Bill Peshel, Jim Delahanty, and Dave O'Malley departed for tropical Belize Feb. 20.
The mission ahead was The La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge, a four-day, 170-mile canoe race down the Belize River.
Peshel of Minocqua, Delahanty of Verona, and O'Malley of Waunakee met at paddling events and became friends. They are longtime paddlers.
As a tribute to the state of Wisconsin, the trio dubbed their race team the "Cheesy Riders."
All three men are fairly recent retirees.
Bill Peshel shared their story.
The race was held March 9-12. Peshel and his teammates arrived well in advance of the race, allowing themselves time to practice.
"We paddled 300 miles before the race even started," Peshel said. They did the entire 170-mile course once, and a couple of sections twice.
"We got to know these locals really well," Peshel said.
As far as physical challenge, Peshel said, "The biggest thing was the heat."
The first couple of weeks, temperatures were in the 90s, and the humidity was around 80 percent. They carried plenty of sports drinks.
Hours of paddling can take a toll on the hands. To ward off blisters, the trio often wore paddle gloves which are actually fingerless gloves designed for bike riding.
Fun, food, critters, and culture
Their first day in Belize, Ricardo Salazar, an active member of the Belize Canoe Association, greeted Peshel, O'Malley, and Delahanty. Salazar introduced them to Chris Guydis, a local racer.
The trio's canoe, a Wenoneh Minnesota III, had been shipped for the event, but was in another town. Guydis offered a canoe for use that day.
"Their boats are real narrow, and this one was built a little higher than usual," Peshel said. "We're used to ours ... which is fast, but it's made for canoe trips."
Like their own canoe, this one was 20 feet long.
"The three of us got in it and we felt we were going to have all that we could do to keep this thing upright."
Two minutes into their voyage in the tippy craft, the trio watched a crocodile slide into the water. They were told that these were Caiman crocodiles and that they are not aggressive. Another more ominous creature, however, frequents this Central American country.
Peshel noted the area has an infamous snake, the Fer-De-Lance, which is highly poisonous. "They call them three-steppers. Supposedly, three steps and you tip over."
Peshel and his teammates did not see one of these snakes, but Delahanty's and O'Malley's wives were down by the river to see them paddle by during the race, and a Fer-De-Lance was nearby. A local captured the snake and dispatched it by severing its head.
Within the first week, the trio competed in a race at Spanish Lookout. It's held at a water body called "The Lagoon." The race is essentially laps around the shoreline. Peshel said they finished this race in about an hour, and took a trophy in their class.
The trio made fast friends with locals, becoming acquainted with many through Guydis.
They stayed in the town of Burrell Boom most nights for the first couple of weeks. Peshel, O'Malley, and Delahanty were invited to many meals.
"They just took so much pride in cooking us all these indigenous foods," Peshel said.
They met Paul, an outdoorsman and hunter, and got a special treat.
"He one day ... killed a gibnut," Peshel said. "It's a big rodent. I thought it tasted a lot like pork."
He added, "They call it the royal rodent" (it was served to Queen Elizabeth years ago). Paul grilled the gibnut, but Peshel said they were also at a place where they ate gibnut in stew.
Peshel said one night, after the trio had already dined on a full pasta meal, Paul insisted on serving them grilled Belizean lobster. It was the night before the race.
"It was so cool. I'll know these folks forever ... just wonderful people."
Peshel said on days off from their training, they went to see archeological sites and ruins a couple of times.
"We had to cross a river in our rental car," Peshel said in describing one such day. They were following a tour guide. The river was about 30 yards wide, and the water was up to the vehicle's doors.
Peshel, O'Malley, and Delahanty also swam a creek to access a Mayan sacrificial cave. The cave actually contained ancient human remains.
The La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge
The Ruta Maya starts in San Ignacio, which is near the Guatemalan border. The start is actually on the Macal River, which joins the Mopan River a short distance downstream to form the Belize.
"I think they ended up with 75 canoes. And you start in a river ... maybe wide enough for 40," Peshel said.
"They have what they call the high bridge, and the low bridge."
The high bridge is a suspension bridge, and the race starts here. "They won't start the race until everybody is behind the high bridge."
The low bridge, which is built on supports, is about 200-300 yards down river from the high bridge.
Peshel said, though it's normally the dry season, there had been several days of rain just prior to the race. The river had swelled.
"It was moving really fast," Peshel said.
The river was up about four feet.
"All these canoes take off ... boats are tipping over, it's mass, it's turbulence from all the canoes, people bumping into each other ... you really had to pay attention at the start."
They wanted to stay behind Guydis and some of the other fast boats when the race started, but it was difficult keeping up. The Cheesy Riders just tried to stay out of the mess, and move with the other boats.
Near the low bridge, the trio made a slight turn to go through one of the openings between the supports. Another craft bumped their stern.
