Flash: A Quick History of the Roe Jan Canoe Race

By WILLIAM SHANNON

There’s a lot of nostalgia that seeps into my mind and many others’ minds when we think of the canoe race down the Roeliff Jansen Kill, a 56-mile-long stream that begins in Austerlitz and drains more than two hundred square miles of land and eventually flows into the Hudson River between Germantown and Linlithgo. 

The tradition’s longest incarnation began in 1976 as a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. The Whitewater Derby as it was called—it wasn’t a timed race initially—had paddlers starting just below Elizaville Falls in Elizaville (where this year’s race, this Saturday, April 29, also begins) for a long, half-day paddle down the final fourteen or so miles of the creek.

I’ve been told by a few people there was an earlier incarnation of the race in the ’60s and that it started all the way up in Hillsdale and was a two-day trip with camping and with the service of a beer truck near the campsite. 

It was hosted by the Germantown Jaycees Club at one point but from 1976 to the late ’90s or into the very early 2000s it was a Germantown Sportsmen’s event. The race made a one-year reappearance in 2008 by a nascent club called Friends of the Roe Jan. In 2015, with the blessing of the Roe Jan Creek Boat Club, I, along with a couple friends and my brother, relaunched the race.

I paddled in the 2008 race from Elizaville Falls. But it was my memories of chasing along shore as a kid in the ’90s and lionizing the competitors as they grappled with two challenging sets of rapids along my uncle and aunt’s property that made me long to reignite the rowdy tradition. 

The race, starting this year, is being organized by a committee of the boat club. I’m on the committee but am happy to say I’m not the head of it and can this year join on the creek.

And, unlike 2015 and 2016, we’ve headed into this spring with the melting of two feet of snow, and with quite a bit of rain leading up to the race. And the high temperature for Saturday is eighty degrees.

What becomes, for many, more of a competition than the race itself is the raising of money for the Cancer Society. Racers can find sponsors to donate any amount per stream mile. In the past two years the race has raised more than $5,000. Of course it’s a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a chance to try and exert some tiny bit of control over the collection of complicated cancers that are America’s second-most-common cause of death, after heart disease. Who knows how many years or decades scientists are from making the breakthroughs necessary to make cancers another, harder-to-figure-out, retired killer—like Tuberculosis and the like. 

The race is an adventure and we try to make sure everyone considering the adventure knows what they’re getting into. It’s not for first-timers. Especially with high-water, there are some intense rapids and many or maybe most competitors capsize at least once during the race. 

It’s still the same stream described in a Register-Star article from April 1976, titled “Canoeists Survive Whitewater Derby.”

There were no man-killing rapids or sex-crazed mountain men waiting in ambush, but the six men who traveled the Roe Jan Kill in canoes Saturday for the benefit of the American Cancer Society shared the same spirit of adventure as the characters in the movie ‘Deliverance.'

The adventure—billed the first annual White Water Derby—raised more than $800 in pledges for cancer, according to co-sponsor Henry Pabst of Germantown, proprietor of the Log Cabin Tavern where the idea originated.

Five canoes and ten individuals left the starting point at Elizaville Falls 9 a.m. Saturday, but only six were campaigning for cancer. They were Gary Dodge and Richard “Yubby” Gaschel, who were first to finish the approximately 13-mile trip, Jack Bohnsack and Kerry Sullivan, and Don Bentley and Brian Sullivan. Joining the six fund raisers were Joel Bohnsack and Harold Jennings and Ralph and Dale Hinkein.

It took about five hours for the adventurers to reach their destination—the Roe Jan Boat Club near the Hudson River at Linlithgo. Slightly overcast skies covered the sizable group of spectators that followed the canoeists to checkpoints where the stream touched available roadways. The stream was at normal level and was calm due to the early spring thaw and runoff.

However, there was one serious mishap at a dam near Blue Stores. The fiberglass canoe piloted by the Hinkeins got caught in the dam and broke in half, spilling the two men into the rapid current. They escaped with scratches and bruises and one injured knee, but were not hospitalized.

“They tried to go through the dam and didn’t make it,” said Pabst. “You have to go through little chutes and it’s not easy.”

Pabst said the others carried their canoes around the dam.

Other major obstacles were trees, which littered the stream and in some places acted as barriers across the water. Most of the fallen trees were uprooted along the creek banks during the flooding earlier this year. 

Overall, Pabst said the event went well.

"There were a lot of trees to go around. Knees were scraped up, a lot of bruises suffered and Dodge got a bump on his head, but it went off as planned," said Pabst, who added the derby wasn’t a race.

“It wasn’t really a race. It was just a question of everyone finishing in one piece. Thank God they all did."

Would the young adventurers consider a return trip?

“Some say yes, some say no and others say they were crazy to do it in the first place," joked Pabst.

More than four decades later, the same or similar obstacles are still in place. The race committee has cleared a dozen or more downed-tree blockages in the stream, though there will be two or three spots to portage around, where blockages were too difficult to safely clear, including parts of an under-construction beaver complex. And there’s also still the mandatory Bingham’s Mill portage—the dam mentioned in the article. Every time someone attempts to shoot those waterfalls, it becomes the stuff of legend. I’ve heard of misadventures involving rafts and canoes and around puberty age we dared and then watched as a friend rode most of it free-bodied. And one highly skilled whitewater kayaker made it through last year. When I was a teenager, I aimed to someday shoot Bingham’s Mill in a kayak—but such longings fade with age, except in the minds of the truest daredevils. 

Please don’t attempt to shoot the old dam Saturday. The owners above and below Bingham’s Mill are graciously opening access to their property for racers to carry their vessels and re-enter the water below the most intense of the mill’s rapids, so the race is a special opportunity to adventure fourteen miles of the Roe Jan as safely as possible. 

Others helping with the race are Columbia Tree Care and the Columbia County Deputy Sheriff’s Benevolent Association (which will donate trophies for first-place finishers).

So, if you’ve got the appetite and the experience for this adventure, please join us on the creek and, if not, consider coming out to the bridge crossings or to Germantown’s Roe Jan Park at Dale’s Bridge or to the Roe Jan Creek Boat Club’s open-house potluck to spectate. 

More information can be found at roejancreekboatclub.org

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The title of this column, “Flash,” is short for “Flash of life: a chronicle of efforts to slow life down.” William Shannon runs the website hudsonriverzeitgeist.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. His book 'Hudson River Zeitgeist: Interviews from 2015,' is available at the Artisan Shop at Camphill Hudson Solaris at 360 Warren Street in Hudson and through hrzeitgeist.com.

 Main Street in Germantown after a canoe race. Photo courtesy of Beth Parks. 

Main Street in Germantown after a canoe race. Photo courtesy of Beth Parks.