Two years ago, Codorus Creek near York, Pa., was a raging maelstrom that pitied no man. Spring rains raised the water level in the rockstrewn valley to perilous heights.
Boats competing in the first white-water race of the mid-Atlantic season came surging through Lead Shot and Double Dee rapids upside down, inside out and sometimes in shattered halves.
It was typical, hair-raising start of the year for paddlers bold enough to try it. One who watched from the rocks at Double Dee was so inspired he spent two years honing his skill in an open canoe, until he felt he could handle the early spring challenge of the mighty rapids of Codorus.
The race this year was on the ides of March, a Sunday. One Who Honed strapped his 17-foot aluminum boat on the roof of the Volkswagen and called a skilled paddling companion. They met at 7 a.m. and headed north.
Two hours later they pulled into the parking lot at the Springettsbury Township sewage treatment plant outside York, where the race starts. They found a number of other paddlers waiting, but no one exactly quaking in his wet suit booties.
"Water's a little low this year," race organizer Wayne Van Patten explained apologetically. "It's going to be a pretty technical race."
"Technical" is canoe parlance for shallow. In normal water flow there may be eight or 10 ways to get through a set of rapids and varying dangers associated with each. In low water there might be one or two, even none.
One Who Honed's disappointment was confirmed by a look under the highway bridge nearby, where a paddler's scale registered water level at a depressing "O." It was the bitter fruit of the drought of 1981.
Some of the best Washington-area canoeists and kayakers already had pulled out of the Codorus race on grounds they might crunch their boats on the rocks. oDick Bridge of Kensington said his grandson Andy made a Saturday practice run and went home. But the elder Bridge and his partner, Jean Goertner, stuck around, as did 50 other intrepid boaters.
Bridge parked his 15-footer on the grass and took a nap in the stern as the first starters went off at one-minute intervals. A cold wind was at their backs. A small band of spectators cheered each departure.
One Who Honed tied on his bib, No. 20, and got in line. Then he and his partner were off, schussing away from the start in utter silence.
"Hey, how about it?" they protested. There was a desultory smattering of applause.
Around the first bend they spied a blue boat, No. 18. Just past the waste water outfall from the treatment plant they put on a burst of speed and crept alongside the slower boat. One Who Honed let out a whoop and got a mouthful of outfall from No. 18's paddle as a reward.
Onward. After some scraping and banging they reached Lead Shot, plunged into the first chute they found and emerged in a rock garden. Bang. Crash. Thump.
No. 18, a slippery plastic boat, slid by when they were dragging the aluminum boat over the ledge. Then No. 22 swept by; then 23.
At Double Dee around the next bend a great crowd had gathered. A safety boat perched at the top of the rapids. "Where do we go?" asked One Who Honed.
"Stay to the left, then go to the right and try and miss the big sawtooth rock in the middle."
They plunged over a two-foot drop and into the fast water. "Watch the sawtooth rock?" shouthed One Who Honed.
"Which one?" asked his partner.
In front of every spectator on the river the well-honed aluminum bullet met the sawtooth rock head-on. After much clanging and banging, No. 20 finally extricated itself, plunged on and finally finished this race with the 51st-fastest time out of 52 boats.
The winners in the two-man open canoe class were two guys from Port Allegheny, Pa., who said they had never paddled whitewater before in their lives. "We're flatwater paddlers," said Jim Goochee, who has shoulders like a beast of burden.
"But we'll paddle anything that gets in our way," said his partner, Emmet Mead.
Codorus Creed started the recreational racing season for Washington canoeists and kayakers, who are legion. Next is a slalom for intermediates and experts March 29 on the Gunpowder River near Baltimore, but organizers say that that race probably will be a victim of the drought.
"It requires a water release from the reservior," said John Seabury Thomson of the Canoe Cruisers Association, "and that doesn't look too likely with the reservoir 25 feet below normal level."
April 4-5 is the CCA downriver race at Harpers Ferry (experts race the first day; cruising class the second). It will go on regardless of conditions, with alternate sites if rains push the water level too high.
Would-be competitors in the Harpers Ferry race may sign up by sending $5 per paddler to George Stockman, 8709 23rd Ave., Adeophi, Md. 20783. Include name, address, phone number and class to enter.
Other highlights of the incoming race season: April 18-19, S-Turn Slalom at Great Falls for the top racers in the nation (great spectating from Virginia Great Falls Park), and May 3, the Potomac River White Water Race from Great Falls to Sycamore Island, the granddaddy of all local racing.