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MIX Race Report - Part III

Part II of the MIX race report ended with a paddle down the Manistee River, ready to go into a nighttime trekking section before we'd see our support crew again.

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Yet Another Test


On the Manistee River

We pulled out of the Manistee River in the early evening and had a transition a little slower than we had hoped. We were all stiff and sore from sitting in the boats for the past several hours. As we changed and stowed our paddles and PFDs on our packs, we saw a couple of other teams pulling into the landing, including the half of Dumpster Muppets that earlier enjoyed the local hospitality. Still, we were first out of the TA and took off at a good clip to avoid being followed. We followed the road across the CCC bridge and checked for the trail across the swamp on the topo map without finding it, so continued northwest up the hill and turned right to parallel the slope. Shortly after turning onto the gravel road, we found a "Road Closed" sign that was obviously intended for vehicles. No doubt the creek crossing was closed to vehicles, but we were on foot and going to bushwhack, apparently, before we got there.

I calibrated our pace with the road bends and as we started to approach the attackpoint due south of CP P, we thankfully found an unmapped logging road that went about the right direction. We turned off and followed it to the base of the hill where the checkpoint was, where we found an east-west road. We crossed the road and climbed up to hit CP P without a problem right at dusk. I didn't know where the road went, and we didn't want to backtrack, so we decided to continue north through the wide open pine forest for another kilometer to catch another major east-west trail. It was pretty quick, and the relief wasn't too severe, so we soon arrived at another trail. I took a careful bearing and saw it was trending a little more southeast than east, so that was a good sign. The next step was to figure out where along the trail we were; so we cut north again and reached a much larger road after about 200 meters. Now we had a rough east-west location and a definite north-south location. So far, so good!

I figured we were west of the junction where the trail goes north, so we headed east for quite a ways, finding absolutely nothing. Quite a head scratcher. Then we jogged back west, finding once again... nothing. Hm. I checked the compass. Not quite right, a little off true east-west. Hm. I got us to where the trail should have branched off, and we did an exploratory search to the north. After another 200 meters, another road. Huh?


Where's that trail?

Turns out this was the main road. We swept east and west across it, this time finding actual road signs indicating the sharp left turn at each end of the east-west span. But we still couldn't find the trail going north! At last, I convened a team meeting and asked whether we should try an off trail route - northwest to catch the trail, and if we missed it, follow the north-south ridge above the swamp. The slope down to the swamp would be very obvious, even in the dark, and provided a linear feature to bring us north towards CP Q. The team was tired of goofing around on the roads, so we headed that way.

It wasn't long until we found the slope down to the swamp. Even in the dark, we could tell we were looking out over a expansive low area, with a couple of radio towers visible in the distance. And from below, the incessant croaking of millions of frogs. Right as we reached the dropoff, we found a sandy OHV trail heading north along the rim, so we followed it through a ridiculous amount of twists and turns in a mostly northerly direction. I kept track of the distance and speculated on the specific reentrants we were winding around. I was happy to know about the frogs, since I was planning to use all the navigation resources available to me at night - and from prior experience, I knew that one's sense of hearing can be valuable for night navigation.

I was watching the compass as we proceeded, and noticed that we started to turn west and a little southwest at some points. There was no way that could happen unless we were coming around the north side of the big swamp. And something had to connect with the trail marked on the map, that suddenly stopped northwest of us! Not only that, the frog croaks started to come from our as well as our left. So at this point, I was confident we were trickling west, and the swamp that would be an attack point for CP Q was just to our north. But, I wasn't quite ready to dive into the woods yet.

