Current to Killarney canoe race a success

It’s full speed ahead for this team that is paddling hard to reach its final destination, Killarney Mountain Lodge. The race route stretched some 34 kilometres in the waters of Georgian Bay and the North Shore, where paddlers faced strong winds and tested their mettle in the rising swells. photo by Current to Killarney

LITTLE CURRENT – A full roster of 150 paddlers took part in this past weekend’s Current to Killarney race, an event that holds the title of Ontario’s biggest canoe race for 2019 based on the number of participants.

“It was exciting,” said Blair Hagman, president of Manitoulin Brewing Company (MBC) which was the lead sponsor of the event. “It’s a very unique race, especially when you reach the finish line, paddling through the channel of Killarney to Killarney Mountain Lodge.”

The brewery partnered with Killarney Mountain Lodge to co-organize this event. MBC enlisted the expertise of veteran paddler Rob Mellan of Manitowaning to help organize the race, a task with which Mr. Mellan has prior experience.

A total of 15 North (also known as Voyageur) canoes were available for teams to rent, in addition to the paddlers who attempted the journey in standard tandem canoes, kayaks and outrigger canoes (OCs).

“There hasn’t been that many canoes together paddling that distance since 1967, the centennial year,” said Mr. Hagman, referencing the Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant that saw 12 North canoes travel from central Alberta to Expo 67 in Montreal. “It’s very unique in that way and we hope to increase the number of big canoes next year so more people can participate.”

Safety was a consideration for the journey. Nine volunteer support boats traversed the journey (an average of a boat for every two paddle teams) and there were four checkpoints along the route. Three boats from the Ontario Provincial Police and UCCM Anishnaabe Police Service were also in the water.

The paddlers were in for a daunting challenge. Fierce north winds battered the crafts relentlessly throughout the journey and caused swells of a few feet in height. Mr. Hagman said these were unpredicted based on weather reports that they had been consulting regularly. The organizing team had decided that 25 kilometre-per-hour winds would be the maximum safe limit.

“Luckily, on our part, we had all the support and volunteer boats available to be close to all the paddlers so, if anybody did have challenges, we were able to either pull them out or keep a close eye on them,” said Mr. Hagman.

However, not all crafts are created equal and some aspiring paddlers were forced to retire from the competition early on.

“The tandem canoes really had a hard time in those conditions. Three canoes were pulled out from the race before Strawberry Lighthouse (the first checkpoint, just east of Little Current in the open water),” said Mr. Hagman, noting that the North canoes are built for those conditions and all teams made it to the finish line as well as the kayaks and the OC. “They had no issues making it to the finish other than the headwind.”

After arriving at Killarney, paddlers were invited to a social, dinner and awards ceremony at the Killarney Mountain Lodge games room. The next morning, paddlers could either attempt to make their own way back or get ferried on North Channel Cruise Line back to Little Current. All North canoes were brought back in the care of race organizers.

As for the participants, Mr. Hagman said they seemed to be in good spirits despite the massive undertaking.

“Even with all the wind and the grueling paddling they had to get through to reach Killarney, everybody had a big smile on their face,” he said. “A lot of people said they would do it again. I was surprised by that because they day was very challenging.”

Mr. Hagman said the next steps will be to form an organizing committee to review the successes and challenges of this year’s inaugural event. He also hoped for more sponsorship in future years.

“We basically organized this on a bare-bones budget this year with sponsorship from our company, Killarney Mountain Lodge and Destination Northern Ontario. We want to make it a race that’s going to grow and become a really professional, top-of-the-line race that will draw a lot of interest,” said Mr. Hagman. “If we got that additional support, we’d be able to make it a very high-end race that people would want to participate in.”

One new area Mr. Hagman hopes to expand to for next year is an increased involvement with OC paddlers, whose boats are designed for both speed and stability.

“That community seems to have a real strong interest in wanting this race to continue and to have more OC boats for next year,” Mr. Hagman said.

As for the people above and beyond the 150-participant cap for this year’s event, they will undoubtedly be waiting eagerly to snap up a coveted spot in next year’s race.