The Muskoka River X is an ultra-distance paddling expedition race that takes place in Huntsville, Canada, presented by Algonquin Outfitters. The 2019 edition took place from 13th – 15th September and included 3 race formats; Muskoka River X Sprint (58km Sprint), the Muskoka River X Classic (MRX 130km 1-day), and the newer & more gruelling Coureur des Bois – a 2-day, 220km, ultimate marathon expedition paddling race that is fully self-supported across a mix of flat-water lake and river paddling.
Starboard’s ultra-endurance paddler, Bart de Zwart headed to Huntsville to take part in his 2nd of 3 major events of the year. For this year’s event, Bart challenged himself to complete the long 220km Coureur des Bois on paddleboard where the Dutch paddler was one of only 20 teams to have successfully completed the race out of a field of 68 teams that started. This year was a particularly challenging year for the competitors due to headwinds and other harsh weather conditions. Bart’s never-give-up attitude meant that he was the only Stand Up Paddleboarder (SUP) competitor to finish.
Bart de Zwart recaps the 2019 Muskoka River X challenge, complimented with some very lovely pics courtesy of the event organisers.
«The X in this race stands for unknown – weel, at least for me – as you never know what you gonna get. This held true for this year’s race. There are three options to do this race; the Sprint 58km, the Classic MRX 130km and the Coureur des Bois 223km.
I opted for the Coureur des Bois, the two-day versions of this race, which on the 2nd day joins the MRX and Sprint version. This is traditionally a Canoe race but also an adventure race because you can only use maps and compass and have to find your own way through the lakes, rivers and portages (trekking overland to get past places where you cannot paddle, like waterfalls). There are 38 portages in this race which means you have to put your gear in your bag and the board or canoe on your shoulder and walk or run and find your way through the forest or path to the next entry point into the water each time.
It’s not your typical Stand Up Paddle race, to say the least, but an adventure where map reading skills are critical and mental strength even more. On top of things you have to bring mandatory gear to make it through the two days – gear to eat, sleep and stay alive. It is essential that you keep this gear to a minimum, because you have to walk around with it, but at the same time you need enough food, as well as warm and dry clothing to make this race. There is no outside help allowed.
In total, 68 teams showed up at the start of which only 6 craft were stand up paddleboards with only 15 teams tacking the full two-day course. With the two day course, you paddle for around 12 hrs to get to a campsite where you have to make your own camp and eat what you brought in your pack.
We started at 7 am in Witney in Algonquin Park in the fog. This year the fog was not too bad and we could see the other side of the lake. We have had years where some team lost their way in the first hours of the race because of the fog. My goal was to get in at the campsite before nightfall which would mean that I didn’t have to do any portages in the dark. A portage is not easy during the day, let alone in the dark. It is not easy to find the start of the portage and sometimes very hard to find the path when it is dark, So we try to avoid that. It started out with very nice weather, sunny and a light wind from the back. Everything was going well. I had a good pace and was in a good position even compared to the faster two man canoes.
I was using the All Star 14 x 24.5. For me the board of choice because of the volume and width – you bring plenty of gear and it is still very fast.
We were warned that this year the water was extremely low. I use a Black Project G10 fin because G10 is stronger and you can sand it, to make it like new again, if you hit a few rocks. Fortunately, this year I did not hit too many rocks. The river was very shallow in many places. We had to watch out not to get stuck and fly off your board headfirst in the water or break of a fin (note: I always carry a spare fin for events like this).
After 6 hrs of paddling, even with the low water, I was still doing a good time, but the wind started picking up and dark clouds started to come in. The rain started with a drizzle, then it became a pour. My most important piece of clothing is a very good @GoreTex jacket. Staying dry and warm in a race like this is essential. Paddling on the river is sometimes a never-ending amount of bends left and right, making the river a lot longer than it looks on the map. A few times the river got so narrow and small and so low that I asked myself if I totally misread the map and got lost. By 5 o’clock it looked like it was already getting dark. The clouds were so thick that it took a lot of daylight away. The campsite was still far away.
