LAURINBURG — When they moved from Kansas City, Missouri to take up residence at Scotia Village in 2014, Jeff and Madeline Mercer dove head first into life in Scotland County.
It is with the same spirit that they will attempt today’s Chalk Banks Challenge at the Lumber River State Park — and aboard a pair of tethered air mattresses with Scotia wellness director Ellen Sims along for the ride, they aren’t planning on getting wet.
Avid paddlers for more than 20 years, the Mercers found their curiosity piqued by a festival flyer while playing pickle ball at the Wagram Active Living Center. Shortly after moving to Laurinburg, they began exploring the Lumber River by kayak, braving low-hanging tree limbs and other hazards and even getting a few other Scotia Village residents hooked.
“You get on a river and you can just go and you see all kind of different things in nature,” said Madeline. “We just thought making a raft would be cool, and it has been so far.”
The Mercers are both ministers, with Jeff presiding at Faith Presbyterian Church, a stone’s throw from Scotia Village. When their Missouri home sold four weeks before their new home in Laurinburg became available, the pair embraced their effective homelessness as a chance to travel the country.
Though the Chalk Banks event offers the option of canoe and kayak races, the chance to devise a homemade raft for the signature challenge called to the intrepid couple.
“These are two inflatable beds,” Jeff pointed out. “If you go out camping, you can take your raft and sleep on it.”
Aside from requiring that all vessels be homemade, the only other rule of the Chalk Banks Challenge is that no motorized propulsion be used. With a little literary inspiration from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Jeff elected to depart somewhat from traditional paddling.
“The theory is to have two folks in front with the kayak paddles to guide us and keep us straight, and the pole is just going to be the propulsion from the back,” he said. “So you don’t have to work too hard.”
With the help of fellow Scotia residents Shirley Miller and Bobbie McClure, the Mercers took their raft for its maiden voyage in the community’s indoor pool on Friday. All four gingerly positioned themselves on the raft for a few laps of the pool, all the while taking in stride friends’ lighthearted taunting and advice to have an ambulance on standby.
“What they’ll talk us into is unbelievable,” McClure said breathlessly once safely back on solid ground.
“It floats. If everyone else will get out of our way, we should be good.”
Win or lose, the Mercers plan to finish the race with another remarkable experience under their belt.
“The river should be really fun since we’ve had so much rain; it should be high and fast,” Madeline said. “It’s great being in Laurinburg; there are so many opportunities to be active. How many places have a river festival?”
The Chalk Banks Challenge and River Festival will begin at 10 a.m. today at the Chalk Banks Access Area of the Lumber River State Park. The canoe, kayak, and homemade raft races will leave from Chalk Banks and finish at the wildlife landing on U.S. 401.
At the heart of the competitive events, the river festival will include live music, children’s games, food, vendors, and nature exhibits. Entry to the river festival is free.
Registration for the 5K trail run is open from 8-9 a.m. and registration for canoe and kayak races is open from 8:30-10 a.m. Entry fees are $10 for the canoe and kayak races, $10 for a single-person raft, $20 for a team raft, and $25 for the 5K.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.