By Susan Johnson
It’s 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 28, and a mellower group of paddlers than those relaxing in the last of the sun’s slanting rays would be hard to find.
Of course, 32 of them are just dead tired, having been up working on the Verde River Canoe Challenge at Beasley Flats in Camp Verde since 6 a.m. — all of them students in the Northern Arizona University Parks and Recreation class who are in charge of every aspect of the race.
More than 200 others are participants, still reveling in that state of bliss that captures everyone who enjoys spending the day on a flowing river under a blue-sky day warm with the first scents of spring.
In the camping section of this U.S. Forest Service Recreation area, flags are snapping in the breeze, children are chasing each other in the sand and every family’s tent flap is pinned back to welcome guests.
On the rim above the river, the Verde River Yacht Club gang are drinking beer and telling tall tales of other adventures while a drumming group plays in the next-door shelter.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the race had a record number of entries this year — 182 boats putting in at White Bridge and the same number taking out at Beasley Flats across from prehistoric ruins of what was once a massive limestone dwelling.
In 2000, the race’s first year, 18 boats and 27 racers entered, more than doubling the following year and again the fourth year.
Dexter Allen, USFS river ranger for the Verde thinks the race may be reaching its limit as it approaches 200 boats.
“This is a wonderful event and the students from NAU make it run very smooth, but we’re getting to the point of capacity,” Allen said. “We only have room for so many people and their boats and vehicles.”
Allen served as part of an oversight team along with his son Reed Allen, a river ranger in the Tonto National Forest. They were assisted by three Friends of the Forest river rats — Frank Wirkus, Mike Ward and Rick Zabor.
Additionally, there was a
12-person safety crew comprised of firemen and students.
Among them were Matt Dent, an NAU geology major, and Patrick Pratchett, an NAU parks and rec major.
Both are expert kayakers and spent the day in their Liquidlogic boats, wearing full safety gear and helmets, outfitted with first aid kits and throw bags and armed with knives for any emergency requiring a technical rescue.
Although the river was running low and slow compared with the previous year, several competitors needed their help after flipping over or running into other boats.
“We performed a lot of traffic control,” said Dent, referring to several of the areas where the river narrows, allowing only one boat to traverse at a time.
Tim Dail of Camp Verde and Terry Barnes of Prescott were two of the competitors who enjoyed their day on Arizona’s premier Wild and Scenic River, crossing the finish line without going for an unscheduled swim.
Dail captured first place in his inflatable class the previous year but took a more leisurely approach this year with first-timer Barnes and four-legged Spike going along for the ride.
Following his dream of running the Verde at least once a week all year long, Dail designed and built his inflatable cataraft to the specifications of the waterway he shares with eagles and otters.
“I’m hoping to see some mountain goats next,” Dail said.
Trophies for the event were awarded in 16 categories, both competitive and recreational.
Taking first place overall was Tyler Williams, a well-known paddler and author of “Paddling Arizona,” who finished the 10-mile long race in 1 hour and 42 minutes flat in his 14-foot Prion touring kayak using a Yukon Werner fiberglass paddle.
Although he was chased part of the way by the second place finisher in his class, Brian McLean, Williams was unperturbed, paying more attention to a big blue kingfisher diving for lunch than to the flashing white paddles behind him.
In the women’s competitive kayak class, Linda Hammerk finished in 1 hour, 49 minutes and 34 seconds.
Participants began putting in the river at 10:09 a.m. and the last one to finish was flushed out of the water by the official sweep boat manned by Charles Hammersley exactly five hours and 15 minutes later.
While the last of the NAU time-keeping crew finished their duties and clambered up the hill to their vehicles, the father and son rangers arranged gear in two inflatable kayaks on the beach, preparing to head downstream to Cottonwood Basin for the night and then on to Childs the next day.
“We’ll be monitoring recreational users, dismantling fire pits and hauling out debris,” Reed Allen said. “By cleaning up these areas, we’re putting back some of the wilderness value.”
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