Big Ole Paddlefest Race Report
Race Day: Friday, July 15, 2022 – 8am
My second year at Big Ole and fourth paddling race of all time started in a frenzy as I didn’t have a strap for my cell phone and 8 o’clock was only minutes away. I frantically searched through my car for the strap on the identical phone drybag given as a racer prize for the ’22 race as was given for at the ’21 version. I got my phone latched on, ran my board to the dock and hopped on. This race was very laid back, however, with 5 or 8 racers of various different types of watercraft and the starting announcements took a bit. Yet, that was straightforward and brief, no questions and so someone yelled “3, 2, 1, GO!”, a speedboat took off in front of us and the handful of paddlers churned up the water off Lake Miltona’s eastern boat launch.
I was really excited for this race – last year was pretty cool and this year ended at Lake Miltona. Well, I thought it ended there, which is the same lake I’ve been visiting for 20 years or so at my parents’ cabin. It actually started on Miltona and I had been reading the map wrong until the day before, after work Thursday night when I made the four-hour drive from Duluth to the cabin and I was hanging out with my mom.
I knew the distance and course would be fun and beneficial for training for the Boundary Waters adventure later on in the summer/early fall. But, I had just come off a wrist-wrecking trip in the BWCA and was kind of worried I was overstressing my hand. I noticed some weird twinging while cleaning the kitchen counter. Em said it was carpal tunnel. But, I noticed something off in my hand and could feel the strain when paddling. I mean, thousands and thousands of strokes adds up when my body hadn’t been trained smartly and sustainably over the course of months and years to take that abuse. But on race day, I paddled across Lake Miltona with a really nice wind – light and mostly at a tailwind – feeling physically and mentally excellent.
Previous year participant with a second-place finish, previous winner, Duluth resident and world-renowned stand up paddleboard person Jared Munch was not on the pre-registration list but showed up, and he and a kayaker pinned left and toward the other side of the lake faster than me from the start, and all the way three miles to the riverway between Lakes Miltona and Ida. My splits looked good right away, and the morning seemed humid with sweat dripping from my brow minutes in.
I had scoped the connection between the two lakes a couple weeks prior over the Fourth of July, but didn’t go beyond a rock and/or metal dam right in from Lake Miltona. I struggled there but quickly got on my board on the other side and enjoyed the current towards Lake Ida. I knew Ida was going to be a nice downwind straight south for about 5 miles, and I was excited to see Jared and the gal up ahead on the river pretty close to me. The waterway was about 20 feet wide and really cool. I saw all types of fish and it was a quick flash of a couple different ecosystems. SO COOL! I approached a culvert at County Road 5 and there were people standing, including my mom cheering me on. I yelled to see if I could make it through and they said he got stuck. Huh?? So I figured I’d portage over the road. I got out and schlepped my board right up onto my hip, motioning with my other hand for a volunteer to move aside. People were doing some minor traffic control and I was able to dash across the road, then lost my footing and my board slammed down to the water, perhaps scraping some concrete. I thought for about less than 0.02 seconds and just jumped in after my board with the spirit of the race burning bright inside. And I was off to Lake Ida.
A few more twists and turns and I got out to the Lake Ida delta. There was a sand bar and it took a little bit to navigate out to the open sea. The wind was a little breezy at maybe 8 miles per hour, but a straight tailwind. A boater with the white volunteer flag pulled up next to me and asked if I knew where to go. Straight across? He pointed and said towards the point. My mom or the boater or someone had said there was a big yellow floating banana to indicate where to go. I scanned the shoreline and figured I had a long way to go before I’d be able to make out the next lake connection. Just aim for the smallest shoreline, I told myself, then kept cranking.
