Fueled by determination, a sense of mission and many, many Power Bars, a group of Oak Harbor men recently completed the grueling 180-mile La Ruta Maya River Challenge in Belize, Central America.
For the four-day race down the Belize River the men became the “Pirates of Brigantine,” complete with a skull-and-crossbones flag flying from the stern of their canoe.
Manning the canoe paddles were Pope Awe, Rick Autio and Nate Etherington. Steve Johnson provided the critical logistical support, meeting them at camp at the end of each day with morale-boosting encouragement and five gallons of purified water.
The men are all neighbors on Brigantine Court in the Seaview development near West Beach, hence the pirate moniker.
The idea to undertake the race came from Awe, (pronounced ah-way), who is a native of Belize.
At 52, he decided he was not ready to go quietly into the latter years of his life.
“I needed to challenge myself, at my age, against the river,” he said.
He also had a very personal reason for completing the race this year: He had dedicated the attempt to his mother, who died in January.
“It’s something I had to do,” he said quietly. The race started in Awe’s hometown of San Ignacio and ended in Belize City.
Awe didn’t share his personal mission with his team mates until after they had completed the race, but they were not surprised to hear it.
“He’s the king of setting his mind to something,” Autio joked as the three men recently gathered to talk about the trip.
Awe attempted the race last year, but his partner, whom he declined to name, dropped out after the first day. The race spans four days, with canoeists paddling anywhere from five to eight or more hours every day.
Shortly after returning from that attempt Awe formed what he called the “A Team,” and began planning — and training — for 2004.
Autio is ex-Army and has run marathons and done 100 mile-plus bike races. Etherington is ex-Navy and a firefighter in Arlington. Awe, also ex-Navy, runs and works out regularly. To prepare for “The Maya Route” race, he increased his workout to a 10-mile-a-day walk/run.
While they were physically fit, the men were like fish out of water when it came to canoeing. Between them they had little or no experience at canoeing, let alone in a race setting.
“We had one day of practice on Campbell Lake,” Awe said.
For La Ruta Maya they borrowed a fiberglass canoe from one of Awe’s many friends in Belize, along with wooden paddles. The canoe was fine, but they admit the “leisure” paddles were a big mistake. They soon realized the other 80 canoes in the race were equipped with fast, ultra-light graphite paddles. With thousands of strokes per day, every ounce counts.
What they lacked in practice they more than made up for in team work. For four days they paddled as one, every stroke pulling the finish line closer. Etherington said the number 19 is etched in his brain, as they hypnotically counted to 20 strokes before switching sides.
While the race was physically challenging, Autio said the hardest part was the lack of sleep. In San Ignacio roosters crowed from dusk ‘til dawn, then howler monkeys took over during the day. Their cry accompanied the paddlers along the river and from camp to camp.
The river run was mostly through dense and humid jungle, with a vegetation that Americans Autio and Etherington had never seen before.
“Some places it was eery, with calm, stagnant water,” Autio said. “If we had flipped over there’d be no way to recover.”
The water was also home to the fer-de-lance, one of the deadliest venomous snakes alive. And big — Autio told of seeing one in front of the canoe that must have been six feet long, wriggling along with its head held high above the water like a periscope.
On days one and two the canoeists were shaded by large tropical fig trees whose roots reached out into the river. They quickly fell into a rhythm of taking turns eating and drinking in bites and gulps while constantly moving. The men said day three was the toughest, with the bamboo-covered banks offering no shade.
There were pleasant diversions along the way though. Autio and Etherington joked that Awe must be related to everyone in Belize — some sort of relative was always popping up along the bank to cheer them on. Entire hamlets would turn out, waving and hollering.
The men praised Johnson for his logistical support, but on the end of the exhausting third day he outdid himself. As camp came into view the three men knew instantly which campsite was theirs — the one with a huge American flag draped from a tree branch. The flag boosted their spirits and more.
“Everyone wanted their picture taken in front of the flag,” Etherington said.
Sleep was often hard to come by in the camps, as a festive atmosphere prevailed.
“The campsites were like a carnival,” Awe said. His relatives kept them supplied with treats like hamburgers, Gatorade and watermelons.
Participants came from around the world for the race, now in its sixth year. Fun is the order of the day, with teams adopting monikers like “Grumpy Old Men,” “Volga Boatmen” and “Let My People Row.” A group of 50-something women from Arizona were known as “The Swamp Witches,” and carried with them a life jacket-clad chihuahua.
Awe and his crew finished a respectable 51 out of 81 finishers with a total time of 27 hours and 8 minutes. They’re already planning for next year, with the goal of finishing in the top 25.
“You develop a really strong camaraderie after tough going like this,” Awe said. With that attitude, and some good graphite paddles, watch out La Ruta Maya 2005.