Let It Flow
A marathon canoe race on the Mississippi River challenges body and spirit.
I’d been paddling for almost seven hours when the explosions started.
I jumped. Then I remembered that Camp Ripley, the expansive military base that lines the Mississippi River, was on my right. A nighttime artillery exercise had evidently begun.
In the darkness I couldn’t see much except for the distant lights of my fellow competitors in the MR150, a marathon canoe race from Brainerd to Coon Rapids in its second year.
The explosions kept coming. Some felt far away. Others were unsettlingly close. The upside was that parachute flares occasionally lit up the sky and allowed me to see the river ahead. When these burned out, everything went dark. I turned on my headlamp to scan the water, but all I could see was a blizzard of flying insects.
Bombs weren’t what I expected when I signed up for the MR150. Then again, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, or how long it would take me to paddle 150 miles.
My boat was a small Wenonah canoe, made of Kevlar. It wasn’t built for racing, but it was decently fast and light enough to carry over the race’s six portages. I figured I could make it before the 50-hour cutoff, when the race ends whether you’ve finished or not.
I mean, how hard could it be?
The year before, a friend and I had raced in the inaugural MR48, a nearly 50-mile race from Clearwater to Coon Rapids. We did virtually no training, other than paddling together a few times, and the race was a fun ride down a fast river. The only mishap came around mile 30, when my partner dropped his Tums in a puddle in the canoe. I reached forward to grab the bottle and pulled an ab. After I caught my breath, we paddled on and even got a second-place trophy.
So I figured, “Why not take it up a notch?” and signed up for this race as a solo canoeist. Based on our performance in the MR48, I had illusions of doing well. I even imagined myself on a podium—or at least with a respectable 30ish-hour finish.
The MR150 is the brainchild of Scott Miller and Todd Foster, co-founders of Two Paddles Canoe & Kayak Races, which hosts the Mississippi River Paddle Weekend each June. In addition to the 48- and 150-mile races, there are shorter races of 5, 10, and 25 miles. The 2023 MR150 started on Friday, June 9, at 3 p.m. and had a cutoff time of Sunday, June 11, at 5 p.m. Whatever happened in between—sleep, food, water, forward movement, bodily functions—was up to the racer and their support crew. I did not have a support crew, so it was up to me.
The entrants in the MR150 ran the gamut. Their ages ranged from 16 to 75 years, and they came from 13 states and three Canadian provinces. There were middle-aged men from Minnetonka who didn’t train at all. There was a family from Grand Forks who brought, for some reason, fly swatters. There were two “Boundary Waters boys” from Ely, one of whom had raced in the Yukon 1000, a 1,000-mile race, the prior year. And there were serious paddlers who’d traveled from as far away as California and Quebec, including last year’s winner from Illinois.
They paddled everything from Gene Jensen–designed racing canoes to Kevlar touring boats, to long kayaks, to stand-up paddleboards, to the insanely fast kayak-like craft called surfskis favored by the top racers. There was even one good old-school Alumacraft canoe.
Around 2:45, at Brainerd’s Lum Park, we started pushing our boats into the water. I drifted out and found myself near the front.
At 3 p.m., Miller counted down and blew the horn. The race was on!
Someone rammed me from behind and turned me sideways. By the time I got straightened out, I was nearly in last place. My dreams of glory receded as fast as the surfskis disappearing around the bend.
Later that night, the explosions and flares tapered off. The sky was a dull gray that reflected on the water. I let my eyes adjust to the light and peered ahead, trying to see the river. The water level was extremely low, and rocks were everywhere.
I slalomed around the ones I could see and scraaaaped across the ones I couldn’t. I got hung up and spun around on others. Some racers, I would later learn, had to get out and walk their boats, but I was light enough to pass over most of it.
The low water lasted all the way to the Little Falls dam, where I arrived around 2:30 a.m. On shore at the portage, I asked the race volunteers if I could lie in the grass while they watched my gear. They offered me a chair, which I gladly accepted. I dozed in it for an hour, woken occasionally by the sounds of other boats pulling in and passing me. By the time I loaded up to leave, I was firmly in last place.
The MR150 is not the first marathon race on the Mississippi River. The Paul Bunyan Canoe Derby was a 450-mile race held in the 1940s and ’50s. It went from Bemidji to Minneapolis, taking 10 days, with teams paddling 40 or 50 miles a day, then sleeping at night. A hundred thousand people would turn out to watch the finish near the Third Avenue bridge in Minneapolis, which coincided with the start of the city’s Aquatennial summer celebration.
An article about the 1941 Paul Bunyan Canoe Derby noted that the winning boat finished in 65 hours, averaging just under 7 miles per hour. The story also noted that the teams that finished in fifth to ninth places were all “Indian duets,” and that the ninth-place team comprised “noted veteran paddlers” Jesse and Jim Tibbetts, who’d been racing canoes for more than 40 years—since at least 1900.
The Canoe Derby was a tough race. In 1959, an Ojibwe paddler named Bennie Tonce had had his finger chopped off in a logging accident two weeks before the race, then sewn back on. He raced anyway.
Thinking about Tonce, and about all the Mississippi paddlers over the centuries, made me feel like part of something bigger than just the MR150. We were all linked by the pull of the river. In an era when so many things change so fast, it felt good to be doing something almost timeless. Because day and night, year in and year out, the river always flows.
Dawn was like a tonic. I’d slept for only an hour, but I now felt alive. I felt hopeful. I felt like I could do this. There were only 100 miles left!