In focus on racing, you sometimes forget that you are paddling in a beautiful place, in a National Park, is a great country. I was reminded by that when a moose swam across the river right in front of me. You only realize how enormous they are when they get out on the dry on the other side. Beautiful!
I had seen only two other canoe teams close to me during the day but when night fell, and it started pouring rain, with lightning and thunder in the distance, I was very alone, finding my way in the last portages.
My headlight didn’t help much because the rain reflected all the light. I did find my way and came in at 9 pm after 14 hrs of paddling with the lightning getting a little too close the last kilometre. I came in like a drowned cat, wet and cold ready for a good meal and sleep. I found some shelter and my good friends in the 2-man canoe, dad Paul Adams and son (15yrs) Isaac came in ahead of me. We traded stories while making our dry-freeze meals, eating as much as we could. Soon after I fell in a short but deep sleep in my survival blanket.
I woke up at 4:30 am with one hour to eat and get ready for the next day. 6 hours of sleep but I felt refreshed and as new (mentally yes, psychically probably not really).
A short transfer brought us to the start of day two. The rest of stand up paddlers and canoes joined us here. The weather looked a lot better, dry and cloudy. But the wind was strong and straight from the direction we had to paddle to. I had a great start and felt great until we came onto the lake – windy and chop head-on. Only 4 kilometers until the next river. This river goes into Lake Mary where I expected the wind to be slightly from the back. But when I got closer I dreaded that it would be slightly from the front. By the time I got to Lake Mary, I realized it was a strong headwind with sizeable chop. I decided to get to the far west side of the lake to be a little in the wind shadow. This was the longer route but it would save me energy if I made it there and to be honest I thought it would be the only way to get across this lake on a stand-up paddleboard.
Later I heard that 10 teams had to be rescued and didn’t make the lake, many capsizing and getting stranded somewhere. Very slowly I made way to the other side, using a lot of energy I needed later. I took me a lot longer but I got to the end of the lake on Port Sydney eventually. I paid a big price, I used a lot more effort and took it easy for the next hour and a half to regain strength. It was still a very long race. Now again in the river the wind was still mostly against but a lot more manageable than open water. That portages are essential, I realized again when I saw one canoe team missing one and going straight over the falls ending up swimming and getting washed up on carver bank. I helped them gather some gear which was swimming around and I was on my way again.
I lost a lot of time and with a cut off time of 4 pm at the next town I had to work hard to make it. Running around the last portage, a dam with a waterfall, I still had 11 minutes to get to the Bracebridge cut off, which I made by 3 min.
It was already 4 pm and still a very long way to go. It was going to be a very long night. I kept eating and drinking as much as I could to keep the energy levels up. We were now finally going in the right direction for the wind, but it was shutting down and by night it was gone. By then the organization told me at one of the portages that the finish would be in Baysville about 35 km before the original finish, which at that point I didn’t mind. When it got dark I teamed up with Paul and Isaac and Macenzie. The river was very low and I had a hard time to paddle in many places. Also finding the portages was a major task in the night. As soon as it gets dark your overall speed slows down a lot because of the portages. With some cursing at times, we did find our way through the cold but now clear night with a full moon. If it wasn’t for the tiredness I would have enjoyed it even more because it was a beautiful night. Just before 1 am we arrived at the put forward finish line. The shortened course took me more than 32 hrs which is more than the full course normally takes me.
Out of the 68 teams only 20 made it to the finish line and I was the only SUP. This was one of the hardest years of the Muskoka X. One other standup paddler Mike Crouzat did almost make the cut off which was heartbreaking for him to be denied to continue. One other mention, Danielle Holdsworth raced the Coureur des Bois on a Starboard Sprint, she had to abandon during the frist night in the thunderstorm when time was running out. But she did rather well for the first race of this caliber.
Due to the conditions, the Stand up board was not the easiest choice for this race but I heard many voices that they want to try out next year on a SUP. And the great organizers Mike Varieur and Rob Horton will come up with a new course next year and will introduce 2-man and 4-man SUP from Starboard, which will make a very interesting new class.
This was the stop 2 of my 3 ultra-distance SUP weekends. Next week the Great Glen in Scotland.
Cheers ~ Bart