We continued on the trail until the frogs became quite a bit louder, and we hit a small open area that by compass, and investigation, showed to be just west of a low swampy area. From the edge of the open area, we could actually shine our headlamps east and see the other side of the swamp. Everything lined up! At this point we saw headlamps to the southeast, and another team approaching apparently approaching along the same trail we did. So I gathered the team, and pointed out exactly where we needed to go. Unfortunately, we weren't able to ditch the other teams, and worked south around the swamp and actually led two other teams into the control. Argh! If only we were a bit faster on those parallel roads an hour ago, we could have gotten in and out in a hurry! Well, such is the game. We did head out quicker than anyone, hit the dead end (not) trail and head out to the road and CP 20 faster than anyone in the immediate area.

The Black Night of Despair

By now, we were walking pretty slow. We were all crazy tired, half sleepwalking. I started to crash, since there wasn't any appreciable navigation and I no longer needed to concentrate. Dave's feet were really starting to hurt him and he was chronically walking in the back. We were too stupid tired to realize we should have taken some weight from him, but Dave always guts it out and doesn't give it up easily. (In PQ, Mark and I had to threaten him to get him to give up his pack during the Bridger Range trek.)

We trudged up to CP R, which was just off the road, but easy. So the next one was going to be easy, right? Well, maybe. The obvious route was to hike in from the east. We went a little farther north along the road and saw a team coming out from the apparently thick vegetation to our left. Shortly after we made an exploratory venture off the road. There was a six foot dropoff at the edge into a combination very thick young pines, and very old deadfall, with a wet and lumpy ground layer. We backtracked and went farther north towards the edge of our map, to get on the other side of the creek and try to get up one contour line - which would have made a difference if it was accurate. It turned out to be a just-there contour, not an actual rise.


Aaaieee!

So without much choice, we had to head into the black swamp of death. I steered a course southwest towards the checkpoint, trying to avoid the thickest areas of vegetation, but without much success. There was so much that there were times we thrashed forward without our feet on the ground, instead pushing off and climbing over crazy amounts of deadfall and old stumps that were near rotted away. The paddles sticking up from our packs didn't help matters - everyone had to stop and disentangle themselves every couple dozen meters. It took us over a half hour of scrambling and wet feet to make our way to the main creek, and then we thankfully found a beaver dam to cross. Unfortunately, it was the wrong one, so we worked our way south until we spotted the actual control, of course, it was on the other side of the creek. So there was another beaver dam crossing (the creek was full, easily 10 meters wide).

Finally, we punched. And then made another stupid decision. "Hey, let's go back to the original road. It can't be too bad, we saw another team coming out that way and the race directors said we wouldn't need to get our feet wet! Our way in was just a bad route choice!"

Dumb, dumb, dumb, and I deserve any ribbing for that one.

We ended up being the only team, as far as I know, that braved the black swamp not once, but twice. The way out was just like the way in. Yes, we should have headed west over the hill and shortened the distance as well. As they say, hindsight is 20-20. But to our credit, we gutted it out as a team and made it back to the road.

Because of the strenuous effort crossing the swamp, by now we were close to the walking dead. I tried to lift spirits by announcing that we only had two miles of easy road hiking to get to the TA. We were all stumbling and weaving. We quickly decided that sleep, of some sort, was necessary because it would be dangerous to get on the bikes while nodding off. Dave was slowing down and walking with obvious pain, so I took his pack and slung it on my front, and he took Brian's shoulder to be led along the dark road. Eventually he took my shoulder as well with his other arm. I plodded along with three sets of paddles and two packs, positioned so as to restrict my peripheral vision. I felt like a horse with blinders on.


Mmmm... nap time.

After a hour that felt like several, we stumbled into the TA, checked in, and managed a weak "Boots!" "Cody!" call that our support crew answered. I don't remember much from the TA. We heard afterward from Rick and Corey how completely blitzed we were. Mostly we were thinking of sleep, but Rick played the taskmaster and told us we were going down for a hour, when in fact it was twenty minutes or so. Well played. But I woke up quickly when he opened the trailer door and shoved a Nodoz in my face - as for all of us. As we stumbled out of the trailer into the grey light of early dawn, we could tell that the long black night was finally over.

