Updated: Oct 8, 2019
The following is from our good friend Shawn Burke, enjoy!
📷 It was pitch dark. The temperature had dropped to 9C; at least the wind had let up. We’d been traveling upstream since Bracebridge, and were now 99km into the race. While my partner Ben Meader and I were doing fine, the team next to us was getting hypothermic after a brief swim in the South Branch of the Muskoka River. And we couldn’t find the take-out for the 18th portage.
That, in a nutshell, describes the Muskoka River X ‘Classic.’
The Classic bills itself as the world’s longest single-day expedition paddling race. To complete it you must paddle two rivers, four lakes, and complete 20 arduous portages for a total of 133km in less than 24 hours.
The Classic is completely self-supported. You carry all of your gear and food with you; no pit teams and no re-supplies. You are required to carry emergency food, clothing, first aid supplies, a hull repair kit, and shelter in case you pull out in a remote part of the course. And you also must be able to read and navigate using a topo map: GPS is not allowed. You can’t use maps from previous years’ races, either. And you have to navigate big lakes, at night, potentially in fog.
Sounds like my idea of fun!
I had heard about the MRX from Scott Ide, a local paddler who seemed eminently sensible. Having completed the race I might question that sensibility, but certainly not Scott’s sense of adventure! The MRX was right up my alley. Both Ben and I have completed a lot of extended backcountry canoe trips in Canada and the US. Between us we have twelve Clinton 70-miler finishes. I’ve done well in canoe orienteering competitions. Ben is not only a superb paddler, he’s also an expert in cartography and GIS. So last year I emailed Ben to see if he was interested in joining me for MRX. I expect he joined me in part because he thinks I’m an eminently sensible paddler. Having completed the race he might question that sensibility now.
The MRX is comprised of three separate races: the Sprint (a “mere” 57km and 8 portages), the Classic (133km), and the multi-day Coureur des Bois (“Runner of the Woods”, combining 90km across the southern end of Algonquin Park with the 133km of the Classic for a total of 223km and 39 portages over two days). I’ll describe our Classic race, though we shared the water with participants in all three events. A map of the course appears below. We did the ‘B-Side’ this year, traveling a counter-clockwise loop starting and finishing at the Hidden Valley Resort on Peninsula Lake. The Sprint stops in Bracebridge.
The MRX “Classic” course with start/finish location pinned at the top.
While paddlers in the Coureur des Bois were slugging it out Friday with wind, rain, thunder and lightning crossing Algonquin, we popped over to the Hidden Valley Resort – the site of our race start and finish – for gear check. Not only does the race have a required list of gear, they carefully check that you have each and every item before handing you your number and registration packet. And I mean each and every item (“8 closure bandages? Yes? Check.”).
Gear check before down-selecting our race food, consolidating, and packing.
I had assumed that we would have to transcribe our portage locations etc. from a giant map of the course that would be unveiled at check-in. Nope. You’re given a set of blank maps and a multi-page document that lists portage take-outs, put-ins, hazards, plus mandatory checkpoint and waypoint locations, along with their UTM coordinates. Which means we needed to mark up our maps with these locations, then determine compass bearings to navigate the big lakes at night. Having passed gear check we were handed our boat number and race packet, including the aforementioned list of UTM coordinates. We retreated to our lodging to mark-up maps, nap, and down an early dinner. And listen to the wind howl.
We returned to Hidden Valley that evening for the Captain’s Briefing. Race Director Mike Varieur made it clear that their top priority was safety, which is understandable given the wide geographic extent of the course, changeable weather, rapids and waterfalls, etc. Each team was given a GPS locator that would be attached to our hulls for real-time tracking during the race. And we were informed that the weather forecast for Saturday was for winds out of the west at 33km/hr. Mike noted that while we were free to choose our own track, a west wind on Mary Lake might suggest travelling along the west shore to gain a bit of wind shadow. The heads up about Mary Lake would turn out to be prophetic, but in a different way than what we actually experienced. As to the forecast winds, one aspect was correct (although only qualitatively), the other was not. Having done enough backcountry travel during the Fall shoulder season, that’s to be expected. The most accurate forecast is that there will be a 100% chance of weather.
Race morning dawned with a chilly breeze. We made our way back (again) to Hidden Valley for the start. After a minor gear snafu we started setting up our boat. We knew we were in Canada owing to the preponderance of Swift and H2O hulls around us. We set up our boat much like we would for a race down in the “Lower 48.” Next time we won’t, but that’s fodder for another article in itself.
