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Racing the World's Longest Single Day Expedition Paddling Race

A few weekends ago, my AR racing teammate Jake and I tackled theMuskoka River X, the world's longest single day expedition paddling race. The course would see us travel from Huntsville, to Bracebridge and back for a total of 130km with 20 distinct portages. Putting this into the perspective of canoe tripping, I would normally consider this a 3-5 day trip. By my calculations we would have to average 5.4kmph to complete the course in 24 hours. While that doesn't seem too difficult, remember that this is a race, there are no breaks, fishing stops or afternoon siestas. Your mind and body are pushing themselves for an entire day and night.

The race is only open to boats of certain dimensions, mainly between 17' - 18'6". This was to ensure that entered boats were built for wilderness touring but also suitable for racing against similar craft; i.e. no marathon racing hulls. Glancing around at the start line in Huntsville, I noted many teams were outfitted with some seriously lightweight, sleek hulls. These were far superior to our behemoth of a canoe; a 1989 Scott Tripper that was almost certainly as wide as it was long. Oh and it had 3 seats! Regrettably this was our only available boat option that met race criteria without renting. Additionally, we were burdened with heavy wooden paddles. No fancy bent shaft carbon fiber paddles for this team! Through paddling this beast, we were undoubtedly taking the expedition aspect of the race seriously; you could load this vessel for a voyageur worthy trip and overcome the elements. Taking this into consideration, we set a goal to finish in less than 24 hours and at least mid pack.

Teammate Jake Schwass, ready to race

We awoke early on the Saturday morning, making final race preparations in the dark under a heavy fog and bitter frost. After launching the boat, we lined up with teams in front of the Huntsville Town docks. At 7:10am, the race got underway and teams commenced the first stage of the race. The section would see us paddle 35.5km from downtown Huntsville into Fairy and Peninsula Lakes before portaging into Lake of Bays and continuing to Baysville.

A misty morning at the Huntsville Town docks

After an hour of racing, we were a little disheartened by the sheer number of boats ahead of us and our falling position. Jake and I are no strangers to 24hour races and we took a moment to remind ourselves that we had 23 hours ahead, meaning we had to maintain a strong but consistent pace. As we neared the first portage, 1700m to Lake of Bays, we quickly determined our best bet for staying competitive and regaining position would be to run the portages just like in any Adventure Race. As soon as we landed, we took off. The lengthy portage featured an ascent and descent over a ridge, thankfully it followed a paved road and we could speed along with relative ease. As we put in at Lake of Bays, we were astounded with how effective our portage-run had been. In just a few minutes we had managed to pass an estimated 10 teams!

Lake of Bays is a lengthy body of water, studded with fancy cottages interspersed with undeveloped stretches. The lake can get quite windy and whip up some serious wave action, but luckily for us, the lake was mostly calm with a slight tail wind to assist in our progress. After a lengthy paddle down Lake of Bays we arrived in Baysville, eager to tackle the South Muskoka River.

Our team departing Baysville: Photo Cred - Bill Lanning

This stage, 45.7km to Bracebridge, was our preconceived highlight of the race, and it did not disappoint. The upper stretches of the river winds its way through a deeply forested landscape with sandy banks and large rocky outcrops. This section contains numerous swifts and several rapids and falls which had to be portaged. Several excellent backcountry campsites can be found along this picturesque stretch and I found myself wishing I was simply canoe tripping so I could stop and enjoy the rivers beauty.

The Muskoka changes character the further downstream you paddle. Shallow, swift water transitions to a wide and slow moving channel, intersected by cottages and several generating stations. The largest and most impressive of all is the Muskoka Falls hydro dam, a few kilometers upstream of Bracebridge. By the time we reached the dam and its 1238m portage, the day was wearing on. We had steadily passed teams along the way and were now within the top quarter of the racers. However, a lingering knee injury was posing a new problem to Jake, a worrisome development as we still faced a multitude of portages.

Paddling the South Muskoka River

Paddling upriver along the North Muskoka River, we made our way out of Bracebridge and faced a new challenge; impeding darkness. After we scrambled across the Wilson's Falls portage, the darkness quickly set in and the headlamps turned on. The real challenge began as the flatwater paddling gave way to tricky swifts. Finding the easiest upriver route through these obstacles was made all the more difficult by a thick fog, which when illuminated by our headlamps, presented an impenetrable curtain of white. Upstream progress was broken by the surprise swift or rock that seemingly appeared out of the dark abyss moments too late to avoid. After grunting and heaving our expedition boat through such impasses, we were welcomingly greeted by numerous cottagers who stayed up to cheer on teams well into the night. I can't comment too much on the scenic nature of the North Muskoka River due to the darkness, but the section north east of the Highway 11 crossing featured limited development and a lengthy section of swifts and rapids.

Paddling upstream in the dark possed many challenges

Approaching Port Sydney, we felt our spirits lift as we knew this was the final CP of the race and beginning of the final leg; 19.4km to the finish line. However, as I lifted the canoe onto my shoulders for the portage around the dam, I heard a loud crack and the weight of the canoe came crashing down onto my head. The yoke had broken and would be useless for the rest of the race. Luckily there were only two short portages ahead that could easily be carried in tandem. Placing the injured vessel in the water, we were greeted by an 800m stretch of fast moving swifts which we had to line. With temperatures hovering just above freezing, getting out of the boat and into the cold water was not a pleasant experience. The cold really started to set in as we crossed Mary Lake and journeyed back upstream along the North Muskoka. The fog thickened to the point where navigation was incredibly difficult. Teams, including ourselves, often got turned around in bays and false channels. As temperatures reached the dew point, a deep penetrating cold set in requiring us to seek out extra layers of clothing to keep our core warm.

After portaging back into the familiar Fairy Lake we felt assured of our position, about 10 mins behind two boats, but far ahead of any other team. As I was setting up my camera for a finish line shot, I was surprised to find that a boat had snuck up on us and was pushing for our position! Jake yelled from the stern to paddle and get the boat moving. I tossed the camera into the hull and got the blade in the water. Within seconds we we're moving the boat at what was likely its maximum speed. There was only 500m to go and we were in a sprint! I couldn't believe it! After 20+ hours of racing, we were finishing in a mad dash to the line. With the other team closing in on our stern, Jake made one final call to switch sides. In an instant the bow lifted itself clean from the water and the boat propelled forward at tremendous velocity. Behind us came the faint exclamation of mixed profanity and disbelief. Running on pure adrenaline, we propelled the boat over the final 100m and narrowly edged the pursuing vessel over the line, 20:48 hours after we had started our 130km journey!

The post race meal alone was worth finishing for: Photo Cred - Bill Lanning

We successfully met our goal of finishing in under 24 hours and remained wholly competitive! Teams continued to cross the line up to 30 hours after the start, proving that you do not need to be a super competitive racer to tackle the Muskoka River X, but a paddler who is up for a little adventure and a tremendous personal challenge. The Muskoka River X solidifies itself as an event that any marathon paddler or backcountry adventurer should attempt. We'll return next year with better gear including a sleeker hull to improve on our time! Mark this one on your calender for 2014 and start training, you won't regret it!

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