When paddlers of all means glide through the Mississippi River for a weekend of canoe races in early summer, they’ll dip into an activity that has coursed through state waters for generations.
Canoe racing doesn’t get the ink of other big-time sports like the Minnesota Twins or even related recreational pursuits like Boundary Waters adventures – but in simpler times it generated front-page material for the masses.
Minneapolis’ summer Aquatennial celebration, going on 83 years, played a major part. Its Paul Bunyan “canoe derby” of 450 miles from Bemidji to Minneapolis garnered wide acclaim. Its finish, too — when spent paddlers floated into the city — marked the Aquatennial’s official start. The marathon made canoe racers like Tom Estes and Eugene Jensen sports stars in their own right.
Their predecessors also drew wild interest according to published accounts. The 1941 Paul Bunyan derby was won by two Chicagoans, Howie Oslund and Bob Robinson, who arrived in close to 66 hours, their final sprint watched by 100,000 people lining the banks of the river from Washington to Franklin avenues.
The canoe race ended in the early 1960s, but racing? Far from it. It’s a heritage activity with a loyal base — like fishing or hunting or Nordic skiing — that helps define life in the state’s outdoors. The front-page headlines have faded from memory, but the desire to hit the water in-state and across North America is unabated.
Longtime friends and paddlers Scott Miller and Todd Foster have a ready-made audience for their new events in June, but they are hoping to attract newcomers, too. Both have channeled their passion for covering long distances in a canoe into the Two Paddles Canoe and Kayak Races, June 10-12, on the Mississippi River.
Two Paddles includes several races, ranging in distances from 140 miles (Brainerd to Coon Rapids) to 7 1/2 miles. The main event, called the MR 140, begins June 10 and includes some night paddling and portaging, in line with other national canoe races — obscure to the general public but revered in canoe racing’s tight-knit community. Currently there are 58 registered for the MR 140 from 15 states and Manitoba, Canada, Miller said, and among them a paddleboarder. Running solo, in tandem or in teams, they’ll finish at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park, the ultimate endpoint for all of the Two Paddles events June 12.
The weekend of races also includes the MR 48, MR 25, and MR 10 (miles), formerly the Mighty Miss races organized by Roland Ring-Jarvi.
The 7 ½-mile event is considered a recreational outing and includes shuttle service. Participants will paddle from Coon Rapids to Minneapolis and get driven back to the regional park and a post-race party.
Miller likes to make headlines. Just last year, he and three others attempted to break the speed record for a paddle of the Mississippi River from start to finish — Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. (He and a new team will make another attempt in 2023 after 2021’s try capsized – literally – within hours of reaching New Orleans.) Miller also is a veteran of prestigious races like the Missouri 340, the longest continuous paddle race in the world and, he says, its “egalitarian” approach that pulls in small river towns in support. That all-comer vibe even in something so grueling inspired the Two Paddles weekend, Miller said, and what it might become.
But Miller also looks back, with a nod to Minnesota’s racing glory years like those during the Paul Bunyan.
“I feel that we are reviving that a bit,” he added.
Racing at the core
The Minnesota Canoe Association (MCA) wanted in on the Two Paddles weekend, too. It’s organized (and is finishing details on) a “high school championship” for teen canoeists and kayakers June 12 and also at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park.
The MCA’s involvement is fitting because the group’s origin is canoe racing. Friends in 1961 formed the MCA while looking to coalesce around their activity and develop as racers. Today, it remains rooted in racing while also offering classes in areas like whitewater kayaking and canoeing, said president Emily Broderson. There are 305 members.
Like any sport, training is foundational to the MCA. There are weekly meetups and even Rookie Nights in the summer to focus on, for example, efficient stroke technique, how to manage racing canoes engineered for speed, and how to fine-tune strategies like drafting off others.
They take to the Rum River in Anoka, areas of the Mississippi, and the Rice Creek Chain in Lino Lakes, among others. And this summer a tradition will resume after a pandemic hiatus: Hoigaard’s will host Thursday night training on the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis.
All that effort will propel Minnesota racers in events out of state, too. The sport’s Triple Crown is coveted: the General Clinton Canoe Regatta, a 70-mile, single-day race on New York’s Susquehanna River in May; the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon, 120 miles on the Au Sable River in Michigan in July; and the La Classique, aka The Classic, on Quebec’s St. Maurice River, over 125 miles and three days in September.
Steve Peterson of Anoka is a familiar face at MCA outings, a direct connection to the long reach of Minnesota canoe racing. Peterson’s dad, Irvin (aka Buzz), did multiple Paul Bunyan derbies and traveled into Canada to race. His father was a bow paddler, and Steve was next up if a training partner was absent. Peterson recalled jumping in the stern as young as 10.
Peterson said the competition was just as intense off the water, with pioneers like Jensen focused on designing the fastest canoe or creating the lightest paddle. Wenonah Canoe has retired several Jensen-designed models that are still go-to vessels among racers.
Peterson’s racing resume includes events across the country and parts of Canada (including the three before they were linked as a Triple Crown). He and his wife Bonnie paddled The Classic in 1977. Bonnie was the first woman at the time to compete in the race.
The racing lot is a distinct breed, he said. Comfortable paddling in the Boundary Waters, it isn’t.
“It takes a certain person,” Peterson said, “because it’s hard.”
While the intensity and skills involved are timeless, the makeup of racers has diversified all these decades on. More women in the sport has made it better, Peterson said.
“We really enjoy each other … there is a lot of socializing rather than just beating ourselves up,” he added.
Broderson, the MCA president, agreed about the camaraderie. She said the common DNA in active members, whether they commit to training nights every week or are among the pocket that races around North America, is the level of investment.
And that helps in part explain canoe racing’s longevity years after the bright lights of public celebrations have faded.
“It is a Minnesota thing,” she said.
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