JEFFERSON — Paddlers were all smiles for miles during the 39th annual New River Canoe Race and Family Float Saturday, June 1.

Some participants raced the clock, while others took their time meandering down a five-mile stretch of the New between Zaloo’s Canoes and New River State Park Wagoner Access between 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on this Ashe County tradition’s 39th float.

The water temperature was 72 degrees, and the New flowed 2.42 feet deep at a rate of 414 cubic feet per second — perfect conditions for paddling, according to race day statistics recorded by Zaloo’s.

Registration fees for the New River Canoe Race benefitted Friends of High Country State Parks — a nonprofit group that supports New River, Mount Jefferson, Elk Knob and Grandfather state parks, according to Friends member and event organizer Dave Walker.

“The point of the Friends is to raise awareness within our community about our state parks, and also to help fundraise for state parks,” Walker said. “The race is our big public fundraiser.”

If someone donates directly to a state park, the money has to funnel through the state capital in Raleigh, where that donation might be sent to other parks in the state, according to Walker.

“The friends groups can purchase items for state parks and help keep that money locally,” Walker said.

Along with other funds raised by Friends of High Country State Parks, money raised during the annual New River Canoe Race helps pay for trail maintenance, park signage and educational programs, among other park needs, according to Walker.

“We also have iron rangers — these donation boxes at the parks we help operate,” Walker said. “We are the fiscal agent for the firewood sales at the parks, and we also do events like this, helping to raise awareness.”

According to New River State Park and Mount Jefferson Natural Area Superintendent Joe Shimel, Friends of High Country State Parks make significant contributions year after year to the Ashe County state parks he oversees.

“The Friends of High Country State Parks help out in several different ways, one is as an advisory committee — we can use them as a sounding board of community members,” Shimel said. “Another way is what we’re doing here at the canoe race — raising money.”

Donations from the Friends have enabled New River State Park to purchase solar panels, as well as equipment for various studies, such as hellbender research, in addition to acquiring supplies for interpretive and educational programs, according to Shimel.

In the grassy field near the finish line at New River State Park Wagoner Access, park rangers provided educational hikes and activities, Jessica Janc of Blue Ridge Resource Conservation & Development displayed river critters preserved in jars, The Cardinal of Boone grilled hamburgers in a food truck and Zaloo’s provided free shuttles back to the starting line.

The fastest to finish the five-mile race was Jeff Gobble and his rowing partner in the expert men two-person canoe category, who paddled across the finish line 49 minutes after pushing off from Zaloo’s. The top three finishers in each race category are posted alongside their times in the sidebar accompanying this story.

Despite the competitive time-trial nature of the New River Canoe Race, plenty of paddlers — such as Jason Kubota — were out on the river just to help support state parks and enjoy the sunny Saturday, rather than focus on racing.

“This is my first time, I actually heard about it through the Ashe Post & Times last year,” Kubota said. “I’m out here for a good time — I’m not a pro by any stretch of the imagination, but you’re racing against yourself, not anybody else — so if I can put in a time under an hour, I’ll be happy.”

Kubota finished his paddle in 58 minutes, good for second place in the novice men kayak division, seconds behind Bill Strausbaugh’s 58-minute finish, according to official race results.

“I’m on the New River all the time, really anywhere between Boone and the Virginia border,” Kubota said. “This is a great event, it’s really awesome to see the community coming together and supporting conservation as a value.”

Race participant John Stout of Brushy Mountain said his favorite part of paddling the New River is parking his kayak and jumping into his favorite swimming hole.

“I paddle a couple times a month,” Stout said. “I just like the mountains, and the river, plus it’s a lot of fun.”

Gaye McConnell said she came from Mooresville with her niece to race.

“I did this two years ago, lots of fun,” McConnell said. “Supports the park, which is always great.”

McConnell said she has paddled the New River all the way to Independence, Va., and the water between Zaloo’s and NRSP Wagoner Access is a particularly enjoyable stretch.

“The park is great, and they do a great job of supporting this piece,” McConnell said. “Zaloo’s does a great job as well in cosponsoring for race. People should come out, even if they just come to do the fun activities here that are at the park and don’t like paddling, but it’s fun to paddle.”

For more about the Friends of High Country State Parks, visit http://friendsofhcsp.weebly.com/.

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