The 2nd annual Romp to the Swamp Canoe and Kayak Race was held on Saturday, October 18th. The race starts in downtown Columbia, SC on the scenic Congaree River. Paddlers race 51 miles down the twisting and turning river until they reach the finish line at the Route 601 bridge. John Faust organized the event to raise awareness and funds for the American Diabetes Association. John’s son, Sam, was recently diagnosed with the disease.
After competing in the 52-mile Suwannee River Challenge on Oct. 11th, I waited a couple of days to see how I recovered before committing to do the race. I was feeling okay by Monday so I called John and told him I would be paddling in the C-1 (solo canoe) division. I was planning to camp in my tent until John offered his guest bedroom to me. Now that is what I call southern hospitality!
The seven-hour drive from Orlando to Columbia went smoothly on Friday. I drove straight to the race headquarters in Columbia – the Get Your Gear On outfitter shop. I met John and picked up my race packet. After a quick dinner I found my way to John’s house and turned in early since the race started at 6 am.
I slept soundly and was awake by 4 am. Not being familiar with the area, I wanted to make sure I followed John to the race start. I quickly filled up my water jugs with a diluted Gatorade mix and was ready to roll. We arrived at the boat ramp a few minutes after 5 am. I was concerned about two things – paddling in the dark and having an overloaded canoe. The Congaree River is 20 to 30 meters wide and has a moderate current. All of the paddlers were required to have some sort of light. I brought a headlight that would not be that useful in looking down river. I have fairly good night vision and was not planning on using my light anyway. The first 15 miles of the river are mostly straight with some long gentle turns. The second half of the race is filled with oxbow turns. I was glad it would be daylight when I hit that portion of the river. Concerning my C-1 canoe, I am at the boat’s weight capacity without any gear. Since there are not any resupply areas along the river, each racer needed to bring all of his supplies. I was planning to bring two gallons of liquid – which is over 16 lbs. I easily had 4 lbs. of additional weight with bananas, snack bars and a dry bag with my cell phone and other items. I decided to go with a gallon and a half of liquid – it was supposed to be a mild weather day and a safety boat was also expected to have extra water.
Shortly after 6 am the race started and 23 paddlers in 16 canoes and kayaks began their journey down the Congaree River. I got off to a quick start. I wanted to put as many of the racers with their bright lights on behind me as possible. Lights really mess up your natural night vision. I was pulling away from the pack when I noticed a black canoe on my left. It was Andy and Becky Kluge from Asheville, NC. They were in a C-2 pro boat and knew how to paddle it. They were also running without lights and were dressed in all-black clothing. After saying hello to each other they rapidly disappeared into the darkness. I guess I was now racing for second place overall.
I settled into a comfortable pace. My plan was to stay in the middle of the river until it was light enough to tell where the current was running. There was enough ambient light to keep me on course. I did dodge some imaginary sand bars, however. It was not long before the eastern horizon began to brighten. By 7:30 am I had plenty of daylight. I looked behind me and did not see anyone. I decided to stay in my cruising pace and pick it up if any paddlers appeared behind me.
The hours began to roll by. I made sure to take some Advil and electrolytes every two hours and to eat something every hour. I was pleased with my decision to run with a gallon and a half of liquid. It was a mild weather day and I was not drinking that much. I thought someone would emerge from the pack to challenge me during the race. At the end of each long straight-away I would look behind me for any signs of life. By 10 am I was starting to get lonely. I was enjoying the peaceful river, but was beginning to wonder if I had somehow made a wrong turn. A few minutes later I rounded a bend and spotted a fishing boat. One of the fishermen was nice enough to inform me that I was “way behind” the lead canoe. At least he confirmed that I was on the right body of water. About 20 minutes later I spotted the safety boat coming up river. The boat was throwing up a decent wake so I moved over to the right side of the river. Unfortunately, they steered over to me to ask if I needed any water. In between bracing with my paddle to avoid flipping I managed to wave them off.
Once the safety boat left, I settled back into my pace. I was now in the twisty section of the river, which meant that the 15,000 acre Congaree National Park was off to my left. The park has the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the U.S. – featuring huge bald cypress and towering loblolly pine trees. Rare sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker have been reported within the park’s boundaries. I will definitely be back to do some exploring in this area.
I was expecting to finish the race between 8 and 8 1/2 hours. As the race progressed it seemed that the river current was increasing. About 11 am another motor boat was coming up the river. I asked the pilot how far it was to the bridge and he said it was 10 miles. Obviously you cannot take these kind of estimates too seriously, but I began to think about finishing in under 8 hours. When I passed under the railroad trestle I knew from looking at the map before the race that I only had several miles to go. A few minutes before 1 pm I spotted the 601 bridge and cruised to the finish.
Top Three Finishers – 1. Andy and Becky Kluge – Tandem Pro Boat Canoe – 6:18:00
2. Rod Price – C-1 Competition Cruiser – 7:00:06
3. John Craun and Paul Hickman – Wooden Tandem Kayak – 7:18:32
Congratulations to John Faust for putting on a great race. He also finished the race with his son in a tandem canoe. I look forward to returning to the Congaree River for next year’s race.Photo Credits: Pixie Clicks Photography