"In a heartbeat, we were perpendicular to the river. We got wedged under the bridge," Peshel said. Both bow and stern were wedged.
"The river was moving so fast, I thought our canoe might break in half."
Peshel said they also worried about getting struck by another canoe.
"I thought, 'All this training, all this time - we're done. The race is over.'"
But the Cheesy Riders would persevere.
"Jim was in the stern, I'm in the middle, and Dave was in the bow at that point. Jim jumped out of the canoe. It was over his head. During training it was probably knee-deep."
Delahanty grabbed the canoe and the bridge support and managed to free the bow. They were back in business.
"At this point we were in last place," Peshel said.
They wouldn't stay there.
The river was tough, according to Peshel. "The second day, I was in the bow ... I looked down, and there was a whirlpool right in front of us. It looked like water going down a drain."
The trio had to hit the paddles hard.
"We paddled through it."
The Cheesy Riders found their stride, had a good run, and finished strong.
"The last day, we felt good. Here's three old guys and we just got this steam up and we're passing canoes."
He added, "What you try to do in a lot of these races is 'draft' on other canoes."
They slid in with a group that had passed them earlier, but, Peshel said, "We were going at such a good clip ... it was too slow to stay behind them. So we passed those guys, and then passed all these other canoes along the way."
"And people are yelling. But they loved the Cheesy Riders," he added.
As the Belize River nears the ocean, there is a bit of saltwater in the river.
"I'm in the bow the last day. Twenty yards in front of us, dolphins porpoised out of the water. Right in front of us. It was the coolest thing," Peshel said.
The Belize River empties into the Caribbean sea, but the final leg of the race goes down a canal just prior to this point. The Cheesy Riders jogged right, and followed the canal toward Belize City, and toward the end of the race. Peshel said the canal is a beautiful spot.
"The canal was covered in mangroves, so it was like going down this tunnel," he said.
This last leg was about 45 minutes.
The race ended in Belize City, at the Belcan Bridge.
The Cheesy Riders paddled about 5-1⁄2 hours the first day, 6-1⁄2 hours the second day, about 5-1⁄4 hours the third day, and 3 hours the fourth day. Their total time was about 20 hours.
The finish was good enough to earn the Cheesy Riders a second place trophy in the Masters Division (division determined by the age of the racers; Masters is for racers older than 40). They finished 33rd overall.
The team that won the Masters division, 'Wat a Ting', did the race in 18 hours, 49 minutes. The overall winner, Belize Bank, completed the course in 16 hours and 36 minutes.
"Our boat wasn't as fast as other ones, but for us it was perfect," Peshel said. He described the Wenoneh Minnesota III, which is made of Kevlar, as stable and comfortable.
The race is a big, important event. It has been called the 'Super Bowl' of Belize. The best racers have sponsors that pay the costs of participating, as well as a monthly stipend, according to Peshel.
"All of these people that take it seriously, they'll start in October, November, and they paddle five days a week until March and the race."
"Basically, we were happy to finish. The side benefit for us was we finished in the upper half of the group. And we were second in our category."
Peshel said the locals took a liking to the Cheesy Riders.
They had yellow racing shirts made, and ended up getting some orange T-shirts as well.
"Everybody wanted our shirts, so we gave away our T-shirts down there," Peshel said. He had everyone he could sign his own shirt.
Twice, while the trio was walking through crowds, people came up out of the crowd to embrace them.
During the race, from start to finish, people could be heard yelling "Cheesy Riders!" from shore.
Peshel said one fan was a service person for two Belizean Coast Guard teams (he gave the teams food and water along the race course). Every time they crossed paths with him, the young man praised them enthusiastically.
"At the end, he wanted his picture taken with us," Peshel said.
The Cheesy Riders also got acquainted with U.S. Embassy staff. Embassy staff love the 'Cheesy Riders' monicker, and cheered them on during the race.
"We were minor celebrities. I couldn't believe it. I don't know if it was the name. I don't know if it's because here's these three old guys that are paddling in this race and actually doing fairly good."
Peshel's final night
Though his teammates stayed for a while after, Peshel had to fly out the day after the race. He did enjoy a final night with his friends.
They dined at Paul's house, and Paul broke out some special treats. There was homemade blackberry wine, Belizean rum, and coconuts.
"[Paul] cut the top of the coconuts off ... so we had rum and coconut water."
A tropical delight for sure.
Paul also sent a bottle of the homemade blackberry wine home with Peshel.
Asked if he planned on going again, Peshel said he was leaning toward "no," at least concerning the race.
"It's one of those bucket-list things that you talk about for years. There's other countries and other places I want to see. I would like to go back to Belize just to visit with those guys. They were so nice."
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted: Sunday, May 27, 2012
Article comment by:
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