Paddling to the Podium in the City with the Heart of Gold

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Welcome to another edition of ‘Where the heck is Steve, and what is he racing in this time?’ Well, the briefest of answers to that question is that I was in Timmins, Ontario racing in the Great Canadian Kayak Challenge, and covering said event for Get Out There Magazine. I have to admit right off the bat that this event was not on my radar earlier this year, and I didn’t really have the intention of making that kind of trip. However, when a cancellation came up, and it was offered up to me, I decided: What the heck? Why not? I like paddling, and I like traveling, so why not combine them together? And so this trip was hatched. Sadly, it would be a solo trip for me this time around, as I was flying up, and Deanna had other plans. I didn’t have time to snap too many pictures, but I did put together a whiz-bang video review once again, so please check it out! The trip was also a pretty much in-and-out kinda trip, so I couldn’t play tourist as much as I’d hoped.

Right off the bat, I was faced with a few annoyances about my trip. I had booked the tickets months back, and even 12 hours before departure, my flight was confirmed AND I was checked in. Arriving at the airport at 6:40am, I learn my flight was cancelled from Ottawa to Toronto. Grrr. So, instead of arriving by 11:30am, I’d be touching down well after 6pm. Not only that, but due to work commitments, I was forced to stay in the airport all day and work over free wi-fi and take conference calls. Not ideal. I could have driven up quicker than the time it actually took me to get there. Oh well, I’d rather they ground a plane with mechanical issues than put me on it I suppose!

Pictures from the Trip


On arrival, I went straight to my hotel, the Cedar Meadows Resort, which had offered up special room rates and was only a couple kilometers from the event. I had opted to not rent a car, instead relying on the ‘sneaker express’. By Sunday, I walked the 4.6km round trip walk to the event grounds 4 times, including carrying all my paddling and filming gear with me. In the future, I’ll just spring for the rental. After all, just the taxi to and from the hotel cost me $50, while a car rental would have only been about $65 taxes in! Oh well, live and learn. Plus, I actually like the fresh air and walking around places to get a feel for them. The hotel itself was pretty nice for the price. My room even had its own fireplace for ambiance should I wish to get romantic with myself (no smart comments on that one!)

I wandered into town to see the race venue and grab a bite to eat at Boston Pizza (side note: BP is quickly going the East Side Mario route to me, meaning AVOID). Washed my meal down with a beer, and wandered back to hotel. The kayak race was more of a festival, and while paddling was a central theme, it was by far not the only thing going this weekend. There were events for the whole family all weekend, and the town is rapidly turning this into THE biggest yearly event in Timmins, and I must say, I think they are on the right track promoting healthy living in this way.

Next morning, I arrived on site pretty early, as I had to pick up a boat I was borrowing for the race. I had reached out to Shawn from Timmins Adventure Tours in the lead-up, and he had graciously offered up a craft for me to use. Shawn runs a number of businesses, including a paddling outfitter, tackle shop, and lots of other outdoor products. He is a really energetic guy, and also runs the local boxing club. It was great meeting him and chatting about life in Timmins. Plus, when he learned I was racing in the ‘elite’ division, he didn’t hesitate to pull down his very own racing boat to loan. Once he was convinced I wasn’t a total amateur, I was off. If you’re in Timmins, and need some gear for outdoor pursuits, make Shawn and his folks your first stop! He’ll go out of his way to help, and with a smile.

The Great Canadian Kayak Challenge is not one event, but a whole slew of events, starting with the Elite 35km Challenge starting at 9am Saturday, and ending with sprint events on Sunday afternoon, and all distances between. I was in the 2nd most competitive event, the ‘elite recreational’ 16km race departing at 10am. This one of the few races I’ve entered that actually has a healthy purse, with prize money awarded in pretty much every single race 5-deep for both men and women. It added an interesting dimension to the front of the race. Obviously, my eye was on victory, but it wasn’t long before I was humbled in the water, and realized that there are people that paddle more than 4 times in a season and actually focus on paddling. That being said, I did have a good race.

Although the raw numbers in each event were pretty low, the overall participation has been steadily going up every year in this events’ 5-year history, and should continue to grow. Especially given all the media exposure they are getting. While I was considered ‘media’ as well, there were tons of others there, including live-to-satellite coverage from Eastlink. There was also a HUGE production crew of professionals shooting for Ontario Tourism for the purpose of commercials. They had a really expensive drone in the air covering the race, as well as boat crews with fancy water-ready camera gear in the thick of it. I’m sure they’ll distill their hours of footage into 15 seconds as part of a bigger commercial, but WOW! Talk about a big crew. I was a small fish out there. On the plus side, there WAS a ‘media boat’ so I got to go out for a cruise on my own on a party boat to do some filming, which was fun. Right, how about the race? Let’s get back to that.

As is usual in events like this, racers were sort of sizing each other up by looking at the boats and gear of everyone. Seeing the camera on my head, I was asked if I was actually racing or just filming. I assured them I was racing, hence my fancy paddle and gear. There may have only been 7 men in my grouping, but they were all pretty well kitted and proficient. When the starting gun went off promptly at 10am, we took off in a hurry under a blazing hot sun. I’d taken 1L of hydration, but ran out about 2/3rds through the race. Not long after the start, the front 2 guys in Epic boats were already building a big lead on the rest of us. In the first 4k of the race, I was in a nice little grouping of 4 guys (including me) and 1 lady. We tried to do a little drafting and staying together. I secretly hoped they’d gone out too fast, but it turns out that might have been me! I found I had to push hard just to stay with them. Eventually 1 guy and the lady pulled away, leaving me in a group of 3 guys.

