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Canoe News

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The Early Days

Thirty some years ago the Cameron County Canoe Classic was known as “Whitewater Weekend Canoe Races”.  In those days the event was almost solely a local happening and normally drew 30 plus canoes paddled by Cameron County residents with varying degrees of canoeing skills.  The race started at Front Street Park or at the confluence of West Creek and the Driftwood Branch and always with the discharge of Dr. Blumle’s cannon.  On one occasion a rope was strung across the stream under the Broad Street Bridge.  This brilliant idea caused many canoes to capsize before the cannon blast ever occurred.  Early events were promoted and sponsored by the Emporium Area Jaycees, the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Promotion Agency also got involved in later years.

In early years this race ran from Emporium to Sterling Run, a distance of approximately 10 miles by stream.  In between the start and finish were a number of infamous stretches of water that posed some problems for many of the “once a year” contestants.  About three fourths of a mile into the event the canoes encountered the confluence of Portage Creek and the Driftwood Branch.  A whirlpool here sent numerous folks in for an early season swim.  Three miles further along the survivors encountered “German Rock” rapids and many howling spectators hoping to witness and photograph their friends making the event a “biathlon” (to include swimming).  Another two miles presented the paddlers with “Devils Elbow” with its fast unpredictable water and ROCKS just below the surface.  About a half mile from the finish, “Sterling Run Rapids” always added an exciting end to those who may have thought that the fun was over.

Despite the different challenges which the water/ice altered stream presented, the race was always a roaring success.  The best races occurred when there was a heavy winter snow blanket with a late thaw and good snow melt, runoff.  The race has taken place in a blinding snow storm, in a drought, at flood stage and on one occasion, had to be “started” about three miles above Driftwood as it was the first “open water”.  The river from there back to Emporium was frozen solid.  In fact, ice axes and picks were used the day before the event to open up a channel through which the canoes could pass, but the event went on!

As the event grew in popularity, some of the local folks “imported” a few “pros” from neighboring Port Alleghany (at the time a hot bed of canoeing) to help them win a trophy.  These paddlers were known as the “Hutters”.  The famed Gene Jensen (canoe designer and paddler extraordinaire) had devised the “hut” as a signal for the bow person to switch paddling sides and the Port paddlers were using the technique to perfection.  The moderate influx of “foreigners” upset some local perennial winners, but their appearance forever changed the face of the event and it started to grow and attract participants from all over Pennsylvania.

Approximately 20 years ago Ken Gerg took over as acting Race Director and started to promote the race not only in PA but in NY, Ohio, NJ and beyond.  In 1987 complimentary race “T” Shirts made their first appearance.   In 1998 the course was the site of the United States Canoe Association (USCA) Aluminum Nationals.  Regrettably it was one of the worst drought years in the race history, but it was a successful Nationals.

Because of unpredictable upstream water the race was moved about 8 miles down river to a start just East of the Emporium Country Club with varying finish lines at either Driftwood or Sinnemahoning.  The move down stream took advantage of additional water from Canoe, Hunts and Sterling Runs.

Currently the event starts just across from the Country Club and finishes in the Borough of Driftwood.  The down stream move eliminated most all of the Class II rapids, but still provides some challenges at the Sterling Run rapids and in the Tunnel Hill area if you elect to run the stream any where but strong river left.

From its inception, Bob Umbenhauer was a stalwart early promoter of the event and upon his passing, a separate Stock Aluminum Class was initiated in his memory to show case these canoes.  The Stock class normally features both a class for the 17 and 18 ft. Aluminum canoes and some outstanding paddlers have done this race in Aluminum boats.

The very best Aluminum event occurred in the 2003 USCA Nationals when paddlers from 15 states as distant as Texas and Missouri vied for medals.  This two day event saw races on Saturday and Sunday in virtual flood stage conditions.  Don’t think this is just a race for aluminum canoes as there are classes for everything from Pro (3x27) boats, C1, C2, to kayaks and everything in between.

Ken retired as Race Director after the 2003 Nationals and Randy Bailey has taken over the reins.  The innovations that Randy has brought to the event bode well for the future.  “Something new every year” must be Randy’s motto and he is making it happen.  2006 will feature great new hand made cherry wood trophies, a paddler’s breakfast at the Emporium Fire Hall, a post race pasta dinner with awards at the Emporium Country Club and much more including lots of door prizes.

The Cameron County Canoe Classic is not an easy event to reach, but, as in the past, if you make the effort to get here you will love what you encounter and will be back year after year.  

Thanks for visiting our website, see you on the water!   .

Canoe News

The Early Days