfield for the race. “And with so many rocks just below the water, you have to know where they are.”
In addition to being a more technical race than in years past, it was also faster. Last year racers completed the course in about four minutes. With a shortened course, this year’s finishing times were in the two- to three-minute range. Cole Murphy of Winooski, who has participated in the race every year since its start, said Saturday’s competition was more of a sprint than a marathon.
“Some years you have to be a little bit conservative because of the lactic acid buildup by the end, but with the course shortened you can give it your all right up to the finish,” Murphy said.
In men’s results, Culley Brown, of Durango, Colo., took first with a time of 2:23, followed by Beckwith of Waitsfield, who finished in 2:25. Cameron Feary of Irvington, N.Y., and Cody Wasuta of San Anselmo, Calif., tied for third with a time of 2:28.
Becca Austin of Medway, Maine, took first in the women’s division with a finishing time of 2:46, followed by Carli Beisel, who tapped the finish buoy at 2:55. Leanne Bernier took third with 2:56. 
Race organizer Ryan McCall did dip his kayak in the river on Saturday, but he did not finish the race.
 “Guess I should have stayed on shore and stuck to what I do best on race day,” he said. 
  LEANNE BERNIER, WHO claimed third place in the women’s division of Saturday’s race, flies through a portion of whitewater on the New Haven River.
Independent photo/Evan Johnson 

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