by Mark Przedwojewski
Start at Lumberjack Park on the Pine River in the North West corner of Gratiot County, Michigan. Paddle downstream 74 miles through the towns of Alma and St. Louis and on down to the Chippewa Nature Center at the confluence of the Pine and Chippewa Rivers just before the town of Midland. Turn West and head up-river on the Chippewa 65 miles past the town of Mt. Pleasant to the old Gilmore Road Bridge. Take a 7 ½ mile portage down country roads back to the Pine River. Once back on the Pine River it's a short 14 miles to the finish line back at Lumberjack Park.
Sections of both rivers on this route are very clogged with numerous downfalls and large log jams, this makes for slow going and dangerous conditions especially when traveling at night.
The Bushwhacker Challenge consists of 3 different events all starting at the same time from Lumberjack Park; The Sprint- a 12 mile run down to the town of Sumner. The Cruise- a 25 mile run down to the town of Alma and the 150- the full run all the way around. My account will tell of my experience on the 150.
My plan for this years race was to push a little harder than I did last year and try to cut off eight hours from my time of 80 hours. I spent way more time sleeping last year than I needed to, so I figured if I could stay in my boat and keep it moving I should be able to shave off some time. The water levels were higher this year which would mean faster times going downstream on the Pine, but slower times going up on the Chippewa. The first section of the Challenge going down the Pine passes through a few very clogged sections of river that have numerous deadfalls and log jams that require getting out and pulling the boat around on land. Some jams can be shimmied under or jumped over with a tough enough hull, a good fast run and a few teeter/tottering scooches. With the water as high as it was lots of the logs laying down in the water could be passed right over. If the water was down even a few inches it would make for much slower going.
The start of the Bushwhacker Challenge is really something to remember. A local group of reenactment gurus that call themselves the “Free Trappers” come by and set up their fur trappers era encampment and show off their camping skills and techniques. Their group is a great fit both with the Verlen Kruger Memorial Project and our host group at the Lumberjack & Riverman's Park Association. We all share a common interest in history and nature and are all working at conservation of both. The Free Trappers help start the Challenge with the firing of their black powder guns and man does that get your attention! The burst of smoke and loud noise really fires up both Challengers and spectators and in a mad dash of swinging paddles and flying water the race starts in a grand and spectacular fashion. I was able to jockey myself into a good start with the Bradford tandem team just in front of me and fighting off the start line for second place with the other tandem team of Todd Cesar and Mike Anderson. The skinny river along with the quick current and multiple logjams spread everyone out rather fast but occasionally throughout the morning a group of us would get clogged up and the race would be on, just like the start. A bunch of the 150 Challengers along with a few Sprinters jockeyed for that second place position as the Bradford's got out to a quick lead and after only a few bends were out of sight. I paddled most of the morning leapfrogging other solo paddlers ,Bruce Kurtsle, John Flegg and George Stoktin and the other tandem team of Todd Cesar and Mike Anderson.
Once we were down to the town of Sumner we were past most of the big jams with just a couple small pull overs left for the remainder of the first leg on the Pine River. I was neck and neck with Bruce and John down to CP1 at St. Louis were I put down the hammer and left them as they two carried over the 100yd portage. From St. Louis down to the Chippewa was a quick run with no logjams and very quick water. Todd and Mike caught up to me about a half hour from CP2 and we paddled together in the dark the rest of the way in. I was able to run the 35 miles in just under 7 hours, getting in and out of CP2 at the Chippewa Nature Center before 11:30 pm.
In order for me to shave off those 8 hours,, I knew that now was the time to turn on the after burners and pull an all nighter. I've pulled a few all nighters during WaterTribe Challenges and I knew if I stayed hydrated and well fed I would not have a problem with the sleep deprivation and the fight to stay moving. I call it a fight because it truly is a huge fight to stay in the canoe when I know that in a matter of minutes I could have my tent set up with a nice warm sleeping bag and Thermorest inviting me in for a few hours of sleep. Verlen always told us that real training does not start until you've been paddling for 24 hours straight. I have found this advice to be true, only after you are totally spent do you really push past those boundaries of pain and self doubt and keep an efficient paddle stroke going. I also knew that the first 20 or so hours are fairly easy, it's the hours just before the break of dawn that second morning that are the toughest.
