The contender & the champ
Remembering life as a canoe racer
Far ahead of me a pink cap gradually materialized, a fluorescent beacon topping a vague body, the badge of an icon. Could it really be the legendary Top Gun? After 14 miles of punch-it-out paddling, could the National Champion be in my sights? My competition canoe shot forward, watery wake escalating, verifying the renewed vigor of its lone perspiring paddler.
My recollection of that canoe race 18 years ago faded into the dark oblivion of the Boundary Waters' lake I now paddled, my solo touring canoe outfitted with fishing rod and day pack, my mind fusing with the eternal silence of the tree-lined wilderness rocks. Early autumn's golden hues charmed the land; the brisk morning's fresh bite stirred my spirit.
I felt free. No longer racing, I enjoyed the blessed delights of a fit life, the fruits from former competition, and the promise of an adventurous day. My wife Glo stayed back in the cabin, taking a day off from our travels, content to read while her mate prowled the portages and paddled the lakes of his favorite land.
After I threaded carefully through a rocky channel, an open bay pointed to my first portage. Today's target would entail three lakes and two portages, or four if I decided to add two more short portages to another lake, a gem I had reached previously by only one portage.
At this stage of life, more was less and less was more. I presumed the multiple shorter portages would require less energy, whereas the lone portage was a mile-long rocky killer.
Glo stood on a bend, alternately consulting her wristwatch and peering downstream, scanning the river, inspecting the competition solo canoes approaching her position. With raised eyebrows, she shouted to me, "You're only 50 seconds behind the champion!"
Today, time was relevant only in terms of available daylight. The shorter days of fall dictate an earlier departure time to guarantee vision on the last rocky portage.
Easing the canoe into the shaded bay's narrow terminus, I stepped out in the shallow water, hefted my pack and lifted the canoe's bow onto shore. After assembling the yolk and flipping my craft onto my shoulders, I trekked over the flecked, leaf-strewn path to a spear shaped lake, paddled down its length and prepared for the next portage.
The soft sound of footsteps preceded a lone camper, returning for the last of his belongings. We exchanged greetings. I told him I was merely on a day trip, not camping. "I'm out for a few days," he said. "Don't really have any agenda except to take in the scenery, find some good campsites and get a few moose pictures."
Catching up to a canoe just in front of me, I recognized a familiar racing acquaintance from a younger age class. We turned a bend and now could see about 200 yards down the river. Paddling alongside him I said, "Who's the pink cap ahead of us?"
"Hey, that's the Great One," my compatriot confirmed. A burst of energy rippled through me. Rapidly digging deeper, I swiftly pulled away. But in the hazy distance the paddler with the tanned back and pink cap disappeared around the next curve.
Bidding the camper bon voyage, I proceeded over the next portage to an island-studded lake where I've had occasional fishing success. A faint breeze rippled the water. After assembling my tackle and gathering rocks for my basketball-net anchor, I paddled around an island and began fishing. Only a few days remained in the lake trout season, and usually lake trout were my game. Improbably, lake trout have been an easy catch for me, having caught and released hundreds in my lifetime. Nevertheless, walleyes, not trout, were today's goal, and strangely, walleyes have more often stymied and frustrated my fishing efforts. But the stimulation of the challenge imparted a puzzling pleasure that was partly responsible for today's fishing choice.
I was gaining on the pink cap; only 30 seconds separated our canoes, according to Glo's last spotting. Would it be better to cut corners out of the main flow, paddling less distance, to reduce the gap between us?
After 20 years of canoe racing I was about to make a rookie mistake. I tried the corner-cutting strategy, but after a couple bends the pink cap was no closer and possibly more distant. The truth hit home. To compete with the champion I must follow his exact route, resolute and irrevocable, pitting power against power; he versus me.
The walleyes remained capricious. No matter. My dad, who fished walleyes past his 95th birthday, always claimed, "Find a place where they migrate and wait 'em out." The ripple on the water increased to a moderate chop - usually a favorable walleye-catching sign. The unmistakable throb of my rod following a cast indicated a walleye had my lure. Soon a 16-inch walleye, the best eating size according to my dad, thrashed in my net. I knew my mate would prize the bronze bounty I attached to the stringer.
