Race: USARA Nationals

Team: Mike’s Hike and Bike, comprised of Steve Hagan, Darryl McCauley, and Kerry Gross

Date:October14-15, 2016

Location: Columbia County, GA (and some South Carolina points)

Time on Course: 27:10:56

Results: 13th place coed division

Distance covered: ~78 miles (~31 miles of paddling, ~35 miles of biking, ~12 miles of trekking)

Though the post race interview with Columbia County’s news tells most of the story (i.e. amazing, awesome, super, and cool), here’s a quick outline of our race:

Friday, October 14th – Race Day

5:00 am – Wake up

5:30 am – Hot food for breakfast

6:00 am – Leave for Savannah Rapids

6:30 am – Maps and plotting

We get a packet with race rules, a list of UTM plots and clues, one BIG race map, and a bunch of smaller supplemental maps. Darryl and Steve plot UTMs while I familiarize myself with the supplemental maps of a frisbee golf course, a modified bike route, and an o-course. After looking at all the maps and the race rules, we’re pretty sure that if we can clear the opening massive paddle section we’ll be able to clear the whole course. That would be a first for all of us!

7:45 am – Busses and strategizing

9:00 am – Race start

The race begins with a quick jog around the International Disk Golf Center to pick up 12 CPs. It’s a huge point bounty and we make good time with my map reading, Steve’s spotting, and Darryl’s check point punching.

9:30 am – Transition to paddling


We head out into Clarks Hill Lake with Darryl in the back with his wing paddle, Steve in the middle navigating, and myself in the front to paddle and jump out for CPs. While some of our competition decide to portage and avoid a solid headwind, we stick to our pre-race strategy of bagging CPs 1, 2, and 3 before turning west for CP 4. The boat doesn’t exactly glide across the water; but we’re making pretty good time.

After a long paddle, we’re happy to have a little bit of a trek to CP 4. Back in the boat on our way to CPs 5 and 6, we pass other teams doing the paddle loop in the opposite direction. Heckling provides a nice distraction from aching arms. Each time we get up for the little treks we realize just how stiff we’re becoming.

The paddle back to CP 7 is exhaustingly uneventful. We struggle a bit to orient ourselves on the land map, but eventually we get there and find the flag. Then, a short paddle to CP 8 is just long enough to put all our arms on the struggle bus. Fortunately, the end of an 18 mile paddle section is in sight. Just one little walk up a hill and back down to our boats and across the neck of the lake to our bikes. Except when we come back down the hill to our boat, our boat isn’t there. But another team is. They kindly tell us our boat is in the next cove over. Right where we left it.

Lesson learned: Take a bearing back to the boat, not just up to the check point.

3:00 pm – Off the water, onto the bikes!

We make the 4:00 cut off for heading out on our bikes and are feeling very confident about our abilities to clear the course! CPs 9 through 12 are easily found as they are mostly just waypoints between Wildwood Park and Mistletoe State Park. The only difficulty arises when we hit Mistletoe State Park and head the less efficient direction around a loop trail.

Lesson learned: Note the land changes to the map holder; don’t keep constructive doubts to oneself.

4:45 pm – Drop the bikes for a quick trek

In Mistletoe State Park we have our first stretch of orienteering. I thought Steve might take on the land navigation, but he passes the map off to me and we’re off and running. Or, well, off and moving, at least. We head north down Campground road and dive in to the right, past a punch CP for a different course and on to our first target: CP 13.

Throughout the section, I tried to use the mapped trails as paths to and from the CPs. This strategy proved to be more of a headache than it was worth. In the case of both CP 14 and 15 there was no clear point of departure from the trail, so we wasted a lot of time on guesswork when we could have been bushwhacking a straight line.

Lesson learned: Mapped paths don’t necessarily mean more efficient orienteering. Take bearings and bushwhack for certainty.

6:45 pm – Biking back to Wildwood

As the sun is setting we have a beautiful ride through a logged section straight out of the Lorax, Truffula trees and all.

8:00 pm – Another trek

Well ahead of the 11 pm cutoff for trekking, we’re feeling great about our ability to clear the course. It’s our first night navigation together and the toughest orienteering we’ve faced yet, so I try to build consensus on our route before we set off. Unfortunately, in practice this turns into bullheaded indecision. Eventually I decide on a plan that I think will work best and we’re off moving again.

