The National Championship and Olympic prep canoeing regatta is being held this weekend on the St. Joseph River off Red Bud Trail in Buchanan, Mich. (pop. 6,100). Buchanan is in the heart of an area that might be described as a veritable coldbed of canoeing. There is, in fact, only one Olympic-type canoeist in Michigan, or for that matter, if you ignore Ohio—which is considered East—the entire Midwest. He is Don Dodge, 19, a bass trombonist studying at the Eastman School of Music, who lives in neighboring Niles, Mich. (pop. 18,470). The other 99 U.S. canoeists live and paddle almost exclusively in the East.
The tournament has been brought west to Don Dodge, instead of Don going east to the tournament, as a result of the persistent clamoring of a burly, visionary 42-year-old Niles sales consultant named Raymond A. Dodge, who happens to be Don's father. "It was like moving the mountain to Mohammed," Dodge Sr. crowed when he was awarded the regatta, which was last held in the Midwest in 1933. Dodge is the fund raising chairman for the U.S. Olympic Canoeing Committee, general chairman of this weekend's regatta and the exclusive U.S. dealer for Kobberup, a Danish canoe builder. Although he has been active in canoeing only two years, he is the sport's noisiest missionary.
Dodge is so immersed in canoes that he feels compelled to punctuate his conversation with apologetic asides. "I'm crazy, I guess," he will mutter, or "Maybe I'm nuts," or "People will think I'm weird." His excuse for bringing the tournament to Michigan is his conviction that the East has allowed canoeing to decline—indeed, to fall. In his view the mid western resurgence, represented by Don, outweighs the eastern collapse.
Even if one concedes that Dodge has personal reasons for his view, it is a regrettable fact that U.S. canoeists are, like the dinosaurs, mysteriously dwindling, unsung and unnoticed except by their immediate families.
In Europe, on the other hand, there are thousands of canoeists, thousands cheer them, and the sport is flourishing. As a melancholy consequence, since 1936, when canoeing first was included on the Olympic program, no American has placed higher than third in a kayak race, and that solitary bronze medal was won in 1936. We once fared creditably in the canoes called Canadians (see box). In 1948 the U.S. won the 10,000-meter two-man canoe race and was second in the 1,000-meter doubles and 10,000-meter singles. And in the 1952 games Frank Havens won a gold medal for the U.S. in the 10,000-meter singles. At Melbourne, however, he finished eighth in the same event. Havens remains our finest Canadian-type paddler, alas. He is now 36 and not improving, but he probably will represent the U.S. again this summer in Rome.
This thought afflicts Dodge like a monstrous sore, but unlike Job he bellows and fumes. "What we want," he says, "is to develop the canoe as a competitive tool. We as a nation cannot say we should keep canoeing for after-dinner and weekend paddlers. As long as we're going to send a team to the Olympics we should do everything in our power to develop one equal to the Europeans'."
Some of the Olympic canoeists no longer concern themselves with such erudite questions as whether they are truly qualified, Dodge says, and the Olympics has become a paid vacation for them. "I don't mean," he adds, "that they don't try to win. But because of pressures of business, they can't spend the necessary time."
In his passion and his wrath, Dodge does not consider relevant the fact that, until Don Dodge, the eastern clubs had all the canoeists. There should have been more canoeists, a lot more, Dodge believes, and the Easterners should have used modern sales techniques to create them, especially in the colleges.
The trouble is that the Easterners have tried to interest the colleges but, like Dodge, they have run into a soft pillow of ennui. And the Easterners do work. Nobody else does, however. John Anderson of the Yonkers ( N.Y.) Canoe Club, who has been a leading canoeist for 13 years, answers Dodge's charges with the air of the sympathetic but tired reformer. "We work hard at canoeing but we don't get any results," he says. "If I asked you to spend three hours every night on the river, what would you say? That's what it takes. You can't seem to get through to people about canoeing but we work at it."
In his massive assault on the East, Dodge also sought the Olympic Selection Regatta for Niles-Buchanan but lost it because of what he calls, darkly, "politics" (It was awarded to Lake Sebago, N.Y. July 16 and 17). Actually, the Olympic trials are handed out on a rotation basis to the established eastern clubs which, despite our sorry international record, are the only permanent, floating canoe flotilla in the United States.