Ben setting up ‘Kip,” our Savage River Susquehanna.
Ben and I adopted the “Tom Walton Precepts” for our race. These are:
1. Have fun.
2. Do the best that you can on that day.
3. Make sure you’re still friends when you get out of the boat at the finish.
Our only other goal was to finish, a reasonable target since this was our first time at MRX.
I was as relaxed and happy as I can ever remember prior to a canoe race. The two of us had been cracking jokes all weekend, including race morning. As we lined up for the Le Mans-style start I was grinning ear-to-ear. “This is going to be crazy!” “Yup.” As the start was called we began jogging uphill, 300m away from our canoe and the put-in on Peninsula Lake.
Since our start combined all tandems in three simultaneous races our corner of Peninsula Lake got a little crowded. A few teams were pretty geeked out, having a hard time maintaining their heading amid all the wash. We eventually crossed into deeper water, turned a point, and made for the canal into the next lake. It was going to be a long day at the office, so we set a steady but otherwise unspectacular pace. As the canal opened up we were greeted by 2’ waves and a stiff headwind on Fairly Lake. The sky was overcast but clear as we bounced our way west amid a cluster of canoes, kayaks, and SUPs. A headland marking the entrance to the canal into Huntsville beckoned 4km ahead. After some heads-down paddling we approached a powerboat moored at the western end of the lake. The skipper was a race volunteer who said that we were fortunate: earlier that morning the wind had been much stronger. He cautioned us that the wind on Mary Lake would be worse.
We paddled the serpentine canal into Huntsville and turned a buoy at a town dock. A few hearty souls cheered us on from shore as we made our way back to Fairy Lake. Boats had begun to spread out, and we exchanged shouts of encouragement with teams heading the other way. We didn’t really know anyone, nor could we tell which boats were in our race. In a way that took the pressure off; we could focus on paddling and having fun.
Turning south into the North Branch of the Muskoka River we came upon our first portage over rocky terrain. It reminded us that we were traveling over part of the Canadian Shield, bringing back fond memories of paddling in Algonquin Park, Killarney, and Temagami. When racing it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate your surroundings. But the course environs grabbed our attention several times during the day. It’s really beautiful up there. But we still had to portage, paddle, eat, and drink. The bulk of the course lay ahead.
About 8km after the portage we turned a left-to-right corner and got our first glimpse of Mary Lake. 2.5’+ breaking waves running right up the gut. We coasted and held a brief confab. Breezy Point stood out to the west, but in order to get there and continue to the western shore we’d have to run quartering if not abeam to line after line of breaking waves. The forecast has been for winds from the west, but the waves weren’t having any of that. They were charging out of the south-southwest. Ben voted for crossing the head of the lake to the west shore in hopes of gaining some wind shadow. I opined that there wouldn’t be any break in the waves given what we were seeing. So Ben offered, “You’re the captain; you make the call.” I turned us south, aiming for the first point along the eastern shore.
We ran the top three-quarters of Mary Lake just offshore. This gave us the option to pull in and empty the boat if we took on water. Which we had to. Twice. As the waves hit us head on Ben was often launched into the air. It took a while, but we developed a rhythm. Ben has an extensive whitewater background, so he started doing “boof” strokes to keep the bow from plowing under the waves whenever he returned from his aerial excursions. The lake alternated groups of taller waves, then waves a bit less tall (can you say, “surface wave dispersion”?), a pattern that repeated itself and thus enabled me to time our switches. The winds were influenced by the adjacent lakeshore topography as we crawled south. Sometimes the wind and waves turned and hit us from the southwest, and we had to quarter them. Other times they came from the west and we had to run them abeam. But the Susquehanna only shipped water when struck head on; next time I’ll add spray rails and a deck to the bow.
We learned later that eight teams flipped on Mary Lake and had to be rescued; as of early Sunday morning four of their hulls had not yet been recovered. Two gallant teams sacrificed their own races to offer assistance. Some teams stopped at the top of the lake and pulled out. Yet despite this mess Ben and I were having fun. It’s not often that you become completely absorbed in something. Our world was reduced to the simple task of working with what the lake offered in order to get to the other end. I had complete confidence in Ben; he trusted that I would handle my end of the boat; there were no distractions. When we pulled even with Crown Island, and saw the wave train ahead of us ease up, we made a beeline for the exit and the portage at Port Sydney.
