blog banner

blog banner

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Race Report: Muskoka River X 80k (Canoe Race) 2017

We were back for our second year of Muskoka River X - the hilariously named "Sprint" distance of 80km.

This race is amazing - it's a true paddling adventure, with some remoteness and just stunning beauty throughout.
2017 start on Fairy Lake at sunrise


Our 2016 attempt was pretty much hell.  Awesome adventure hell, but still hell.  It poured rain, the lake was rockin' and rollin' from strong wind, and we screwed up pretty much every portage.  We spent a staggering 2h18m portaging.. oh and we flipped in the rapids... I don't use the term "shit show" lightly - it was a shit show.

The Start

This year we thought we did what we did last year - hang back a bit and avoid the chaos.

Except we didn't avoid the chaos - instead we found ourselves in the swirling wash that follows the lead boats when they all make wake at the same time... we kept our whits about us and managed to get to the bridge in one piece (and with the boat right-side-up!).

... and then someone smoked us from behind.  Completely spun our boat so we were now pointing across the river instead of up it... at which point we collided with another boat trying to shoot up the gut.

Fortunately neither of us went over, but the boat we hit had a little spazz (presumably assuming we had steered there incompetently!?).

So that was the start.  I don't know what to do differently last year other than hang on and hope we don't flip, again.  You can't win the race in the first 5 minutes but you sure can mess it up!

Fairy and Pen Lakes

These lakes we knew well, and just settled into our normal stroke rate.  Other than being beautiful there was nothing all that remarkable about our trip across the lake - passed a bunch of boats.

Portage #1

This one is long - 1.7km, the majority of which is uphill.

One of the things we messed up last year was we tried an experimental strap approach to carrying the boat.  Basically we had luggage straps on either end of the boat to carry it.

It was horrible, the boat kept smacking in, the strap didn't distribute the weight well, and we were both struggling the whole day with it (especially on the long portages).

This year we attached pads with bungee cords to the bottom of the boat and shouldered it.  It worked much, much better... we still got passed, though, by boats using the yoke (where the partner carried the contents).  But the top teams seem to carry it on their shoulder without removing anything from the boat... so I'm not 100% sure what the right way to go is.

It was definitely an improvement - we went from 24+ minutes to 19 minutes.

Lake of Bays

Last year this was a bubbling cauldron of frothy hell.  The wind was so strong, the waves were huge, we were fighting the boat and chop the entire lake (3h25m to cover the ~24km!).

This year - calm!  Perfect!  I think we even had a tailwind at the start.  We easily navigated in and out of the mandatory bay checkpoints, and could actually soak in the surroundings.  Remarkable.

We actually caught and passed the team in 3rd in our division - on track for a podium!  Yay us!

... except we eventually had to stop for our planned water replenishment break.  I don't think we saw them again the rest of the race (and they ended up beating us by 7 minutes - damn).
Leaving Baysville, feeling great!

2 hours and 43 minutes, we were in Baysville for the Portage #2 - we had shaved 42 minutes off of last year's Lake of Bays misadventure (and 53 minutes overall time quicker to this point).

Muskoka River - Portage-a-palooza

Portage #2 we did in 5 minutes rather than 9 minutes - and that was a straight-forward portage (that one was more about our confidence than route knowledge!).  Last year we were so dainty about getting our feet wet - this year we charged right in.

The portages are rough.  These aren't your provincial park marked take-outs and put-ins, all cleared and pretty.  There is the odd trail, but mostly it's just where people have trudged enough to make a path.  The put-ins are often rocky or muddy, sometimes in water still moving quick.

So our brilliant plan after the Disastrous Portaging of 2016 was to paddle the river beforehand to familiarize ourselves with the portages- really think them through and have a plan.

Route knowledge made a huge difference.
Muskoka River - Fall Colours Already!?

Now I wasn't religious enough about hitting my lap button on my Garmin, but I'll go back and check them all out at some point... I know for sure we shaved a massive amount of time off here.  No messing around, no choosing the wrong side of the river... I didn't slip and bash my shin on a rock.  We didn't flip the boat on the fast rapid section.

Everything we screwed up in 2016 we nailed in 2017.

Portaging Technique

We shouldered the boat, using home-made padding on longer portages.  This worked well - mostly because you don't have to empty it and flip it over.

But... we got passed.  A lot.  Some teams were using the yoke, some shouldering it (but managing to find speed we couldn't).  I still think we are carrying just too much weight - when we looked at the top 2 teams in the 130km, they were lean and mean with the water - one small bottle?  Or a 2L each.  We were carrying about 4L each - that's 8kg, or almost 20 pounds - in addition to all the other mandatory equipment (and non-mandatory).  It's too much, getting weight down is going to be a big thing for next year.

River Continued

The only bummer this year was the current.  We had been out the weekend before as I said, but the current had dropped significantly since then.  Where last weekend we'd averaged 10+km/h without any effort, now we were averaging 8.5 even with trying... and near the end the headwind definitely made a difference, it mostly canceled out the current on the longer stretches.

Early River Portages

These are mostly short, quickly in and out.  We made pretty quick work of them (unlike last year!).

After the first river portage there's a swift river section - last year we hit a rock and flipped, then were carried downstream... so this year we stayed closer to the center/center-right, and no trouble at all.

Portage #8

This is where things went really bad last year... it's longer and around a waterfall - and last year I slipped, dropped the boat, and crashed my shin into a rock opening a huge gash.  Oh and before that we went too far down a trail, missed the put-in.

