Imagine a race challenge so extreme that only 20 teams out of 68 finished it this year due to radical weather conditions. Imagine only one stand up paddler among those teams who completed the race in 32 hours. Welcome to The Muskoka River X Coureur des Bois challenge: 223km. 39 portages. No resupplies. No support. Navigation with only map and compass. Flat-water. Up-river. Down-river. Marshlands, swamp and more. TotalSUP caught up with with Starboard Dream Team Rider and an ultra endurance paddler, Bart de Zwart, to capture his account of this true Canadian back-country expedition race.
Paddleboarding Muskoka River X Coureur des Bois
Building on the heritage of the canal expeditions of the 1800’s, the Coureur des Bois challenges even the most experienced expedition and marathon paddlers. Teams travel along the heritage routes of the Algonquin Peoples and early explorers as they traverse Algonquin Park east to west from Whitney to Oxtongue Lake, Ontario, Canada.
Coureur des Bois is one of three race categories including a 58km Muskoka River X Sprint, a 133km Muskoka River X Classic and a 223km Muskoka River X Coureur des Bois which Bart de Zwart chose to conquer. Here’s Bart’s account of this incredible adventure expedition.
Muskoka River X Day One: Stand up paddling into the wild
“The X in this race stands for (at least for me): “You never know what you gonna get”. This was very true for this year’s Coureur des Bois 223km challenge. This is traditionally a Canoe race but also and adventure race because you can only use maps and compass and have to find your own way through the lakes, rivers and portages (a way over land to get past places where you cannot paddle, like waterfalls). There are 39 portages in this race. This 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.
To say the least, not your typical stand up paddle race. 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. 68 teams showed up at the start of which only 6 stand up paddler racers. Only 15 teams raced 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 7am in Witney in the 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 Starboard AllStar 14’0” 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. And I did hit many, many rocks this time. The river was very shallow in many places. We had to watch out not to get stuck and fly off your board head first in the water or break of a fin. (I always carry a spare).
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, in a great country. I was reminded by that when a moose swam across the river right in front if 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 head light didn’t help much because the rain reflected all the light. I did find my way and came in at 9pm after 14 hrs of paddling with the lightning getting a little too close the last kilometer. 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 (15 years old) 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.
Muskoka River X Day two: Bracing the head winds and shallows
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 use 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 Mary lake 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 Mary lake I realized it was a strong head wind with big 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 paddle board.
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 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, 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 stand up paddler Mike Crouzat almost made the cut off which was heart breaking for him to be denied to continue. One other mention, Danielle Holdsworth raced the Coureur des Bois on a Starboard Sprint, unfortunately she had to abandon during the first 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 a paddleboard 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 a 2-man and a 4-man SUP from Starboard, which will make a very interesting new class.
This was the second stop of my three ultra distance SUP weekends. Next week is the Great Glen in Scotland.”
Massive congratulations to Bart de Zwart and the Starboard Team!
To find out more about the Great Glen SUP Race, visit www.ukpaddleenduranceseries.com