Dumping water (and food) out of the boat after Mary Lake. [photo credit: Andy Zeltkalns.]
We realized after the Port Sydney portage that paddling Mary Lake had consumed a fair bit of energy. It was time to throttle back a bit, eat, drink and recover. We still had 115km to go to the finish, with five portages to our 58km checkpoint at Bracebridge and its 4:00pm cutoff.
By the time we arrived at the portage for Bracebridge we were packed up with two other tandems. We realized that it would be nice to have some company for the upstream paddle to come, especially with local folks who had done the race before. My reverie was interrupted when I looked at the portage take-out. It looked like a sheer cliff face (albeit made of sod). There was a rope running alongside with loops tied into it for hand holds. The drill was to pull the canoe up onto shore, aim it skyward, then shove it upwards a few feet at a time while holding onto the rope. Grab the next loop, pull yourself up, and shove the canoe upwards again. Almost made me wish I had brought ropes and protection for climbing!
Once we summitted Mt. Horrible there was a right turn onto a street (with race fans cheering!), a pause while traffic was stopped so we could cross the main drag, then a right turn onto a catwalk that crossed atop the dam, then a left turn down a concrete ramp to a quay and our first Checkpoint. Buses with boat trailers were lined up in the adjacent parking lot to carry folks completing the Sprint back to Hidden Valley. There were people scattered everywhere. Three stood out. They were the medical team charged with evaluating whether we should be allowed to continue on or not. The exam was simple: As we walked past carrying our canoe they asked, “How are you doing?” We both looked them in the eyes and replied, “Great!” “They’re fine; they’ve got big smiles!” And we did. How else can you explain us willingly bypassing a lovely warming tent, snacks, and a ride back to our car in order to paddle and portage another 75km?
What was worrying, however, was that we passed through the Bracebridge checkpoint at 3:20pm. The cutoff time there was 4:00pm. We had made it, and I knew we hadn’t been lollygagging, but our arrival time drove home how much time we had lost to the winds on Fairy Lake, and especially Mary Lake, let alone the headwind we had experienced all along the North Branch of the Muskoka River.
We put in and paddled down our last stretch of the North Branch. Mike had advised at the Captain’s Briefing to look for the South Branch entering on river left, and turn up it, otherwise we’d end up at Santa’s Village Theme Park and then Lake Muskoka. The other two tandems we’d been paddling with were just ahead. One started turning left; the other was making steam for the lake. But they turned at the last minute. We caught up with them both (“The Bare Strokes” and “Strangers in the Night;” Ben and I were the “Welos Canoe Club”) and made for the power station at Hanna Chute. It was great having some folks to draft with and chat; really nice people that I’m grateful to have met and worked with. The other teams warned that the portages ahead on the South Branch were much worse than the ones we’d encountered so far. Having slipped and fallen sliding down hill at the High Falls portage put in (leading to a crabapple-sized bruise atop my right shoulder), and summited Mt. Horrible in Bracebridge, I felt ready for what lay ahead. Turns out they undersold the upcoming portages.
For the balance of the race we hopscotched these two teams. They were more efficient and faster on the portages; we were faster on the water. It all evened out. The sun finally broke through the clouds around 6:00pm. The low, slanting light lit up the trees that line the banks of the South Branch. Ben exclaimed, “Oh Canada; how I missed you.” Off in the distance I saw a black bear swimming across the river, emerging on the right shore and scampering into the woods. As we approached a turn adjacent to a bit of marsh we noted a bull moose nibbling on weeds in the shallows. This stretch of the South Branch was wilder, without the ubiquitous cottages lining the shore. And I realized that the MRX could be referred to as, “wilderness canoe tripping for folks who don’t like to camp.”
The hardest time to paddle is during the transition from sunset to full dark. Fortunately, Seth Miller had advised us to practice paddling through this twilight phase during our pre-race training. It was great advice. Your bow light isn’t effective yet; your depth perception and distance vision are less sharp. Team Bare Strokes had made a move at the last portage and were running ahead of us. We could see their red navigation light in the distance. The wind, which blew occasionally from our stern as we paddled north, had mostly dropped. It was getting chilly. My windbreaker had fallen in the bilge water a ways back, but fortunately I was still warm. I had incorporated more protein in my food plan for this race, and it was paying off by keeping me toasty.