I was making good time on Ida. I flew past a neat sand bar towards the middle of the lake and realized I was definitely on a good trajectory towards the other end. I could see the other two boats in front of me – they had made ground since the river. Shoot. But, I could learn from their mistakes and see where they go in! It looked like they had to backtrack. I saw no bananas but an entry and they disappeared. Jared and the kayaker might be far off, but being able to see them was a nice benefit. When I got closer I saw them clamoring on the left side of a dam structure. We were probably supposed to go on the right side of a dam, but that had a big concrete wall and so I went left despite a NO TRESPASSING sign. I saw a person walking away on the grass towards a house but kept quiet and swiftly clamored onto the riverbank rocks and into the river past the a dam. I hopped back on, especially proud of my quick portage when I saw Jared and the kayaker right up ahead. Sweet. I can use technical speed to my advantage with lots more lake switches to come. I went down a very similar river as was 5 miles back and paddled hard to accompany the current pushing me. The river way was quite winding and you couldn’t see 5 feet ahead without having to turn 90 degrees. Therefore, I lost the two ahead. Plus, the branches were very obscuring. A branch hit my face and stung my lip. I wiped my gloved thumb across the spot that hurt and saw blood. What is a race if you don’t have a little blood, sweat and tears??
Onto another turn and there was a culvert with volunteers. I asked if I had to portage. They said I could fit if I go down. I went on my knees, pushed a few times to orient myself to the tunnel, went down to my stomach and let the current sweep me in. In the dark, I felt the need to use my hands to steer and move forward even faster. The light got brighter, out the other side and Jared and the kayaker were closer than ever. In fact, I caught up! Jared said: “you are right there man!”, and I replied very simply, nah. I wasn’t right there – they were crushing me on the open water paddling and I just happened to be scrappy and swift on the transitions between lakes. Yet, there were many lakes to come. I knew that and it motivated me to say right on Jared’s tail. He wasn’t even paddling hard. What the heck. Onto another lake and I tried to peek my phone while they paddled ahead. I went askew, which is never a good strategy, thinking I had a better track. I was ahead momentarily. But across the small lake – more like a pond, really – and I was still in third place. Another narrower river. Some weeds. Lots of weeds. Big lillypads. I was conscious of weeds. They weren’t sticking. Excellent. A bend, another curve and I lost them. Another right curve, a bigger expanse and the two were ahead by 100 feet or so. At least a minute or two if they stopped dead and I kept thrashing…
I had to acknowledge my phone, the screen saver on which was the course map that I screenshotted and saved, to wayfind. If I would have just trusted Jared and the kayaker’s direction, I would have been right by them and more efficient. I second-guessed them the whole time. Through weedy narrows, to deep narrows, to actual lakes, through low culverts and back onto something between a river, lake and a marsh and I was essentially all by myself. I was starting to get sore at this point, and my paddle stroke was certainly different that hours before. I was about at mile 15 at this point, in between Lake Stony and Taylor Lake, and had been paddling pretty much nonstop except portaging dams or hand paddling through culverts for over three hours. I had only stopped paddling to eat one gel. I was ready to be done. I figured there was one more lake left. Wait, maybe this is the last lake? I don’t know. I knew the course turned from more southerly to more northerly for the last lake or two, and with a prime north wind pushing us all day, the last stretch would be hard. Under a last bridge and the volunteers said it was towards the left on this last lake. Volunteer boaters confirmed it was the last lake – Lake Darling – and the finish was at the big building towards the left. I remembered from last year. That is a sweet sight. Coming at it from the opposite way, in a headwind, firmly in third place with nobody behind me and no way to catch Jared Munch, first place paddleboard finisher and the kayaker he seemed to be glued to the entire time, I had it much easier than last year. Last year, I thought I would get overtaken twice on the last lake. Today, I brought it right in, happy to see 3 and not 4 in the hour slot on my watch. I had one last frustration trying to get into the Arrowwood Beach to run to the finish. I didn’t think that the far left side of the dock was a viable route, and I didn’t want to go all the way around to the right like the year prior. I hit the dock straight on and hippy jumped over it, referencing my old skateboarding trick knowledge and also thinking that I’d probably not be able to make the maneuver and fall in the lake within sight of the finish line. That luckily didn’t happen and I paddled in for third place, super happy with a sub-four hour finish time by quite a bit. My hands, wrist (most importantly) and body felt good afterwards and it was an outstanding course.