The Turnaround

The last section was a tough 15 miles. But now we had a 40-some mile bike over to Timber Ridge in the early morning light. For the first few miles we biked slow and shook off the cobwebs of sleep, but as the light and the Nodoz kicked in we gained in strength and started to draft up and hammer it west on a mix of gravel and paved roads towards CP T. We arrived in times to see two teams (who may not have slept at TA) leaving, and although we were a bit slow finding the checkpoint on the edge of a swamp, we had a very fast run west to US 131 and around to CP U. We braved a short rain shower on the way, but the clouds lightened as we spiked the CP and continued west on sandy two-track trails. We were working well together, lots of drafting, with only very quick stops to pound a GU or two. We were getting almost euphoric through this area, and my navigation was clicking again so we barely ever had to stop at intersections, just coasting through them as I yelled out "half a mile, take a right on the trail" and similar instructions to Dave and Brian.

After crossing a creek and climbing the other side, we started to bike through an area of pretty, high, relief that reminded me a lot of the glacial terrain around Telemark. About a mile before CP V, we saw Elk Bones coming up another road to meet us at the intersection. So good, we caught up. We approached CP V together and hung back just a slight bit to see if they knew it. They stopped, so we did too and Brian ran down to punch ahead of them. A few minutes earlier, we had passed them and I saw at least one of their team members was looking totally ragged, pedaling up a small hill with zero energy. Just like we were, last night! Since we were all stoked now, we pedaled ahead a bit and then I suggested we burn them off - a suggestion enthusiastically received by the others. We pounded through some steep terrain, taking the downhill momentum into the uphills and although I couldn't tell for sure, it felt like we were creating a gap. My navigation was still solid, and we crossed several roads and logging trails to the west until we hit the manned CP 22, almost before I thought we were there. The volunteers pointed us to the flagging that marked the entrance to the Vasa singletrack trail, and we quickly headed out with no one in sight behind.

The singletrack was a nice change. It wasn't as hilly and sandy as Boyne Mountain, although the CP situation was the same as before - four checkpoints spaced out along the trail. We took a moderate and steady pace through about 6-7 miles of beautiful singletrack, and the trail dumped us out on a powerline cut that we took NW to the TA at the campground. Compared to the other teams, we had a fast bike section - four and half hours when they estimated 5-6 - and we were feeling great as we pulled in, knowing that we were almost to the end of the race.

Don't Start Coasting!

Our job now was to drop the bikes and do the second orienteering section at Timber Ridge. The setup was just like the last one, score-O style, and since we had already gotten at least one in the previous section, we didn't need to get any here. Nevertheless, as we checked in with the TA staff, we saw what the other teams had managed. The first four were way ahead, too far for us to overtake. Untamed New England was ahead of us, but only got five CPs in Jordan Valley (we had eight). But they had been out for about three hours. Elk Bones had trouble getting to Jordan Valley and only managed one by the cutoff time. So at this point, our placement was very likely fixed - the team behind us had a huge gap to overcome, and the team ahead of us had a solid head start. Nevertheless, we decided to quickly pick up the two checkpoints nearest the TA. It was only a kilometer and a half trek and would give us a little bit of padding, as well as a change of pace from our poor tender rear ends.

We were back within 45 minutes, and loaded up our PFDs and paddles, since it was now an 8-mile bike on paved roads to the last paddle section on the Boardman River. I read the map badly on the way out and we wasted about 10 minutes, but it was nothing compared to the time we wasted in TA. After three days, we were kind of starting to slow down and goof off a little. The fact that it really wasn't a race anymore played into it.

The prior bike sections had done a number on my rear derailleur cable, so after we got going I found out that I had two gears - high, and low (and technically, super-low, but that didn't count on the pavement). Nevertheless, we arrived at the CP 25 around noon, with an easy seven hours to complete the 26-mile paddle down the Boardman River, through a rapids and three portages and into Grand Traverse Bay for the last 100 meters to the finish at the Holiday Inn that served as race HQ.