Ben and I gradually hit our stride on the portages by the time it got dark. While still not as fast on the trail as the other teams, we found that by swapping ends at the take outs his greater height let us more easily carry low/high to level the boat. He had a wrist that was bothering him on the carries; I had tendinitis in my right elbow that bothered me as well. But we had brought a “secret weapon” that proved useful on the longer portages: a cart. While many of the shorter portages on this segment of the course might be referred to charitably as hiking trails, several longer portages (one was 1.2km; another was 1km) comprised tractor roads and pavement. And we knew that the final portage from Lake of Bays into Peninsula Lake was 1.7km along a paved road.
So after topping the bank at portage 17 we and Team Strangers in the Night paused for some Vitamin I (“You’ve got Ibuprofen? Can I have some?”) while Ben and I rigged the wheels for the longer 1km carry. In retrospect we should have taken the shorter carry here; Team Bare Strokes did, increasing their lead over us. But our group decided to be conservative while traveling at night and take the longer carry rather than paddle up Thompson’s Folly. Team Strangers in the Night had taken a brief swim as we walked our canoes to the take-out through shallow swifts; one paddler had banged up their knee on the cobbles in the process. Playing it safe was good.
It was a short paddle from the 17th portage’s put-in to where we expected the 18th carry. Ben confirmed on his map that the take-out was supposed to be on the right. We could see and hear the chute right in front of us that we had to carry around. But where was the portage? I turned on my headlamp to its full 1,200 lumen capacity and scoured the far bank. On a tree across a slackwater pool I saw something that looked like a large patch of white moss. I said, “Let’s cross and check that out.” We couldn’t see any obvious trail leading up from the water but made our way across a swift toward the bank anyway. When we finally touched shore and looked up there was a somewhat tattered white portage sign, a bit larger than a patch of moss. We yelled to the other team that we’d found it, then started with the canoe up our last wilderness portage. Trees crowded in from both sides, and we had to roll the hull on its side to fit between them in a few spots. As we put in we knew that only water lay between us and the checkpoint at Baysville.
Earlier, one of the other teams had informed us that our three canoes were 5th, 6th, and 7th in Men’s Stock Tandem. I was ecstatic. Our only goal was to finish; I was pleased that we were doing that well our first time at MRX. They had also heard from a race volunteer at the Trethewey portage that the organizers were considering ending the race at Baysville. The wind on Mary Lake had been a significant challenge. Running similar conditions downwind for an 18km portion of the far larger Lake of Bays would be risky. But we heard nothing further about the status of the race after that. The Purbrook Road checkpoint at 84km had been unmanned when we passed through. We attributed that to arriving there well ahead of the 9:00pm cutoff; we weren’t sure.
So we rolled on to Baysville. This stretch of the river has a few swift-moving rocky shallows. It’s also dotted with cottages. Many of them had lights burning, fire pits alight, music playing, and tasty smells wafting from grills. Folks occasionally noticed our two canoes passing by and cheered, no small feat given our black carbon fiber hulls and small bow and stern lights. A steep earthen banked topped with houses aglow loomed ahead as we made a broad right turn at the foot of Baysville. A sweeping left turn followed, and we caught sight of the flashing red and white lights marking our take-out. The bank was lit up with flood lights; we could see the warming tent at the top; ski patrol members in snug red parkas, race officials, and a few hardy spectators crowded the narrow paved path to a small wooden dock flanked by sharp piles of rip rap. As we coasted next to the dock, 103km into the race, we heard, “Gentlemen, welcome to Baysville. Your race ends here.”
The race had been shortened for safety’s sake, which is a very, very good reason. Only fifteen teams made the cutoff time at Bracebridge. Even though the wind had dropped by the time we hit Baysvile, it had not when the lead teams arrived. And even with lower wind, it takes a big lake quite a while to calm down and flatten out after the blow we had experienced that day. I’ll admit Ben and I were a little bit disappointed. We completely understood and agreed with the decision to shorten the course! The warming tent in Baysville was awesome. And… snacks! But we also knew that Lake of Bays could have played to our strengths. We had our bearings to the various waypoints set, and we were faster on the water than the other hulls in our pack. We still had a lot of energy in reserve in anticipation of the final 30km segment of the Classic course. Our spirits were high. I suppose we’ll have to go back and do the race again. After all, it was ridiculously fun.
So should “serious” racers paddle the MRX? Absolutely not. Don’t do it. Leave it to those of us who paddle Stock canoes and like to have fun.
Two paddlers, having fun. [photo credit: Limelight Muskoka]