Six-mile option makes canoe race on Fox River more family-friendly affair
By Linda Girardi For The Beacon-News June 3, 2012 5:14PM
Ken Pelej approaches shore Sunday after finishing the 6-mile division of the Mid-American Canoe & Kayak Race. Fox Valley Park District photo.
Updated: July 6, 2012 9:49AM
Paddles danced in the sunshine, while canoes cast reflections of red, blue and yellow colors on the surface of the Fox River on Sunday.
With a blue sky and calm breeze, boats glided across the water in the 51st annual Mid-American Canoe and Kayak Race which starts in St. Charles and Batavia for 10- and 6-mile trips to McCullough Park in Aurora.
The river — which has earned a reputation of creating a different set of conditions each year — challenged some 900 paddlers to follow her current and avoid hitting shallow rocky areas and exposed shoals.
“It is a very low water year so we expect slow times, but the recent rain did help — it will favor lightweight teams,” said Wally Werderich of Yorkville.
Werderich and his canoe partner Aaron Vidusek of Hampshire prepared to launch from St. Charles in a sleek carbon-fiber racer that made them look as fit as a Luchadore Mexican fighter in the ring. Of course, it helped that they looked the part.
“We say hut to switch paddle sides, which is what the Lucha Libre Mexican wrestlers do — we thought we would lighten up the race and come dressed for the part,” Werderich said, donning a red and blue mask and red tights.
The duo took second place overall last year.
Beyond race times, sunscreen and carrying the canoes and gear through three portages in Geneva, Batavia and North Aurora, the Mid-American Canoe and Kayak Race has a way of building bonds between family and friends.
Joel Jerabeck of Huntington, Ind., and Dan Macek of St. Charles, former college roommates, were participating in their 26th Mid-Am race.
“We are halfway serious, but we don’t knock people out with our paddles to win,” Jerabeck said.
Sue Thompson of Oswego and Bridget Hankes-Ixpata of Sugar Grove, once school friends at Holy Angels and Rosary, were embarking on their first-ever canoe race.
“We plan to follow other paddlers who know what they are doing,” Hankes-Ixpata said, laughing.
“We both turned 40 this year and decided to embrace it doing something exciting and new,” Thompson said.
Most notable this year were the numbers of pint-sized paddlers joining their parents onboard from the Batavia start. In its fourth year, the shorter 6-mile stretch opened the race to a broader spectrum of canoeists and kayakers enticed by the Fox River.
“That’s our dream coming to life,” said Jeff Long, spokesman for the Fox Valley Park District, sponsors of the event.
“We see the hardcore racers and serious paddlers at the St. Charles start, and the Batavia start is more relaxed with families, kids and not as experienced paddlers as some of the people who have run the race for 30 to 40 years. This is the next generation of paddlers.”
While the canoe race has never been known to have been canceled for low water levels, Long said he was initially concerned prior to padding the route four days prior to Sunday’s race and was pleasantly surprised to see it was navigable even before Thursday’s rainfall.
“The low water makes the race more challenging — it takes more navigational skills of following the channel and staying in the current,” Long said.
Kathleen McGrath of Batavia and her 8-year old daughter, Aisling, as well as friend Benjamin Sterling of Boise, Idaho, created a trio in the canoe.
“Our goal is not to tip over like two years ago when the water level was high,” McGrath said.
“We expect to hit a few sandbars this year,” Sterling said.
Kevin Pennington of Aurora and Alex Martinez of North Aurora decided to paddle two hours downstream with their three sons: Nick and Alex Pennington, ages 6 and 4, and Andy Martinez, age 5.
“We got the boys paddles so hopefully my buddy and I can take a break. We’ll see, if we don’t start spinning,” Kevin Pennington said.
“We want to do different activities with the boys to get them into fitness and feeling healthy and happ.”
Mother and daughter team Mary Beth Risden, a Simmons Middle School teacher. and Grace, 16, were ready to take the plunge in a tandem kayak in their first-ever race with a helpful 12-point guide for navigating the route, courtesy of the Fox Valley Park District.
“It looks real challenging because of the three different channels,” Risden said. “I’ll read the map and Grace will navigate.”
The schoolteacher acknowledged it may difficult to actually read the instructions, so she highlighted the main instructions, plus made a mental note for the voyage.
“I know most of the time it is middle channel, hit hard right and at the Illinois Bridge, hit it hard right and paddle like crazy to the finish,” she said, laughing.