I pressed on from CP2 at the Chippewa Nature Center at about 11:30pm with a dark night and about 65 miles of fast downriver current staring me in the face. I had rigged my lights on the front of my canoe and had a good stock of snacks and water close at hand. In order to take care of any housekeeping and body maintenance going upriver would require me to pull up and stop close to shore. These duties are accomplished going downstream without coming to a full stop because we are able to float out in the middle of the river and easily avoid obstacles by using our rudders and an occasional paddle stroke on one side or the other. Going upriver and having to stop a few times an hour will really put a dent in miles made good which are already slowed down considerably by the fast current. My goal for the next 22 hours was to keep it movin' and get to Island Park in the town of Mt. Pleasant some 40 miles upriver before sundown the next day.
The night turned out to be a very good paddling night with fairly warm temps and no rain. I did have to stop about 2:30 am to brew up some hot coffee and since I was stopped I also cooked up a hot meal to help keep me going. My short break really paid off, once back on the water I was refreshed and full and was able to get in a bunch of miles before the sun started coming up. Once dawn broke I knew It would be easier to stay awake and not give into the few hours of sleep my mind was trying to convince me of. I did however, lay my head back at about 8:30am for about 20 minutes, I can't say it helped me much, but it did give my aching muscles a short break.
The Chippewa River has a fairly fast current and it was very hard work moving up it. This years water levels were faster than last years and I could really feel it. Paddling upriver is a lot like mountain climbing, it is slow going and very technical. In order to move against the current you really need to know how to read it and not waste energy fighting it when you don't have to. In most Michigan rivers there are lots of bends, these bends work to our favor when we stay close to shore and utilize the back eddy's. It's necessary to jump from one side of the river to the other quite often to take advantage of the slower current that might be present on an opposite bank.
I traveled the rest of the morning trying to take as few breaks as I could while still taking care of my body. The sun was out in full force so the day began to grow very warm, I had to apply plenty of sunscreen and drink plenty of water to keep it moving at the pace I was trying to keep. In my rush to get out of CP2 the night before I forgot to fill up my water bags, this along with the coffee I brewed during the night put my water stores very low and at about 4pm I ran out of water. In my altered, sleep deprived state. I started doing the math on how far I had to go to get up to Island Park, my long overdue campsite. I figured if I kept up my present pace and did not stop to filter water I could be there before full dark. It would be about 5 hours with no water but I figured I could pull it off. As the first hour of my self induced dehydration ended I realized I was not getting as hungry as I was before when I was drinking, I began to think that if I did not drink or eat I would be saving lots of time from having to pause to do these chores. Plus I realized that I would not have to stop to take pee breaks either, this plan was getting better by the second! As the afternoon turned into evening I started feeling small effects of dehydration with a very dry mouth, but this was the extent of my symptoms. I expected to start feeling a headache coming on but it never materialized. I figured that my being well hydrated up until that point really helped pull me through those 5 hours. The Chippewa River near the town of Mt. Pleasant gets very fast with numerous downfalls and logjams, it took every ounce of energy out of me getting up into town and finally to my long overdue campsite at Island park.
We have permission from the city to camp at Island Park just for this race. I was able to use the safe haven last year and it turned out great, there is water and toilets available and a nice grassy lawn to camp on. Last year I was at this point in the race with Jeff Kolka and since we were in town we decided to treat ourselves to a few Domino's pizza's to save time before we crashed out for the night. I did the same thing this year and again it saved me some time, I was able to get other camp chores done while the pizza was on it's way, . The first thing was to get myself and my water bags filled. I grubbed almost the entire pizza and was sleeping before 10:30pm. I was up at 4:00am fully refreshed and ready to tackle the last part of the Challenge.
I did the short portage around the quick water right near Island Park and the carry around a big drop about ¼ mile further up which put me back on the water at about 6am. The Chippewa above Mt. Pleasant changes a little from that below it. The current picks up quit a bit, but it is much more opened with only a few jams to get around. I was able to pole through a few sections and did not have to get out of the canoe much, I made quick work of the 12 or so miles and got up to CP3 at 1:00 pm and started my steep climb up to the road.
