The Inland Paddler: Reflections of Seven Years of Chattajacking

Earlier this week, those of us registered for the 2020 edition of the 31-mile Chattajack race in Chattanooga received an email that wasn’t exactly unexpected or a surprise.

Due to the pandemic, the physical race is cancelled.  Across the paddle world, well, at least the ChattaWorld, the sighs of disappointment were more than audible.  My inboxes lit up like my face when I am handed my well-earned end-of-race bottle of chocolate milk.  “Is this real?” “Say it isn’t so?”

Some 24 hours later came another ping to the inbox, the annual October gathering at Ross’s Landing might not be happening but a virtual Chattajack is – with a choice of doing half a Jack or the full 31 miles.

And the ChattaTribe rejoiced.

2020 will go down as the year that despite the canceling of physical paddle event after paddle event, we continued to race. And we continued to be enthusiastic about our sport. We’ve done virtual Paddle Imuas, M2Os, and some have done a weekly virtual race series.

These “go on your own” events have likely saved the sanity of quite a few people, myself included.

Yet, Chattajack is special.

This will be the first time in seven years I will not load up every single piece of paddle clothing I own for every possible weather scenario, along with a board or a canoe, or several, and head up I-40 through the Smokies to ‘Nooga.

No bonfire on Signal Mountain with the Chattapeeps.

No Moon pies and Cheerwine. No breakfast at Aretha Frankenstein’s.

No reunions with Roxane, Jules and LouAnn, Theo, Tony, Adam, Dottie and Hal, Shawna, Sarah, the Geigers. No sour sharing with Nathan. No selfies with June. And so, so many others.

No carrying the two-man Tempest Outrigger down that ramp with my OC partner of five years, Dana.

Just typing those lines and I am in tears.

This would have been my seventh consecutive Chattajack.

I will never forget the panic and doubt that washed over me in 2014 when I registered for my first one. I took everything but the kitchen sink with me on that paddle. I didn’t know if I would finish.  It was hard. But the elation when I realized I was going to finish, and when that medal was pressed into my hand, it was worth every minute of pain.

That year was Larry Cain’s first CJ as well.  At the afterparty that night, he came up to me and asked me how my race was and he said he saw me finish. I had no idea then that Larry and I would eventually end up working together and traveling a bit together and becoming really good friends. During the 2017 race, which was the Year of the Cold, Larry helped me into the warm car afterward because I was hypothermic and couldn’t do it myself.  Earning my five year CJ belt buckle with him is probably the highlight of my paddling career.

My second CJ came just months after losing both my parents within three months of each other. My dad was supposed to have been at the race that year. It was a tough morning at the start that day.  Here’s what I wrote about it after the race:

“He would have been at Hales Bar for my finish, but his body was just done. Instead, they were both with me on the river and we had a good chat between miles 21 and 30. At the start, while talking to Jason and Dylan Geiger, the most amazing morning double rainbow flashed across the river.  Jason told me that was a sign that I was going to have a good day.  I knew it was a sign from above. Double rainbows are a Hawaii thing…and my parents and I used to enjoy admiring them from our lanai in Haiku on Maui.  It was my sign that they were there.  I knew Jason was right.  It was going to be a good day.  As Hale Bar finally started getting closer and I was on the verge of totally breaking down, I heard dad say something like “You need your energy to sprint, so we’re going to go now.  You finish this, and you go on with your life. That’s what we want you to do.”  They gave me permission to keep going the direction I seem to be now.”

It’s no small thing that this race hold special significance for me.

The next year, thanks to a light bulb moment courtesy of Dana Bittenbender, I switched to paddling OC2.  All it took was Dana saying, “just think of the stories.” We made it on the podium twice together and we helped each other get to the five year in a row finish to get our belt buckles. I cannot imaging racing OC2 with anyone better.


Chattajack has made me a better paddler, no doubt.

It has motivated me to train smarter, to get coaching, to get the right gear, and to refine my technique. It has given me endurance.  It has given me confidence and strength. It has taught me to let the mind win first and to love the conditions.

All of this in a way no other paddle event has.

Making so many important and life long friends because of the bond that is created by sharing the epic-ness of Chattajack is one of the reasons this race is so important and meaningful. My downwinder friends who live in Hawaii and Oregon think we are all crazy for coming back year after year for a grueling flatwater race that will throw every adverse condition at you, and drain you. But once you’ve done it, and you’ve shared the experience with other paddlers, and you see how different Ben and Kim Friberg make this race, you cannot help but come back.

I will take all of this with me when I head out this October to do my virtual Chattajack. As it stands now, I will likely paddle a 16 mile out and 16 mile back to get the mileage on Falls Lake, where I train. (Unless some Covid-safe alternative comes up between now and then.) I will most likely do it completely solo. It will be a challenge of a different kind.  Rest assured though, I will be sure to have chocolate milk waiting in a cooler in the car and some moon pies, and my usual chicken breast.  Maybe I will FaceTime with Dana and others.

And while I may not miss the miles and while it will be a new challenge, without seeing the Chattapeeps at the finish line, it just won’t be the same.

2021, we are counting on you!