Less than two miles of the U.S. National Championship Canoe Race remained. A mere two canoe lengths in front of me the champion stroked his craft. Often during my training sessions I would visualize such a scene, imagining that he was just in front of me, and then I'd go all out in an attempt to pass.
In actual competition, such an opportunity had never occurred. In fact, at two previous solo races I hadn't close to the champ. Two years earlier I won the 1990 Veteran's National Championship but the he hadn't entered that race. And last year I placed second, over three minutes behind him.
Now only a canoe length remained between us. Was I fantasizing again? The sweat covering my body was real, as was my thirst, and I sucked on the tube leading to my water bottle.
Two hours passed, serene and fishless. A solitary walleye still finned on my stringer. Time for lunch. Finding a dining spot in the summer can be difficult, but in late September there are campers and abundant sites. After eating my sandwich, I donned another layer of clothes to shield against the increased autumn breeze and returned to the previous area.
Neck and neck
Gliding onto the champion's wake, I paddled alongside him.
"Hi, Gene," I gasped. Gene Jensen returned my greeting.
When I began canoe racing at age 42, some 20 years earlier, I knew his legendary name. He was the winner of prestigious professional and amateur canoe races throughout the United States and Canada, the premier canoe designer of the age, and the inventor of the bent shaft paddle we all came to use. The solo racing cruiser I now paddled was his design and the swift touring canoe I used for camping trips also bore his name.
Nineteen months earlier a metal rod aligned a dozen bone fragments near my right shoulder, the result of a skiing accident. Now, minus the rod and after hundreds of training hours, I challenged my idol. For half a minute we paddled side by side, stroke for stroke.
It was now or never. Only a mile more and the USCA Veteran's Solo Canoe National Championship Race would end. "Go as fast as you can and then increase the speed," proclaimed an oxymoronic adage. Summoning an inexplicable power, I surged ahead of Jensen.
Another hour passed and still no more walleyes. A recollection with my dad sustained me. For three hours my dad and I hadn't caught a fish, but in the fourth hour, 14 walleyes had succumbed to our lures.
Suddenly, I felt a light tug, landed a small walleye, and released it. Four more strikes followed, and three stout walleyes joined the previously lonely occupant on my stringer. But if I wanted to make the last portage before dark, it was best that I leave.
Crossing the finish buoys 10 seconds ahead of Jensen, I made my way to shore. Glo met me on the bank. "You won," she said. Her statement was half question and half affirmation, a mixture of disbelief and elation.
"Yes," I said. Then the tortuous medium over which I had paddled overwhelmed me and misted my vision. I held her close.
I met Jensen as he walked up the bank. A few weeks ago I had phoned him, and he generously had given me a significant technique tip.
Shaking his hand I said, "You're still number one."
"Not anymore, apparently," Gene replied.
"You are to me," I said.
I paddled to the first portage, contrasting my current journey with bygone times. Eternal voices lingered, echoing evergreen moments, sanctifying the day. Gene Jensen is gone now (he passed away on May 15, 2004), but I will always remember standing on the bank of Pennsylvania's Juniata River and telling him he was number one.
He still is.
I could not have known then that I would never again enter a canoe race. Soon my dad would die. My mother's needs and the demands of my solo dental practice would render my intensive training routine a selfish indulgence. But Gene Jensen came back the next year to win the 1993 U.S. Vet's Championship. And in 1995 at age 66, amazingly, he won it again.
In the descending dusk, I paddled down the last lake to our rented cabin. Opening the door I showed the walleye-laden stringer to Glo.
"Oh, good. Walleyes! They're my favorite fish," she said.
David E. Weiss of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is a former two-time U.S. Canoe Association National Veteran's solo champion and two-time American Birkebeiner age class champ. He no longer races but still spends at least two weeks canoeing in the BWCAW each year. Weiss turned to freelance writing since retiring from dentistry 15 years ago.