The Big Dump

The Boardman was just like the other rivers - shallow and windy with a fast current, at least 6 mph. We took about 10 minutes to get into the river and started down with light hearts - the TA staff estimated a six hour paddle, max. The first third was a repeat of our previous paddling sections, with Dave in my boat and Brian in the other boat skidding us around the many twists and turns. We had been warned where the rapids section started, and we sliced underneath a number of footbridges, some low enough to force us to duck, before we hit the highway bridge that marked the start of the fast water. We briefly stopped at a convenient landing to visit the porta-john, and then proceeded under the bridge through some riffles, punctuated by a couple splashers. We took a tight turn right, then another left and heard a thrumming up ahead. At the same time, we saw a bunch of people on a rocky inside bend up ahead, and recognized a bunch of support crews that were all hoisting brews and whooping it up, including our own Rick and Corey.


Start of the rapids section.

Showtime!

Dave and I were in the lead. We calmly discussed the line as we floated into the rapid section, then the current caught us and we went the V into some moderate waves. We only needed to steer out of the way of one rock halfway through - which Dave did expertly - and we paddled out clean. Brian and Molly did the same as we drifted downstream watching them. The support crews were busy snapping photos and yelling encouragement.

But the rapids weren't done yet! We rounded right, ran another quick class I/II, then rounded left and found another one after a straight section. The river curved a little right, then sharply left another dozen yards up, and there was a sandbar directly ahead, river left. At this point we saw four people and two boats sitting in the middle of the river - not in the deep channel to the right, but dead middle and walking their way through the waist-deep water to the sandbar. It was another team, that must have dumped at some point, and they obstructed visibility down the river. Dave saw the danger and slowed up, intending to go straight through the group if necessary to avoid the outside of the left-hand bend ahead. We actually glided in between the two boats, and hit another area of fast water with enough cross-current momentum to avoid being swept into the steep bank on the right. We slowed down past the turn and Dave looked back just in time to see Molly and Brian - who hadn't stayed as far left - swept right into a log on the outside of the bend and capsize.

Dave turned us around to help, and by the time I figured out what was going on, all I saw was a yellow canoe upside down, pinned underneath the log. Brian was at the upstream end, in waist deep water, holding the end of the boat, and Molly had scrambled up onto the bank. Dave and I headed for the sandbar on river left and beached the boat, jumping out within shouting distance of the other two. A couple minutes of yelling were enough to inform us that no one was hurt, but the packs and gear were pinned in the boat and the current was fierce. Somehow, we needed to rescue the boat!

The other team had recovered onto the sandbar as this point, and asked us whether we wanted help, or if it was OK for them to continue. It was a great gesture, and one I've come to expect from expedition racers. We had one boat and four able-bodied people, so more probably wouldn't have been a great help, and we thanked them for the concern but gave them leave to continue. Still, there was the problem of getting the boat out of the 8-10 mph current.

A few more shouted discussions convinced us to try an idea Dave had. The log wasn't thoroughly fixed - it vibrated a little - and the boat was in constant danger of being released. Brian was expending a lot of energy to keep it pinned against the log, and that was our salvation. At his direction, Molly got back in the water and fished for the packs, luckily being able to nab both of them and throw them up on the bank with the paddles. Then Dave prepared his throw rope and waded out into the channel, then tossed it just upstream of Brian. It came down around Brian's waist, and he started to tie it around the canoe's portage handle as Molly steadied it from the other end. He did nearly ten half hitches to secure it, and then, after warning Molly to get on the shore side of the boat, jiggled the log a bit. All of a sudden, the boat popped out and turned itself mostly upright (but full of water), as it was designed to do. It started to majestically sail downriver in slow motion, but as the throw rope went taut, Dave's weight was enough to gently goad it out of the fastest water into the slower, shallow area. A few seconds later, Dave was swinging the pendulum into the lower end of the sand bar, and I rushed out to gather in the boat as Brian clambered up the bank on the other side to get warm.

