The 1st Great Canoe Race
As we all prepare for the Great SLAP race on July 20th, here’s a look at the group who originated the Soap Lake Great Canoe Race in 1980.
They sure had the right stuff. The race was originally scheduled for just after Mt. St. Helens blew. Not only were they able to reschedule the event, 26 canoes raced that first year.
What a group!
Back 4: Kurt Graham, Jim Fronsman, Cliff Osborn, Bryan Westover
Middle 4: Marina Romary, Debi Bishop, Karen Ball, Jeanne-Marie Peterson
Front 4: Bob Anderson, John Poling, Danny Carter, Gene Norley
Could a paddle race ever be a kind of love letter?
In 2006 Alex Kovach and his dad, Andrew, finished the last Great Canoe Race. For 26 years, competitive paddlers from all over the Northwest and beyond descended on Soap Lake, Washington for a challenging 17.5 mile—five lake—paddle and portage. The Great Canoe Race had its last run in 2006.
The race—over its 26-year history—was really something special. Imagine 75 colorful canoes. Imagine 6000 enthusiastic spectators in profile against the stark basalt cliffs of Park, Blue, Alkali, Lenore and Soap Lakes. Imagine a race competitive enough to attract Greg Barton, double gold medalist in kayaking at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Imagine airline pilots jetting in from Japan and Puerto Rico to compete in the race. Pretty amazing in little, tiny Soap Lake, WA.
Back to Alex Kovach in 2006. “It was grueling and hard. At the end of the race, I said to myself, I will never do that again. It was so much work.”
But, over time, Alex has come to think fondly of the race, how challenging it was, how special the time was with his dad, and how much fun it was to be a part of such a significant Soap Lake event.
“You think about Soap Lake at that time. All towns go through ups and downs—and Soap Lake is no exception. To come up with something that brought that amount of interest to the town, those crowds, that competition, well, that was really remarkable.”
Fast forward to the Soap Lake Centennial year of 2019—and the genesis of an improbable love letter: “As the Centennial was being planned, it was suggested that one of the events might be something like the Great Canoe Race. It was such an important part of Soap Lake history. There was interest, but no one stepped forward to take the lead. Well, since I had been involved with it before, I decided to take the helm.”
What Alex has planned for Saturday, July 20, is a tribute race to the Great Canoe Race. It’s titled the Great SLAP (Soap Lake Adventure Paddle). Instead of a five-lake course, the entire race will be staged on Soap Lake with five legs representing each of the lakes of the original race. There will even be a portage challenge built into the event.
While the Great SLAP itself is much shorter in distance than the race it honors, the scope of the race has grown. Four categories of craft will race: Kayaks, Stand-up Paddle Boards, Canoes and “Other”. The largest team accepted for one craft will be four paddlers, though Alex laughs, “We won’t turn down a war canoe if one shows up”.
The prizes will be Soap Lake Centennial medals. There were only 100 of these medals cast. A few were given out at the recent Fun Run. A few more will be awarded at the Suds and Sun Parade and at the Centennial Moonlight Paddle but, the majority of the medals will be awarded at the Great SLAP. Because the medals are so rare and beautiful, they should become the most highly prized collectible from the Soap Lake Centennial.
Another fun component of the Great SLAP is how this race will pay specific tribute to the Great Canoe Race. Competitors will be encouraged to learn more about the Great Canoe race and then be rewarded for their knowledge. At each checkpoint of the race, there will be the opportunity for racers to answer a trivia question. The answers will be represented by tokens. The racer selects the correct token and then resumes the race. When the racer crosses the finish line, he or she turns in the collected tokens. All correct tokens will result in a time discount—five minutes subtracted from race time for every correct token.
Alex expects that the fastest paddlers will complete the Great SLAP in about an hour, but that slower racers and craft may take up to four hours to reach the finish line. What can be done to encourage everyone to stick around for the awards ceremony and post- race festivities?
At the conclusion of the race, each paddler will be given a packet of clues. This part of the tribute is based on the popular Escape Room game. The idea of Escape Room is that a player is locked into a room and escapes by solving a series of puzzles and riddles. There is a time limit—sixty minutes. Alex explains how the Great SLAP game will work: “So, we’re going to have a story based on the Great Canoe Race that race finishers can play as they wait for other racers to finish and the awards ceremony to begin at 1pm. For the racers who finish their puzzles and riddles within the allotted time, there will be an additional subtraction of 30 minutes from their race time.”
“If paddlers get serious about the trivia, they can “cram” ahead of time by following the Great SLAP Facebook page. The history of the Great Canoe Race will be detailed there with all the information needed to solve the trivia questions and puzzles. Obviously, no phones will be allowed on race day as paddlers work the puzzles after the race!”
As for other post-race festivities, they are a work in progress. Sadly, the race associated beer garden originally planned has been nixed. “At first we were planning a Celebration Garden that would have beer available for racers and spectators. However, because this is a water event, the insurance folks said that they couldn’t insure us if alcohol and water were anywhere near each other. So, we can’t sponsor a Celebration Garden.” Still, local businesses are being approached about giving out coupons to encourage folks to patronize their establishments. Alex continues, “It would be perfectly fine for businesses to open up their own beer garden on the same day of the Great SLAP.” So, there are lots of ideas—and Alex and crew are in conversation to get some fun post-race activities going.
An event like the Great SLAP takes the help of many volunteers but not nearly so many as the Great Canoe Race. “Because of the controls needed to make Hwy 17 safe, some years they needed 85 volunteers just to staff the highway. That was a huge undertaking. For this race, I have worked out a skeleton crew of ten—but, the event will run more smoothly with more volunteers. My dream is that 20 people will volunteer.” If you are interested in a fun day of water and sun-- and making your own Soap Lake history, Alex would love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.
So much time and creativity and love is being poured into this event. What’s the reason for this touching love letter to a long-ago Soap Lake paddle race? Alex grows serious for a minute: “All of this could grow again and that is the hope. We will gather people together again to race. Maybe they will talk and exchange what they liked and didn’t like. Maybe they will want to do it again. So, maybe something greater will grow out of this event this year. It’s always a hope.”
If you are interested in participating in the Great SLAP, click the button below for entry forms and event information:
See you on the water—or watching from the shore-- in Soap Lake on July 20th!
[Editor's note: You may think that since Alex will be so busy running the event that he still would be able to say "never again", but he has already tested the course twice - in a sit on top kayak and a canoe - and plans to do it again on a SUP as well. All part of the careful preparation Alex is doing to ensure the success of this event.]
Everyone has a favorite memory of living in or visiting Soap Lake. Tell us yours so we can share it. Thanks.