Edited by Karla Heusner
Imagine sliding into a 20 foot canoe every morning for four days and paddling at 70 strokes a minute for 6 hours at a stretch under the tropical sun, for a total of 180 miles along the historic Belize River. Now imagine competing against canoeists half your age.
Almost a year has passed since one middle-aged trio accomplished this feat, but the memory of it, and the prospects of doing it again make their eyes glisten.
"I just wanted to cross the finish line," confides Bob.
"I wanted to try it at least once," agrees Tony who pauses before admitting, "I knew I could complete the race. I was doing it to win."
Mick Fleming was also in it to win. He still is. Mick and his wife Lucy are the owners of The Lodge at Chaa Creek Adventure Centre, Rainforest Reserve and Spa and have been sponsoring teams in La Ruta Maya River Challenge for the past four years.
Mick was first introduced to La Ruta Maya in 2000 when he serviced the boat of his two teenaged foster sons, Shane and Ted Vasquez, who took up the challenge just for fun.
"We just got in a canoe the day of the race and started to paddle. We hadn't even practiced," says Shane, reflecting on how lightly they had taken their first race.
But in 2001 the Vasquez brothers got serious. Mick recalls, his face beaming with excitement, the fourth day of the race when Shane and Ted broke away from the pack to claim the largest station prize and make it to Belize City minutes before the other teams, earning them an overall third place.
Moments like these fueled Mick's dream. Later that year he approached Tony, a photographer and canoe enthusiast who thrives on competition. Bob, who had canoed on Canadian rivers but had never participated in organized sporting events, joined Mick and Tony to form the "Young Ting" team.
Under the mist of early morning in San Ignacio, Cayo, the trio made their way down to the Macal River where they packed their canoe "Young Ting" with a day's supply of water and energy bars. Spectators stood on the banks and on the Hawkesworth bridge, jabbering excitedly while being sprayed with water from fire engines.
As the crowd on the Macal swelled, so too did the anticipation of the participants. Members of team "Young Ting" were stretching their muscles, when a PA system crackled to life, announcing half an hour to the start of the race. Joined by other participants, they paddled across the river and to the bridge to warm up before takeoff.
Their locally-made Spanish cedar canoe sat low in the water, heavier and visibly different from the fiberglass Kevlar canoes that bobbed all around them. A few feet from "Young Ting," a Canadian kayaker, Sue, who had only heard about the race the day before, was adjusting to her team-mates, Amanda and Alie. Nearby a father and his energized 9 and 11 year old sons had already up taken their position on the river. The remaining 69 canoes began their jostle for advantageous start-off points. Pro teams, sponsored by local businesses, positioned themselves in the first line while amateur racers formed a second line. Then the five-second countdown started.
When the canon exploded, total pandemonium broke out. On the banks crowds shouted and cheered. All around "Young Ting" was havoc: some canoes were unbalanced; others had collided. People held on to nearby canoes, tipping them over. Teams screamed at each other while team members barked orders at each other, trying to avoid collisions and to distance themselves from the chaos. Amidst all the commotion, "Young Ting" tried not to get caught up with the forward surge; instead, they established a pace and pressed ahead.
For the crowds ashore, the excitement ended in the few minutes it took for the canoes to disappear downriver. For "Young Ting", however, the thrill had just begun. Soon enough, the Macal merged with the Mopan to give birth to the Belize River. This meandering tributary to the Caribbean Sea, which begins as Rio Mopan in Guatemala, feeds the Great Barrier Reef and creates a fertile valley that sustains a large variety of wildlife. The river valley is a peaceful environment, in direct contrast to the aggressive personalities of the competitive canoeists.
"Every encounter with a canoe is its own race until you pass them or they pass you", comments Bob.
"When you are trying to pass a canoe, it's a fight. For about fifteen minutes or so both teams paddle hard and you're side by side. Each time a canoe moves forward, the opposing canoe increases its paddling to catch up until eventually somebody gives up. One team moves forward, leaving the other in its wake," adds Tony
At the conclusion of Day One's 45 mile run, "Young Ting" had passed quite a few professional teams. The younger racers were probably stronger, but the old-age-defying threesome was wiser. While the 21 year olds relied on their arms, "Young Ting" used their entire upper body strength to drive the canoe forward. Since the intensity of their paddling never eased up, Mick, Tony and Bob relied on this technique to maintain a good position into Banana Bank and throughout the race.
Day 2, the longest day, is a grueling 65 mile journey across class II rapids and strong currents that pushes the body to its limits. At one point, when no other canoe was in sight, the team gave in to sore shoulders and relaxed its pace for half an hour. Then middleman Bob glanced back and spotted a canoe catching up with them. It turned out to be the "Old Farts", a team from the fishing village of Placencia, that was also competing in the Master's Division. "Young Ting" immediately sprang to life, hard paddling all the way across the Bermudian Landing finish line.
While some participants had to set up their own camp and cook their own meals at the end of each day, "Young Ting" was fortunate to have a support team/entourage which included a masseuse, cooks, and family members to cater to their needs.
Bermudian Landing was one of the livelier camp spots. The community welcomed its overnight guests with food stalls and music. Unlike one-day canoe races, La Ruta Maya participants get to swap stories at camp at the close of each day.
Once it gets dark, however, most head indoors for a good night's rest. Bob, who hadn't slept well the first night, was especially eager to hit the hay. Tony and Mick plotted out the strategy for keeping ahead of the "Old Farts" before giving in to heavy eyelids.
If you're traveling by road, Bermudian Landing is a mere 10 miles away from Burrell Boom. On Day 3, however, participants had to make their way around a huge bend in the river; this turned the race into a 44-mile trip lasting 5 hours. The good news was that they had no currents to battle that day. Bob, who had now endured two sleepless nights, recalls day 3 as his toughest.
Barely making it ashore, he abandoned camp in search of some quiet and a nice comfy bed. Fortunate for him too. The countdown to the finish had started. It was a holiday weekend and visitors from all over the country had flocked to Boom. The partying continued into the night.
The 24 more miles of the last day seemed like the easiest. Many teams had covered this stretch and had practice times of less than four hours, a breeze considering the previous three days. It started with a quarter mile sprint to the Burrell Boom Bridge for a big station prize.
"Young Ting," having no hope in a million years of pulling it off, was content to set its rhythm and intent on getting into Haulover Creek, before the "Old Farts," who put up a strong fight. For Mick this was the most intense part of the race: bow-to-bow racing for 4 straight hours, a rush to make it into the narrow channel and the first and only time they capsized!
Disappointed but undaunted, they watched the "Old Farts" enter Haulover Creek and tailed them all the way to the Swing Bridge finish line in Belize City. But as they say in Belize, "Softly softly, tiger catch monkey": "Young Ting's" overall performance guaranteed their title, which -- incidentally, they are preparing to defend this year.
So if you're out on the banks of the Macal River at the start of La Ruta Maya on March 7, 2003, look for the not-so-young men of "Young Ting."
Better yet, get yourself a canoe, some companions and join them on the river. Don't forget to pack plenty of power bars. You're going to need the energy to beat these guys.
Special Thanks to:
The Lodge at Chaa Creek
Bob, Mick & Tony
Shane & Ted Vasquez
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography