“Rite of Spring” means different things to different folks. To paddlers in central Pennsylvania, it means the Red Moshannon Downriver Race.
On the last Saturday in March, hundreds of paddlers — canoes and kayaks — funnel through through Grassflat and Moshannon toward Moshannon Creek, better known as the Red Mo.
The Penn State Outing Club held the first race in 1967 with 33 boats in slalom races. After 10 years, it became obvious that Red Mo paddlers were more focused on having a good time. The PSOC eventually handed off the event to Tussey Mountain Outfitters and co-owner Ed Bowman in the early 1980s, and they have handled the race ever since.
Why is the business still sponsoring the race at its 50 year mark?
“It’s fun,” Bowman said. “It’s entertainment. … The volunteers who return year after year … the stories … giving back to the community.”
Planning begins in January for the 30-40 volunteers.
“Other races have fizzled for lack of volunteers,” Bowman said.
There have been many key people over the years. Mike and Becky Halpenny do a lot of the upfront organizing. Sam Komlenic, affectionately known as “Mouth of the Red Mo,” gets everyone’s attention with his pre-race summaries and advisories.
“I did witness one of the first Downriver Races when I was a kid,” said Rod Fye, another long-time volunteer. “My uncle told us that ‘a bunch of nuts from Penn State’ were going to do a race down the creek. We went to the bridge just in time to see several aluminum canoes paddling away from the bridge.”
Fye works with the River Assistance Teams.
“RATS remove things that don’t belong in the river,” he said. “Like unmanned boats, paddles and people.”
Those who end up swimming in the Red Mo at the end of March are surely buoyed by the sight of a roaring fire and some help in getting to shore.
Bowman also thinks the venue makes the race. At 7.5 miles from the Peale Bridge to the Route 53 Bridge, the length is right. It is nearby, the setting is beautiful and here are rapids, but as whitewater goes it is relatively mild.
That said, all moving water, especially cold water, entails risk.
The race was canceled once, due to low water in 1976. Race day stream flow has been between 310 and 2,749 cubic feet per second — a significant difference.
Race day is a seasonal milestone for paddlers who have been eagerly waiting for spring, although race weather can be spring-like or see snow and 18 degrees like in 2015.
Regardless of the conditions, paddlers show up. While talking with Bowman, a customer in his store recalled one race that saw 200 boats in the water while it was 20 degrees, with a huge bonfire on the creeek bank.
The stories and traditions play an important role.
The post race dinner has been a part of race day since TMO took over, and has grown considerably from several dozen people hanging out after the race, handing out trophies from the hood of a truck with an evening bonfire.
The dinner, open to paddlers and spectators at St. Severin’s Social Hall in Drifting, is a time for old friends to reconnect and swap stories.
Jon Nelson has been competing in the race since 1970, and has compiled a race history on the TMO business website. Nelson and Bowman said early races included only a few open canoes, some slalom kayaks, and mostly wildwater boats (specialized racing boats often made by the racer). The boating community was small.
Open canoes increased in numbers and were the boat of choice once TMO took over. In the mid-1990s the number of kayaks, by then molded and mass-produced, surpassed canoes. Currently, kayaks (white water and recreational) and canoes are evenly represented, and stand-up paddle boards are a recent addition.
“Current race day will include every kind of boat you can think of,” Bowman said.
It is not only the boats that have changed.
“When I first paddled the Red Mo, we wore nylon windbreakers, with a heavy wool sweater under it,” Nelson said. “Then came neoprene wetsuits. Around 1990 there were dry suits. Now it is more enjoyable — and safer.”
Nelson’s research showed him “a lot of teams stay together year after year. They show up again and again for 20, 25years.”
Nelson’s son, Brad, holds the record for the fastest time at 39 minutes, 29 seconds in the high-water year of 1993. Most paddlers seem to take 1-2 hours.
The race has grown from the early years of about 50 boats to more than 150 in the early 2000s, and work for the organizers also has grown.
The 50th Red Moshannon Downriver Race is scheduled for March 25, drawing paddlers from several states as well as Pennsylvania.
Tussey Mountain Outfitters and owner Ed Bowman have been fixtures, so on race day take the time to thank Bowman and his team of volunteers for being the bedrock the race rests on, for keeping the race successful for 50 years, and for continuing the tradition of Pennsylvania’s longest running downriver race.
Gary Thornbloom is the Co-Chair of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
Information and registration forms are available at Tussey Mountain Outfitters in Bellefonte and online at www.tusseymountainoutfitters.com
The Red Moshannon Downriver Race is held on a remote, 7.5-mile section of Moshannon Creek between Peale Bridge, near the town of Grassflat, and the Route 53 Bridge near Moshannon.
At moderate levels, it is rated Class II-plus on the International Scale of Difficulty, and high water significantly increases the difficulty. Extra flotation in boats is highly recommended. Most years there are numerous swims and bent boats. Cold water paddling clothing is recommended. Racers should have self-rescue and swift water paddle skills.