Duluth Paddlesport & Surfing Rendezvous 20 Mile Marathon Paddling Challenge
Note: Below is a very first guest blog on TC Surfski. This is an awesome story from Amy Carlson, a customer and very close friend in Duluth, MN. I encouraged Amy to share her story in hopes of getting more women excited about surfski paddling. Please forward this to all the women you know. We need to encourage more of them to join us on the water. Surfski paddling is as much about finesse as anything, and I know first hand that women can absolutely compete with the best of the men. So lets get more of them out there!
I initially heard about this race from Nick a week ago while visiting Traverse City and was intrigued by the prospect of doing a race that was literally in my backyard. I spend most of my time paddling alone on Lake Superior, and was in love with the idea of paddling with others for a change.
That initial excitement quickly waned when I went to the website and read all the details – 20 miles (twice as long as I’d ever paddled), all the required emergency equipment (flares, gps, paddle leash, bilge – though that was only for traditional kayaks), and either a route along the shore or a route ACROSS the lake from Brule to Lester. I immediately decided I was out and didn’t give it another thought all week.
On Thursday morning, a paddler from the Twin Cities texted to see if I’d be up for mountain biking Sunday after the race, which sounded great – I just got a new 29er and have been riding nonstop, but then he mentioned how nice the conditions would be for the surfski race. He also mentioned it would be along the shoreline, from Lester to Agate Bay in Two Harbors. I quickly fired off about 5 different excuses for why I couldn’t do it (hadn’t paddled more than 6 miles all summer, not sure of my family’s schedule, didn’t have the right safety equipment, etc.) then took a quick look at the forecast. He was right – it looked perfect! SW winds 5-10, warm temps, water temps a balmy 55 degrees. Then he told me another woman was doing the race too – I wouldn’t be the only one. That suddenly sounded doable, because despite the length, it would be downwind in relatively calm water. I made a quick call to the organizer to see if I could still register, and I was in.
A Last Minute Course Change – Yikes
I kept one eye on the forecast – which seemed to be trending S, SE, but staying calm – while gathering all my gear and purchasing some flares. Then suddenly, Friday afternoon, I got an email that the course had changed – it was now going to be a crossing from the mouth of the Brule River in Wisconsin 20 miles across the open waters of Lake Superior to the mouth of the Lester River in Duluth. That meant several hours passing through the shipping lanes, vulnerable to whatever potential weather changes came our way. It made logical sense – the winds were going to be light, there was no sign of any disturbance in the weather, and it would be pretty epic – how many people can say they’ve done that? One half of me was super excited to say I paddled across the lake, while the other half was scared out of my mind. I look across Lake Superior towards the Brule many times a day from my house – and it’s a very, very long way over. Anything could happen in those 20 miles. I told myself if anything changed with the weather, I could always bail.
I had a busy night Friday between registration and other plans with friends, so I didn’t have much time to agonize. However, we had a bonfire on the beach that night and the little swells that came in were a constant reminder of what I was about to do. I reassured myself, however, that at least I was in a super stable Epic V8 – I could’ve been doing it on a SUP, which sounded way scarier to me.
A Sleepless Night
After a sleepless night Friday (literally – I was agonizing over fog, ships, waves, freak storms, and the fact that I would be dead last), Saturday arrived clear and calm. There was some haze just because of the warm weather, but no dreaded fog (yes!). I was in a hurry to get going and head over to Brule (about an hour drive), so I didn’t have time to think about what I was going to do, I just ate, packed and took off.
We arrived about 30 minutes prior to the start – it was great to see the other paddlers, most of whom I had met through Nick while doing the TC Waterman in 2013. They are all great people and a very supportive group. I also got to meet the other woman in the race, who also happens to live in Duluth – we had traded emails but never actually paddled together. It was reassuring to me that she would also be out there, though I knew full well I would be much further back.
With only 8 boats making the crossing, it was a pretty low key start. Just everyone chatting a bit, packing their gear, double checking GPS units, and whatnot. A 10 minute delay for reasons I didn’t catch, but we lined up out on the water, and suddenly, we were off. The winds were light, and the water was super flat. We’d heard the swells were about a foot once we got beyond the protection of the mainland, but nothing big. I could vaguely see the shoreline through the haze, but there was no sign of the Blue Heron, which was the research ship that would serve as our checkpoint halfway across.
Settling in for the Long Haul
As I settled in, I felt strangely comfortable on the water, despite the fact that I was completely alone and paddling away from any shoreline for the next several hours. I’ve spent a lot of time on the water – I grew up on Lake Michigan and summers were spent sailing with my family. I have also done a fair amount of sailboat racing, so I am very comfortable on the water. However, I think that experience also gives me a lot of respect for what the lake can do, so I am probably overly cautious. Still, I didn’t want to look back – or out towards the open water, because then I would think too much about what I was doing. If I just looked ahead and paddled, I was completely fine.
