Alabama to Host World’s Second Longest Paddling Race

Alabama Waters. Image Evan Lanier, courtesy of Alabama Scenic River Trail
Alabama Waters.Image Evan Lanier, courtesy of Alabama Scenic River Trail

On September 14, the Alabama Scenic River Trail will host the second longest paddle race in the world, the Great Alabama 650. As the name implies, the event is a 650-mile haul by canoe, kayak, or paddleboard. A shotgun-style start will ensue on Weiss Lake in the Appalachian foothills of Alabama’s northeast corner. Competitors will course the Coosa River, then join the Alabama River near Montgomery, and wind down its serpentine path across the state before reaching the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The last leg of the race will traverse Mobile Bay to Fort Morgan, the confluence with the Gulf of Mexico, where $20,000 in prizes await the fastest racers. That is if anyone reaches it in time.

Map of the Great Alabama 650. Image Jim Felder, courtesy of the Alabama Scenic River Trail
Map of the Great Alabama 650.

Competitors will face long portages around hydroelectric dams, sleepless nights, and, lest we not forget the geographic location of Alabama’s waterways, encounters with large, aquatic-dwelling wildlife (i.e. gators). No stages, no comfort stations. Athletes will carry a location device so officials know their whereabouts. The name of the game: 10 days to finish. The fastest known completion of the waterway to date: 12 days.

“There are points on the Alabama and in the delta where you’re isolated,” explains race organizer Greg Wingo. “This is on the verge of being an adventure race more than a paddling race. You have to be self-reliant, and not trust that your support crew is going to be able to meet you.”

Fort Morgan, the finish of the Great Alabama 650. Image Ford Nixon, courtesy of the Alabama Scenic Trail
Fort Morgan, the finish of the Great Alabama 650.

The Great Alabama 650, which is planned to be an annual race, is second only in distance to the bi-annual Yukon 1000. The idea for the 650 came about as the Alabama Scenic River Trail stakeholders searched for a way to showcase the extensive paddling trail and their home state’s recreational resources. They brought in Wingo, owner of ROAM, an Alabama-based recreation consulting company, to organize the race. This year, Wingo and a crew from the ASRT traveled to established, long-distance paddling races around North America, including the 260-mile Texas Water Safari, and 444-mile Yukon River Quest. It was in part to research how similar events run, and in turn, hype their own race to the type of paddlers who would look forward to the grueling contest.

“The Alabama 650 is a fascinating race to me,” says registered competitor Scott Baste. “Not too many people have paddled the entire length of the river and the ones who have took about two months to complete it.” Baste is a standup paddleboarder who resides in the Florida Keys, where he operates as an outfitter, Paddle The Florida Keys. He is an experienced distance racer, and even moreso enjoys multi-day excursions. Baste acknowledges the Great Alabama 650 will not be without hurdles. “The timeline is pretty tight. Without a lot of current this will be a pretty tough paddle for me. Paddleboards are inherently slower than kayaks so I’ll just have to work extra hard. I’m not sure exactly where I will be at what time and quite a few of the access areas are gated so I don’t think my crew will be able to drive down the road at three in the morning.”

Alabama Waters. Image Evan Lanier, courtesy of Alabama Scenic River Trail
Alabama Waters.

Wingo is looking forward to seeing how the small contingent of competitors, including Baste, navigate the challenges of the inaugural race, and is hopeful the Great Alabama 650 sets a benchmark as one of the most difficult of any to endure.

“If we have 15 or 20 boats this year I’ll be very happy. Honestly that’s about as much as I want to monitor for 10 days,” says Wingo. “I think it’s going to draw people in if this isn’t something 180 boats can sign up for, and is small by intention,” adds Wingo. ‘We want people to feel like every other race they do is a qualifier for our race.”

Learn more about the Great Alabama 650 and follow the competitors.

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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