Saturday, November 28, 2009

2004 Anchorage Daily News Article

Here's a newspaper article from the Anchorage Daily News about the 2004, Eureka to Talkeetna race. Reprinted in full with the express permission from the Anchorage Daily News.

Vernon , Verzone brave miles of Class V white water to claim victory

WILDERNESS CLASSIC: Pair fights through "Entrance Exam," "Toilet Bowl" rapids.

Anchorage Daily News (AK)
- Thursday, July 29, 2004
Author: CRAIG MEDRED Anchorage Daily News ; Staff

Far from civilization in the backcountry north of the Glenn Highway early this week, Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic racers Gordy Vernon and Thai Verzone stumbled upon a group of trekkers who'd accidentally crossed the path of the state's craziest endurance race.

Better hurry up, the young hikers told 48-year-old Vernon and his 29-year-old sidekick, the other competitors who'd left Eureka Summit on Sunday were far, far ahead in the 100-to-150-mile race to Talkeetna. Vernon told the youngsters he wasn't concerned.

"You don't worry about handguns when you have an atomic bomb,'' said Vernon , the veteran wilderness racer, who now lives in Cordova.

The "atomic bomb,'' in this case, turned out to be a 16-foot-long, frameless cataraft that Vernon and Verzone used to dominate the race. While other competitors made difficult, alder-bashing portages around the Talkeetna River canyon, Vernon and Verzone were riding their secret weapon through 14 miles of boiling Class V white water to victory.

Not that it was easy.

"Never again,'' Vernon said when reached by telephone in Talkeetna Wednesday. "We swam twice.''

"We failed the Entrance Exam,'' added Talkeetna's own Verzone.

Entrance Exam is a notorious hole at the start of the Talkeetna River canyon.

In his book "Fast and Cold -- A Guide to Alaska Whitewater," the late Andy Embick warns that Entrance Exam "has flipped rafts and thrashed kayakers. 'Swimmers' escaping this hole inevitably go into several more holes downstream.''

Verzone said he and Vernon avoided that fate only because they crawled onto the bottom of their overturned raft.

"The boat was upside down and going backward,'' Verzone said. "But we paddled it to the next beach before 'Toilet Bowl,' '' a second dangerous rapid.

On the beach, he said, they righted the boat and "got our composure back.''

Then they put back into the river, made it safely past Toilet Bowl and on downstream until they hit a massive, river-wide hole that almost swallowed the raft. Verzone saw the trouble coming.

"I'm yelling at Gordy, 'Paddle, paddle, paddle!' he said. "Just screaming at him.''

It wasn't enough. Vernon 's frantic stroking with a kayak paddle powered the front of the long, skinny cataraft through the hole, but the back stuck. Verzone felt himself being sucked down to shoulder depth in the river.

"Then the boat disappears and everything turns white,'' he said. "I'm in the hole.''

He eventually pops up. Sees Vernon still paddling crazily. Then goes back down again.

"I wonder, in this chaos, if Gordy knows I'm not on the boat,'' Verzone said.

Not that it mattered all that much. Vernon had no choice but to try to paddle the boat out of the hole, which he finally did. Verzone, meanwhile, managed to kick to one side and break free of the current.

He rode a wave train down to the raft, climbed back aboard, and the two were off to their first Wilderness Classic win since the course went from Hope to Homer on the Kenai Peninsula in 1997.

"It was a good adventure,'' Verzone said. "You never know what's going to happen.''

Second-place finishers Bobbie Schnell and Chris Robertson, a pair of para-rescue jumpers from the 210th Rescue Squadron in Anchorage, can attest to that. They thought they had the race won until they rolled into Talkeetna.

"We didn't sleep during the race,'' Robertson said, "and the first two days we were flying.

"We came down the (Talkeetna) river. We hadn't seen anyone from the start. We'd crossed the creek nobody could cross last year.''

They thought they had the race in the bag, but what they didn't know was that while they had deflated their packrafts and begun an alder-bashing portage around the worst of the canyon, Vernon and Verzone were riding the river to victory.

"We had no idea of Thai and Gordy's secret weapon,'' Robertson said.

But then neither did anyone else.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 16 of the 35 racers who started the race had finished. Here are the early results and times:


Eureka Summit to Talkeetna - Finishers

Vernon and Verzone, 2 days, 7 hours; Schnell and Robertson, 2 days, 9 hours; Jim McDonough and Butch Allen, 2 days, 11 hours, 13 minutes; Bjorn Flora, Jason Geck and Jeff Bannish, 2 days, 12 hours, 30 minutes; Ben Summit, Tyler Johnson, Hans Neidig and Paul Hanis, 2 days, 12 hours, 51 minutes; Roman Dial and Roman Jr., 3 days, 4 hours, 20 minutes; and Bill Collins, 3 days, 4 hours, 50 minutes.

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