I paddled hard for the first mile or so to see how long I could hang with everyone, but then I started to settle in at a more comfortable pace for me. I knew it was going to be a super long race so I had to be conservative – this was not just about making the crossing, it was also about having the strength to make it the full 20 miles safely, as there really weren’t many options if I had a problem. I was paddling around 10 minute miles initially (very fast for me) and each subsequent lap was slower until about mile 15 when I kicked it in as I could make out key landmarks on shore. My hope was to finish in under 4 hours – I can paddle a 12 minute mile very comfortably – so I was pretty excited at first to be going that fast.
Relieved and Relaxed Paddling the Epic V8
After a couple of miles, the beam waves kicked in. They weren’t big, but they were slightly annoying because it would’ve been way more fun to use them to my advantage – I’m definitely not skilled enough to surf them from that angle at all, so I just had to power through them. And there was also random chop out there – a lot of it was from the jetskis that were sweeping the course, but a lot of it came from nowhere. Again, I was happy to be in my V8 because not once did I go overboard or even feel like I had a close call.
As the miles ticked by, I still couldn’t see much except the paddlers ahead – and no sign of the Blue Heron till about mile 6, so visibility wasn’t great. I was glad I had the paddlers to follow as my gps and compass were packed in my dry bag behind me. At about mile 7, I saw two strange boats in the distance, pretty far to the north. They would come together, then drift apart, and didn’t seem to have much direction. A jetski went over to them and I realized eventually that they were SUPs, which had started an hour before us. As I caught up to them, they literally looked as though they were paddling but not making any forward progress. My confidence soared after seeing them, as I realized that I was in much better shape because I was on a surfski and going way faster. I can’t imagine SUPing all the way across the lake – a good analogy is to compare skateskiing to snowshoeing – why would you choose to go so slow when you can go so much faster? Yes, I know there are times it’s perfect – I have a SUP myself and enjoy cruising around on it, and snowshoeing in a snowstorm is beautiful – but I would never race either one.
Half Way Across and Feeling Strong
It was pretty exciting to pass the Blue Heron – halfway! I was ahead of schedule, making the checkpoint at around 1:53, so I was very happy. There were about 10 -15 people on the boat cheering, which was pretty fun and energizing. That kept me going for another mile or so, when I began to overtake two more SUPs, around miles 12-13. At that point I’d been on the water for over two hours with over an hour to go and I was beginning to get bored out of my mind. I could make out some key landmarks – Northland Estates, the EPA buildings and watertower – but nothing was getting any closer. That was probably the toughest part of the course, as I was now paddling beyond the longest distance I’d ever paddled, I was completely alone with nothing to look at, and still had 8 long miles to go with a crosswind/waves. I began to eat every two miles (until that point I was eating every 3) and drink every mile. That seemed to make the time pass more quickly, because suddenly I was at mile 16 and could make out even more landmarks – the roof of my house, the Lester River Bridge, the lift bridge (finally!), and the bright green mark at the finish. On the official map, it stated it was 18 miles from Brule to Lester, but someone’s GPS said it was 19.75. I was still hopeful it was only 18, but I knew the GPS wouldn’t lie. Then I also had to factor in the fact that I might have added mileage here and there, but I knew I had paddled a pretty straight course. I also knew from experience that something can look very close but still be very far away.
Kicking it in with the End in Sight
After 16 miles, I started kicking it in again. Even though I knew I was still 40 minutes away, I was feeling strong and knew that I had taken it easy enough that I had plenty left to finish strong. It also finally felt like the winds were slightly more aft, and I could catch a swell here and there. I was at ease, knowing that I was very, very close and each mile ticked by pretty quickly. The only slightly dramatic thing that happened was about a mile out a large fishing boat was trolling right in my direction – we were on a collision course and I had no intention of altering my course as I had the right of way, but I also had no idea if he could see me or not. So I just paddled harder and made it past him with no incident.
Finally, I was at the mark and could see people on the shore cheering me on! I felt like I could barely paddle – it was really tough after so many hours to keep going stroke after stroke with my shoulders and arms feeling like they were seizing up but finally I touched the mark with my paddle – and my boat got stuck. I gratefully put my paddle down to yank my boat free and drifted to shore. When I got out, I literally couldn’t stand. It didn’t help that I was barefoot on the rocky shore, but I was amazed at how much that paddle took out of my entire body. Everyone helped get my boat up and ashore and congratulations were there all around. Pretty exciting to catch up with everyone and hear their stories, as I realized today that it’s always a solo paddle for everyone out there.
A Great Finish to an Epic Paddle
I had hoped to finish in 4 hours, and I made it in 3:40, so I was really pleased. And my GPS said I paddled 19.74 miles – a pretty straight course. I knew going into this that I’d be the last one to finish (and I was), but I was much more interested in finishing – and knowing I could actually paddle across the wide open waters of Lake Superior on my surfski. I do a lot of endurance sports – backcountry and skate skiing, mountain biking, etc. – so it’s not so much that I completed a marathon paddle race that is rewarding (though I’m glad I had the stamina to do it), it’s that I was able to overcome my fear of paddling that long of a distance in wide open, deep, and cold waters, with many potential dangers – ships, fog, waves, random squalls, remounting issues. Crossing the greatest of great lakes on a late September day was pretty epic – it may not ever happen again for me, but every time I look out at the lake towards the Brule I smile to myself and can’t believe I actually did that.