We all have a vision in our mind’s eye of what Thanksgiving means to us – turkey, fall colours, friends and family.
Well for hundreds of paddlers, the Thanksgiving weekend is quickly becoming synonymous with racing on the Muskoka river.
For the past seven years, the Great Muskoka Paddling Experience has drawn ever-increasing crowds to Bracebridge for a race that includes dozens of canoes, kayaks and stand up paddleboards. The race goes to support the Muskoka Paddle Club, the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed and the Muskoka Watershed Council.
It takes place this Saturday, October 7, starting out from Annie Williams with races getting underway at 10:45 a.m.
“The biggest appeal is that it’s a classic end-of-season Thanksgiving event,” says Sandy Schofield, one of the event organizers. “It’s a fun event, not a serious championship nor a formal qualifier. That’s why we chose to call it the Great Muskoka Paddling Experience, rather than races.”
He says it’s also a chance for paddlers to congregate socially and chat about the paddling season before putting the boats away for the winter.
“And spectators can see some of the best racers in Ontario, as well as seeing a sample of the many types of boats that are available in the paddling world,” he adds.
Last year’s event drew a record 293 paddlers, who competed in distances of 5, 10 and 20 km.
This year the star attraction is the North Canoe Challenge
“A pair of Dragonboats and four, 26′ North Canoes are coming to Bracebridge to race for fame and glory in an end-of-season event,” says Schofield. “These are challenging boats to paddle well. When paddlers click together it’s really an uplifting experience to enjoy for paddlers and spectators.”
The other big news for 2017 is that there will be free shuttle service sponsored by the BIA running on a continuous loop between Annie Williams Park and Memorial Park on Manitoba Street.
“While the races are underway, friends, family and crew support of participating paddlers can pass the time using the bus to explore the downtown retailers and the Farmer’s Market,” says Schofield. “It’s hop on-hop off anywhere on the route. We’re hoping it will encourage more visitors to come up.”
Schofield said the event organizers are hoping for a repeat of last year’s record crowds, but the forecast hasn’t been very cooperative. As of Thursday morning, forecasters were calling for light rain on race day.
“I think we should be happy to have 200 given the rainy forecast. Which leaves lots of great prizes and medals for those brave enough to come out in the weather,” says Schofield.
The typical paddler is middle aged, says Schofield, but many seniors come out as well.
“We’ve worked very hard to encourage youth to feel they have a chance to win medals. Where there would be a single category, it’s replaced by adult male, adult female, youth male and youth female,” he says. “It is costlier to do that but it’s important to keep drawing youth into paddling for the long term health of the sport.”
The proportion of Muskoka residents versus guests from outside the area has been fairly stable since 2011, with roughly 15 per cent local and 85 per cent from outside Muskoka, says Schofield.
Starting up the Paddling Club is one of the ways more locals are being encouraged to take to the water, he says.
“The new North canoe the Club bought through a grant program this year is being paddled by a group of seniors from the club too. That’s a great success story,” says Schofield. “As the club grows, turning out trained competitive paddlers will hopefully increase the proportion of locals taking part.”
There’s also a silent auction at the event, which features a folding track performance kayak, which folds up from 16’ to roughly the size of a golf bag. The bidding takes place from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. and starts at $900.