I started falling back a little bit and worried for my chances. I was now sitting in 6th place, which was off the podium, and in my mind, unacceptable. I wanted to bring honour to Shawn for lending me his nice Stratus to race in. Our first part of the race was downriver, with the wind at our backs. Once we hit the buoy turnaround, the refreshing wind hit our faces, and the real work began. Essentially, we paddled 2.5k downriver, then 9k upriver, only to turn another buoy and finish the race with a 5.5k downriver run. Anyway, now that the wind was in my face, I started feeling a bit more refreshed and energized. I slowly but surely starting eating into the lead the guy ahead of me had. Eventually, I overtook him. That put me in 5th place. I set my sights on 4th and stayed focused.

He seemed to always stay just out of reach. Another 5k or so of paddling, and I was surprised by a flash of yellow on my right. Dude I had passed got a fresh set of arms and passed me! Turns out, his shoulder had been hurt, but he popped it back in and found his mojo (or so I learned after the finish)! Filled with fire again, I charged after him to try and keep up. After all, I had already passed him, so why was I losing ground? The good news is that this effort actually caught us up to 4th place, which my guy then handily passed too! Of course, as you can imagine, this ignited the other dudes’ fires, and he pressed on hard. By this time, we had just made the final turn, and had the 5.5k downriver finish run to do. That worried me, as I seemed to lose ground downriver.

Not giving an inch though, I kept paddling hard, determined to get back to 5th place. The real challenge now was that I was over-heating and had run out of water. I’d have to dig deep and enter the pain cave to pull this off. It seems a little silly to have such a perceived battle for 5th, but that’s the way the competitive spirit works, right? Mustering what I could, I found a good cadence and kept at it. However, when I finally got broadside of this fellow, he also turned up the jets, pulling slightly ahead again. I wasn’t until the final bend in the river, with about 500m to go, that I found an opportunity again.

I took the inside corner, pulling up broadside once again. Only this time, I decided to go for broke. I put on the blinders and put everything I had into my final sprint. I’m not an adept paddler, and am not really sure how to execute a sprint, but I tried anyway. I hunched over, dug my paddle deep in the water, and went into the redzone, complete with audible grunting and breathlessness. It worked, and I pulled ahead and stayed ahead by a couple boatlengths, just to take that final podium place! My little group of 3 all congratulated each other on a well-fought race, and then essentially went our separate ways. There were no hard feelings, as we had all worked hard for that final part of the race. In fact, the guy did comment that it was fun pushing to keep up with me!

Although my race was over before noon, the overall awards wouldn’t be until 5pm that day, so I spent the rest of my day hanging around the festival grounds taking it all in. As mentioned, I also went out for a cruise to watch a 5k race in progress. Eventually, I walked back to the hotel to shower and change before heading back for the awards. Once back onsite, I helped myself to some BBQ grub as well as a couple celebratory malted beverages. Although clouds had started rolling in, the weather was still thankfully holding out. This was a good thing, as later that evening, the party was set to start up, with live bands, a big beer gardens, and fireworks! I collected my medal and award with a big smile, and stuck around a little longer for draw prizes. At one point, my name was called for a camp chair, but I decided to just pretend I wasn’t there. After all, checking the chair with my luggage would cost more than it was worth!

After the awards were over, I made an impulsive decision to pamper myself in the early evening. How so? Well, my hotel was called Cedar Meadows Resort and SPA for a reason. The spa portion was actually a Nordic baths kinda deal, like Le Nordik in Chelsea. For a mere $25+tax, I had full access to all the facilities. Seemed like a plan to me, seeing as I didn’t really know anyone, and the first few bands back at the festival were going to be country-oriented. Once back at the hotel, I spent the next 2.5 hours alternating between hot treatments, cold treatments, and relaxation. It was pretty awesome. When I finally dragged myself out and had a shower, I felt super relaxed and my skin was all squeaky clean. I should also mention that earlier in the day I had also opted for a free chiropractic treatment. A spine adjustment if you will. So all told, I was mellow and relaxed.

The thought of heading back to a rowdy beer gardens didn’t quite appeal, so I decided instead to stick around the resort, and just head out for a solo nature walk to check out the fireworks. I’ve gotta say, they were actually really good. Much bigger than I had expected from a relatively small town. Even from the resort, I could hear the bands raging on, and could only imagine the quantities of beer being consumed down there! I was quite happy to buy a bit of junk food, retreat back to my room and watch ‘The Dark Knight’ on TV. I’d had a good day, and didn’t want the end of my trip to involve elbowing my way through drunk locals!

The next morning, I got up at a reasonable hour, and headed down to the hotel gym for a nice treadmill run. Why treadmill? Well, it was pouring cats and dogs outside, and I didn’t feel like running in the cold and wet, only to pack my wet clothes into my bag for the flight home. I put in a good hour and a half, showered, then treated myself to a great brunch buffet in the restaurant before grabbing a cab and heading home. All in all, a great weekend experience, and frankly, if I was a paddler with a family, I think that this event would make a great destination race for the closing days of summer. The atmosphere was very family friendly, the river very forgiving for a paddler, and just the right distance away to make it feel like a worthy road trip! For me however, it wasn’t the last race of the summer. 2 weeks to go till my final event, a 65km trail running race with 2,000+m of climbing! Check back in a while for that report.

Video Review of the Event

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