It took me ½ hour to get my gear and canoe to the top of the hill, I checked in at 1:30pm and after a quick meal of sardines and crackers I rigged my cart, topped off my water bags and was on the road just after 2pm. Last year I used a bike, but this year we had some re-defined rules and unless we carried the bike with us the full length of the Challenge we could not be classified as “Expedition Style”. I chose to walk the portage which ended up being much more efficient for the short 7 1/2 miles. The portage takes us past a bunch of farmland and even past a few Amish farms that are usually much more tidy than most farms. I passed by a few big tractors plowing fields and numerous people mowing their lawns. I would jog for a while and then walk for a while, jog for a while then walk for a while. The road traffic was not too busy and my portage went without incident and I pulled up to the Pine River in just over 2 hours.
Mike Smith was there and kept me company as I broke down my portage rig, cooked up a good meal of mac and cheese with Salmon and brewed up some coffee. I had only about 14 river miles to go to the finish back at Lumberjack Park and I wanted to get it done in the daylight. It was now after 5pm so I had to hustle back to the water to take advantage of what was left of the day. This stretch of the Pine is again very clogged with downfalls and huge logjams, so once again it was in and out, and in and out, and in and out of the canoe. I have been using a pull rope on my canoe for quite a few years now, and it really helps speed things up when pulling a loaded canoe through the woods. The pull rope is a 2 to 3 foot rope tied to the bow or stern of the canoe with a PVC handle for comfort. Since most drag arounds are only 5 to 20 yards long it would be silly to unload the canoe and make more than one trip. The extra tough hull on the Sea Wind takes the abuse and screams for more. I noticed that the Bradford's, who had finished the race earlier that morning had to lift their ultra light canoe up off the ground to move it over the dragovers as all I could see were their footprints and no tracks from their hull.
I was once again racing the daylight and not wanting to have to take the extra time to rig my lights. It does not take all that long, maybe 5 minutes or so, but at this stage of the race I was really wanting to get to the finish and get out of my canoe. In the past 58 hours I had only been out of my canoe and not moving for 6 hours, I was pretty beat and the sun seemed to be dropping fast. My race with the sun was over at about 9:30pm and on one of the last dragovers I paused and hooked up the lights for the last hour of my Challenge.
I pulled into the finish line at 10:12pm on Monday, I had beaten my last years time by over 18 hours and felt satisfied that I had run my best race! There were lots of folks at the finish line to cheer me in and it felt good to be grabbed by a helping hand and pulled up the river bank. A Cherry Wheat Beer was instantly handed to me and I knew for sure I had earned it! I set out to shave off 8 hours and some how I was able to get 18. In thinking back on how I did things differently this year compared to last year I would have to say it was because this year I was able to travel alone. Last year I was leapfrogging with many more solo paddlers the entire race and with all those people to talk to along the route it really slowed me down. I was able to stay out ahead of the pack this year and set my own pace, not allowing the gift of gab to grab me and pull me in. Another time saver was not using a bike for the portage. It sounds funny, but the bike rig for me has actually made for a slower portage the past couple times I have used it. The set up takes a bit longer and the loose gravel on the roads we use makes for tough pulling. I was able to jog most of the portage this year and it turned out being more comfortable and less stress on my legs.
As with most finish lines in these kinds of adventures, this late at night ,it cleared out fast. There were a few hardy souls that did stay up and celebrate with me until after midnight then I crashed out for a dreamless 7 hours of beautiful, blissful sleep.
It takes a bunch of people to put together an event as good as the Bushwhacker Challenge. I would like to send out a huge Thanks to all of the following;
Race Managers, Mike Smith, Kathy Lischkge and Mike Lyrer and the rest of the Verlen Kruger Memorial Board. Our efforts are slowly turning this dream into reality.
Our Host, The Lumberjack and Rivermen's Park Association. Thanks for care taking such a wonderful piece of history and keeping it alive for those yet to come.
Todd and the rest of the Cesar Clan, for dreaming up an event that would tire out even Verlen!
Mike Anderson, owner of Chippewa River Outfitters.( Mike has raised more money for the Memorial than most of us all put together.) Your time and energy is such a great help, we would not be as far along as we are without you.
Our Blog director, Brian Weber. Again your quick wit and sly words helped entertain those looking in.
Last but not least I would like to thank my wonderful wife Michelle and our son Brendan, for allowing me so much time away to pursue my love of the outdoors.
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!!!