Lesson learned: As navigator, be firm and decisive. Ask for input when it’s needed. Find strategies for keeping teammates in the map which do not waste time on indecision.

Given that it’s nighttime and the plotted paths haven’t proved to be terribly helpful, we stick to straight, methodical, bearing walking. Darryl takes the lead on keeping us on a straight, directional path and Steve and I fan out to either side as CP spotters. A few times we make it to our backstop and find the CP on the second pass rather than the first. All in all, it’s an uneventful, pleasant, nighttime walk with a big moon.

About 11:00 pm – Bike the Bartram Trail

No navigation to worry about, just a fun 15 mile single track ride to the head of the Savannah River. Sometimes our paddles (which are in our backpacks) snag on low branches. Luckily, that’s our only trouble. Other teams are having serious mechanical issues, we offer assistance, but they seem to have things under control.

About 2:00 am – TA 2 and the last trekking section

Back off our bikes we take a long transition. There is coffee and a box of goo and some brief respite from our bikes. I take the small map and decide on a clockwise route. The first four points are painful bushwhacking through puckerbrush and up our first hills of the race. We’ve honed our team night navigation and things are moving pretty well. Right up until they aren’t.

The last point of the trek is up a reentrant and there’s no good place from which to attack. On the first pass, we try finding the right reentrant from the bottom of a big gully. We think we’ve found the right one, but I caution our team to take it slow and check bearings along the whole path. Unfortunately, we get overtaken by a pack of other teams and the headlight feeding frenzy sweeps away the slow caution I tried to instill.

Lesson learned: Stick with your team plan, avoid the headlight feeding frenzy.

Finally, we regroup and have no real good idea where we are. I look behind us and see a radio tower that I can also find on the map. We decide to rough guess where we are based on the direction to the radio tower and make another pass. This is a totally unfruitful waste of a half an hour, but we exacerbate the time loss by wandering around at the top of an unknown reentrant. Finally, Steve nudges me enough to make a firm decision and we head back to a known point to attack the point.

Lesson learned: (For the millionth time) go from somewhere you know.

While my stomach is having it’s morning disagreement with the world, Steve and Darryl shoot a straight bearing from the road to the point. All I can contribute for the moment is hanging on for the ride. Finally we find the CP, my stomach stops roiling, and we’re on our way out of the prickers and back to the TA.

6:30 am – Long transition to paddle

Back at the head of the Savannah River we visit a real bathroom, find some Pringles, and gather our paddle stuff.

7:00 am – Paddle to Savannah Rapids

We’re a quiet crew as the sun is rising on the river. As the miles flow on our arms tire and our legs stiffen; but there’s nowhere to go but forward. We snag a CP off a railroad bridge and then slide to the shallow side of an island for the next CP. It’s the most direct route, but feels a lot like paddling through a rice paddy. Or, how I guess paddling through a rice paddy would feel, had I ever paddled through one. After the island CP we portage past a power dam and then have just a very short stretch to the final put out.

11:00 am – Last biking

A monstrous portage up the bank of the Savannah River ends our time with our heavy, plastic, yellow, three-seater canoe. I can’t say I’m sad to leave it behind. The finish arch is a welcome sight, but we still have some urban mountain biking to do before we can finish for real.

We take off at pace on our bikes and find the first CP without a problem. Still riding hard, we dive into some urban mountain bike trails. Without a map we plunge recklessly headlong into a new system. Having not taken stock of our surroundings, finding the trail CP takes far longer than it should have. Finally, though, we do. And, shortly thereafter we also find a map of the area on a city trail sign.

At my behest, we finally align our map with the city map and know where the last point of the race can be found. Back at pace, we push hard out to the end of the urban canal trail system and back to the finish line.

12:12 pm – Finish


The takeaway:

  • Take bearing everywhere, even to the boat
  • Note land changes out loud for the benefit of the navigator
  • Skip trails and bushwhack in straight lines for efficiency
  • As navigator, take input, but also be firm and decisive
  • Avoid headlight feeding frenzies as much as possible
  • (For the millionth time) Attack from places you really know