Dave and I unknotted the throw rope and emptied the water out of the boat while Brian and Molly had a clothes-tossing fest on the opposite bank. By the time we were done, they were already well on there way to raiding their dry bags for hats, gloves, fleeces, tights, and anything or everything else warm. Then they broke out the mylar space blankets and wrapped themselves up.

Now Dave and I were river left on the sandbar, with two boats, and all the gear was safe. So we each soloed a canoe and ferried over to the other side, hitting a convenient eddy about 30 yards downstream of the other two. After we pulled the boats up for safety, Dave ran up to check on the others and I went downstream to scout for more rough water. I was back in five minutes with the report that the rapids were done, and the river opened into up into a wide pond caused by the Sabin dam. So far, so good, but - we hadn't realized how cold Brian and Molly had gotten.

They were both shivering violently, but had plenty of warm clothes on plus the space blankets, so there wasn't much more that could be done. Right at this point, Luke and another race director made their way down the bank to check on us. The team that dumped just ahead of us had reported the incident when they reached CP 26 and the portage at the other side of the dam pond.

Brian and Molly were turned the corner, but a new element was introduced to the situation when Luke mentioned that we were coming within a couple hours of the 7 PM race cutoff. "S***", we all say. Back in the boats! Somehow, I think that being cold wasn't as much of an issue anymore.

The Finish

So we screamed across the pond to CP 26, and portaged reasonably quickly into Sabin Pond, which was very shallow. The two boats were slightly imbalanced in speed, though, so we switched to have me and Brian in one boat, and Molly and Dave in the other as we got back in. I kept asking Brian how he was feeling, and Dave was doing the same in the other boat. The effort was well worth it, as we crossed the shallow Sabin Pond about as quickly as possible, and flew down the river section beyond it leading to Boardman Lake. By the end both of them were warm, but still very tired. I was checking my watch and shouting out encouragement to the others. Based on the distance, our speed, and the potential effect of the stiff NNW wind, I was somewhat concerned about being able to make it - so there was no time for dawdling anymore.

We arrived at the entrance to Boardman Lake with 63 minutes left. We immediately headed for the western shore to paddle from point to point and stay out of the wind as much as possible. But it still slowed us way down, and we responded by redoubling our efforts. My shoulders and arms were burning, and my mouth was hoarse and dry from shouting out "You guys are great!" "Keep going!" "We're gonna make it!" Dave and Molly drafted us as we slowly knocked down each of the points on the shoreline. Finally, we hit the last one and crossed under the bridge back into the river, with about 35 minutes to spare.

But now we curved to the left and started to feel the brunt of the wind. We stayed close to shore and were heartened when we suddenly heard "Boots! Cody!" from the left and turned to see Rick striding through people's yards, pacing us and cheering us on. We bent down and kept going until the last portage, where we headed left and dragged the boats over a road and grassy field and tossed them down a six-foot embankment. No time for niceties now. We exchanged some brief words with a couple of fisherman, who probably would have talked for hours if we had the time, and jumped down into the boats and kept on another quarter mile until the river took a hairpin turn back to the east. I looked at my watch as we rounded the bend and, thankfully, saw about 17 minutes left. But now the wind was at our back.


Done at last!

Still, we kept on paddling hard. We had lost Rick (his route was a little tougher than ours, what with the roads and fences and such), but we fairly flew down the channel as it widened bit by bit. Up ahead I could see a sharp left turn that marked the entrance to Grand Traverse Bay. A few more yells of encouragement and we were skidding around the turn into two-foot waves whipped up by the wind. We turned hard right again and paralleled the shoreline to the Salomon banners marking the finish. We pulled the boats up onto the shore and asked the volunteer if there was anything more to do, and he simply said:

"No, you're finished."

And another quick look at the watch showed seven minutes to spare. What a finish!