It took us over 15 minutes last year - this year it took us just 7m30.  No calamities, we had the right route down to the put-in, yay!

Portage #9

This one is on an island and it's remarkably straightforward... for some reason last year we took out on the right bank instead last year (stupidly following another team) - and screwing around there cost us 16+ minutes.

This year - closer to 8 minutes (and that included several minutes to make some extra water!).

Portage #10

2016 - 9m42s
2017 - 6m30s

This improvement was mostly technique... I remember we had trouble getting out at the take-out last time, this time we didn't - and our carrying technique was great.  Oh and I stopped to pee, otherwise we'd have been even faster.

Portage #11 - Matthiasville Dam

2016 - 9m45s
2017 - 7m

The put-in here is rocky and to get down to it requires a crazy back and forth twisty motion - which 18 foot canoes don't exactly excel at.  It would have saved us a minute or two if it were on our head, but not sure that's the best overall strategy for all the portages... gah.

Portage #12 - Threthewey Dam

Last year we got out too early and had to bushwack!  This year we went right up to the bridge (which is where the sign actually is).

(I think in general last year we were too tentative around the dams - they're actually very well marked as far as where the danger lies, this year we knew where to get out so no tentativeness)

2016 - 9m08s
2017 - 6m20s

Portage #13 - Muskoka Falls

This is a big one - 1.4km

2016 - 20:14
2017 - 17:30

I'm surprised we didn't make up more time on this one... we were fast, efficient, didn't have to put the boat down.  But last year we were fighting for position right through this portage - we lost a place and made one up!  So I think we had the bit between our teeth more and pushed, this year we strolled along purposefully but not race-fully.  We knew everyone was too far ahead to catch, or too far behind to catch up.

The Finish!

Fast final half hour downstream (in great current and no headwind!) and we were done!

10h27, compared to last year's 12h14!  7th fastest overall for the 80k (out of 29).  Our team of 2 male stock category we finished 4th (again).


Most of our time saving was NOT conditioning... we're not any faster at paddling (and we paddled less this year).  It was the weather on the lake, and the awesome improvement in our portaging skill.  We were just smarter and better prepared this year.


Cramping - I had some problems with cramping wrists/fingers - at points it was so bad I could barely unclench my fist... it passed, though.  I have to focus more (and sooner) on keeping a lighter grip on the paddle.  I tend to really clench it, especially when we're paddling harder - this isn't the right thing to do!

My abs also cramped up at one point quite badly, just being in that paddling position (sitting) for so long seems to eventually catch up with me.  That's mostly conditioning I figure, just need to paddle more.

Nutrition - I drank a lot of Gatorade (8L!) and ate some Cliff Gel block things.  I felt flush with energy, even when my muscles started to fatigue I felt good.  So that was spot on.

Weight - we need to get the boat lean and mean.  The boat is fine - it's light!  All the stuff in it though needs to be trimmed right down.

Water - related to weight - I want to get the water carrying down, which means figuring out a better way to quickly purify water.  I'm thinking using just regular water bottles might be the way to go... quickly refill one with a purification tablet / Gatorade that's ready to go while drinking from another, then switch.  I'm just not sure how to get this quick, or how to drink without taking too long of a break from paddling.  Currently we use 2L jugs with straws all hooked up- it's easy to drink from, but so very heavy.

The right technique???  Where's your partner, bro?
Portaging Technique - I really want to figure out what's fastest - we saw everything.  Top teams were shouldering the boat, but some flipped it over and put it on their heads (the winning team did this - with both carrying it, not using a yoke!!!).

To flip it over everything in the boat has to be completely firmly fastened, no tolerance for things to fall out at all.

Other teams had one person carrying gear, the other with the boat on the head.  Again - everything has to be fastened or carried... I'm just not sure which is the best, could be some trial and error (and most of all, practice!).


I was trying to figure out what we could do to challenge ourselves in 2018 - I wouldn't say we've mastered it, but doing the 80km tandem again would be a bit same-old same-old.

My first thought was to do the "Classice" 130km, but somewhere around 50km I realized that was crazy.  At 80km I definitely wasn't thinking "boy I wish there were 6 or 7 more hours of this!".  I'm sure we could do it, but there's a certain level of suffering/exhaustion that seems one portage too far.

My second thought was solo.  It would take longer and introduce some paddling in the dark by the end - something we haven't had to deal with.  More of a challenge, and a different kind of challenge.  Exciting idea.

Then they solved my problem at the closing banquet... they're running the race in the opposite direction next year!

They didn't have full details - but this would mean we would be on the North Branch of the Muskoka River instead of the South Branch for most of the race!  As 80k paddlers we've never seen that part - totally intriguing.  Not only that, it would take out almost all the lake paddling (which can be horrible in the wrong conditions, ie. 2016).  And we'd have to paddle up-river most likely, portaging UP past Muskoka Falls, and the other dams.

Finishing where?  Who knows?  I trust the organizers will come up with something brilliantly exciting and diabolical.

See you next year!


Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed your blog on the canoe race. Incredible achievement this year. Sounds like you two need to be back next year as the podium is waiting.

Trevor said...

I used the water tablets last year to make water. This year I picked up an in line filter for my water bladder. No waiting fill and your ready. My pfd also has a pouch that fits a 2L bladder. Thus removing any weight from water out of the boat now. Great read of the experience from a fellow competitor.