Whoever said canoes are all about slowing down? North America’s first recorded regattas date back to the 1850s when participants enjoyed leisure paddling, donning their Sunday best, parasols and all. In the decades since, canoe marathon racers have pushed the limits of human performance, establishing canoeing’s roots in restless speed.
Notable canoe marathons
1) The Atitokan-to-Ely canoe marathon
Take the Atikokan-to-Ely for example, a 190-mile canoe marathon race connecting Quetico Park and the Boundary Waters. Running for three years in the 1960s, the race’s influence on the canoeing community can still be felt today. A true Cannonball Run, the Atikokan-to-Ely required only that paddlers cross the start and finish lines—in between, anything was fair game.
Gene Jensen, developer of the modern bent-shaft canoe paddle, and canoe designer Irvin “Buzz” Peterson took top spot the first year. Legendary outfitter Don Beland and Ralph Sawyer of Sawyer Canoe Company fame finished first the following year. The allure of speed and efficiency doubtlessly influenced the work of these modern canoe builders. In its memorable third and final year, miners and forestry service workers Eugene “Bonhomme” Tretreault and Joe “Sauvage” Meany beat the competition by cutting false portages and covering their tracks, hoodwinking trailing competitors into taking longer routes.
2) The General Clinton Canoe Regatta
Fast-forward nearly 50 years and 1,100 miles east. The Susquehanna River in New York hosts the General Clinton Canoe Regatta, the longest running single-day flatwater regatta in the world. Looking at the names on the race’s podium, you could well be at a World Championship. The winners of the grueling 70-mile course include Olympians and top canoe marathoners from all over the world.
These modern athletes are legends in their own right, if not for being at the cusp of design, then for displaying feats of stamina and endurance. Look no further than the race record of 20-time General Clinton winner and Olympic Gold Medalist, Greg Barton.
Both the Atikokan-to-Ely and General Clinton were started by local chambers of commerce as elaborate publicity stunts intended to draw outdoor enthusiasts to the natural splendor of their regions. The marathon races introduced people to canoeing, invited outsiders in and brought locals together.
3) The AuSable Canoe Marathon
Another classic on the circuit, the AuSable Canoe Marathon, is dubbed as the longest non-stop canoe race in North America and the world’s toughest spectator race. The AuSable runs 120 miles from Grayling to Oscade, Michigan, through the night and into the following day. The manual for spectators is as thorough as the instructions for race participants as supporters undertake the punishing, 15-hour mission of following marathoners along the shores of the Au Sable River.
4) La Classique Internationale de Canots de la Mauricie
La Classique Internationale de Canots de la Mauricie is a three-day, three-stage epic that takes place in the heart of Quebec along a 190-kilometer stretch of the St. Maurice River. It rounds out the Triple Crown of canoe marathon racing in conjunction with the AuSable and General Clinton. And you can’t mention the Triple Crown without speaking of Serge Corbin. He has won La Classique 25 times, the AuSable 18 times and the General Clinton 28 times, truly dominating the race junket.
Meanwhile, the effects of these marathons can be felt in leisure playgrounds across North America. Many recreational paddlers are taking advantage of modern boat materials and designs pioneered by the likes of old-school marathoners Jensen, Beland and Sawyer. Still others are inspired to show up on race day by the herculean feats of long distance canoeists, like Barton and Corbin.
There’s a canoe marathon for everyone
Regattas are about making connections—with communities, the environment and with other paddlers. Across the continent, today’s events have something for everyone’s tastes, fast or slow, so grab your carbon paddle and your parasol and get training for the next canoe marathon season.