The river was beautiful in the morning light. It seemed wild and free. I saw huge softshell turtles sunning themselves. I watched a beaver tow a branch upstream. From shore, a wolf pack howled.
At midmorning I pulled into Mississippi River County Park in Stearns County, where I took a break and promptly fell asleep on a picnic table. After about 15 minutes I woke up, got back in my canoe, and started downstream again.
The next 40 miles were a series of pools and portages. The pools were slow, and the portages were grueling: First the Sartell dam, then on to Sauk Rapids, where racers had to portage around a whitewater stretch, and finally to the last portage at the St. Cloud dam.
At each one, I had to load up all my gear—20 pounds of water, two small coolers, and a drybag—hoist up my canoe, then slog down the road. At the St. Cloud portage, a race volunteer sat in a chair, scrolling on his phone.
“Do you know how many miles are left?” I asked.
“Are … you sure?” I asked.
“Let me check. Nope. Sorry, 60 miles.”
I lay in the grass for a few minutes and tried to sleep. But I’d consumed enough caffeine to paddle to New Orleans. So I just heaved my load, then started down the last portage.
Below the final dam, I took stock. I had a good supply of water and probably twice as much food as I needed. I figured I was still in last place.
And yet, for some reason, I felt a glimmer of hope. From here, the river was free-flowing—no more portages. If I was lucky, I would get to the finish in the early morning.
I pushed out into the river and had to cut straight across to make it through a rocky chute. Below the dam, the water was fast. I was rocketing along at 7 miles an hour, my fastest pace yet. I felt good, and the sun was still high. Surely I could get to Coon Rapids. I was glad to be out here, on the river, watching it grow wider, becoming the Mississippi I knew.
After a few hours, the channel shifted east. The headwind was fierce, blowing at 15 miles per hour, with 30 mph gusts. When the river turned south, I was sheltered. But whenever it turned east again, I got blasted by whitecaps and hit a wall of wind. The fastest I could move through these sections was 2 miles an hour. I could barely keep the canoe straight, and if I stopped paddling, I was blown back upstream.
Waves washed over the gunnels. I pushed through the eastern stretches with maddening torpor. I could feel my hopes of finishing begin to slip away.
It took three hours to cover the next 10 miles. Night was falling when I dragged my canoe up onto a rocky shore. The temperature was dropping and would hit 46 degrees that night. I was wet and shivering uncontrollably. I called my wife and promptly burst into tears. She reminded me that I was exhausted—going on one hour of sleep—told me to get some rest, then reassess.
After we hung up, I felt better. I dug in my bag for a jacket and pants. I didn’t have a sleeping bag, but I did have an emergency bivouac—basically a heat blanket. So I crawled inside and lay in the grass shivering. I wondered idly: What is medical attention? How does a person know if they need medical attention? Do I need medical attention? What would happen if I did need medical attention?
The answer, I knew, was that I would lie here in the grass waiting for it. I thought of Bennie Tonce and tried not to feel sorry for myself. I drifted off to sleep.
When I woke up an hour later, my body was warmer, but also damp from condensation. I watched the stars, which were beautiful and distant. I gauged the wind: still blowing, but not as hard. The air was cold, but I didn’t want to lie in a wet plastic sack all night. So I climbed out, ate some food, drank some water, strapped everything in, and pushed out onto the river.
In the dim light, I could just make out the surface. But when the wind picked up, I couldn’t tell the rocks from the shadows from the black water. Boulders came out of nowhere, looming out of the dark. Somehow, I skirted them all.
I paddled on. It was peaceful and quiet. My wake was a silky gray line that cut through the water. A barred owl called. A pack of coyotes yipped in the night.
About 5 miles downstream, past the blinding lights and strange smells of the nuclear plant, I came to a boat ramp. Another racer was already stopped there. I dragged my boat on shore and crawled into my heat blanket to wait out the dark. A meteor lit up the sky as I drifted off to sleep.
Around 4 a.m. I woke up cold and wet again. There was a pink glow in the east. Only 33 miles remained.
Daylight was a weaker tonic this time, but a tonic nonetheless. The end was in sight! It was time to go.
The day before, the field had spread out so far that I’d barely seen any other racers. The winning team, I would later learn, had finished in 23 hours and 33 minutes—about when I hit the halfway mark. A few others were close behind them, but nearly half the field had dropped out along the way.
Yet there were some of us who hung in for the second night, almost all of whom hunkered down to escape the wind and cold. As day broke, they also got back on the water, and I started seeing other boats. A kayaker named Michael caught up to me and we paddled together for a few miles, commiserating about the cold, before he paddled on.
Mile by mile, the end got closer. The wind rose again, this time gusting up to nearly 40 mph. But it was mostly a tailwind, so at least it was pushing me home.
Before too long, there were 20 miles left.
Finally, I saw a concrete structure spanning the river: the Coon Rapids dam. The end.
I was the 26th boat out of 28 finishers (and 48 starters). And while there may not have been 100,000 people cheering as I pulled into the sheltered bay at the end of the race, a few people clapped when my boat touched the shore, then helped me stagger out of the water. It felt like a well-earned victory.
Over the next weeks, my thoughts kept returning to the river. At night, my dreams were all of paddling its bends and pools and little-known corners. I’d been part of the Mississippi’s flow for only a few days, but the time went deep.
Because now, as for all paddlers throughout time, the river also flowed through me.