Perhaps it was my male intuition. Perhaps it was the sudden arrival of my long-awaited sixth sense. Perhaps I was just exceptionally perceptive that morning. I guess I’ll never know. But whatever it was, something told me that getting heavily inebriated the night before a canoe marathon was not a wise move. I looked at my friend, Andy. He wore a puzzled, thoughtful expression, and I wondered if he was experiencing a similar epiphany.
We were in Dalsland, western Sweden, standing on the edge of a misty lake, blinking hard in the pale dawn. The marathon – more of a megathon – crosses four lakes and covers a distance of 35 miles. For some perspective, the distance from Dover to Calais is 30 miles. It is an annual event that began nine years ago and it attracts elite athletes the world over.
And now us. Two out-of-shape British guys with alcohol on their breath and a canoe – we had named it King Cnut – so large there were genuine concerns that on launching it the lake would be emptied of water. Secretly, I wouldn’t have minded that. If you’ve read the post preceding this, you may remember that, physical condition aside, I was somewhat ill-equipped psychologically to deal with this challenge. But for now that was the least of my worries.
Hauling the King into the water, some adrenaline began tentatively asserting itself in my veins. It was replaced with overwhelming relief when we didn’t immediately capsize. The loudspeaker announcements became more frequent, interspersed with the occasional rock song, and things began to take on an alarming sense of reality. No going back now.
After what seemed an eternity of aimless bobbing, a horn sounded, and a mass of kayaks and canoes surged forth like a shoal of fish.
Within seconds we were in last position. After a few more seconds, a man in a safety boat informed me I was holding my paddle incorrectly. This prompted Andy to laugh so much he nearly fell overboard. A few more seconds after that, it was like a storm had passed and apart from some distant rumbles, all was quiet again. For us, the race was over.
But as long as we kept moving, we were in with a chance of reaching our goal. In a moment of wild ambition the night before, we had decided that if we could somehow get ourselves to the halfway point, we could go home proud. Fellow canoeists were never going be our competition. Our battle was with the elements, the course itself.
And what a course! The lakes of Dalsland are an exquisitely beautiful part of our planet, and, having liberated ourselves from the stress of keeping up with the crowd, we were free to enjoy this remarkable place on our own terms. Sometimes we would drift close to the shoreline, where thick pine forest brooded against shallows dotted with water lilies. Here, the air was alive with birdsong and infused with comforting woody smells. Other times we would stray out to the lake centre, where the water was a rich indigo and the scenery opened out into a vast panorama of blues and greens, dwarfing us into insignificance. Here, the only thing that broke the silence was the gentle, rhythmic sloshing of our paddles. There was a bewitching tranquillity about this place; ours was the only movement. It was as though a spell had been cast over the land – even the tips of the trees poised motionless. And the water was like glass, mirroring the scenery and the majestic white clouds suspended above.
I stopped seeing the course as something to beat. It became something to take pleasure in, a much-needed distraction from the increasing pain in my arms and back. Rounding corners to be presented with yet more spellbinding views became a series of rewards, mini goals in their own right.
Much of the time it was easy to forget we were taking part in an actual event. Occasionally we would pass gaggles of well-wishers and musicians, some of whom gamely stopped playing to return our waves. In one bizarre instance we passed a couple of men dressed in Father Christmas costumes standing in the middle of a lake. I quickly put it down to hallucination – the August sun had begun to beat down and I was tired – but a flick through the photos later that day confirmed it had actually happened.
Mostly, though, we were alone in this wilderness. Well, not quite alone, for it had gradually begun to dawn on us that a sprinkling of other boats were travelling at our pace – in fact, some were moving slower than us, which was something that seemed a physical impossibility. Sometimes we would engage in polite small talk, but mainly we kept ourselves to ourselves. There were Dad and Son, a friendly pair in a two-man canoe who had taken part last year and proudly recounted how they’d finished second from last. There was Couple, a pair in their mid-50s in individual kayaks – it was the first time they had taken part but they seemed to have encyclopaedic knowledge of the course. There was Canoe Man – he looked like Brian Blessed and was impressively tackling the course alone with a single paddle. And lastly there was Girl – about 16 and also going it alone, in a kayak. We were all underdogs and this created an unspoken camaraderie between us.
But more importantly than that, these people seemed rather intent on finishing. Scarily intent on finishing. There was no talk of reaching the halfway point and stopping – they were all in it for the long haul. And although it was some time before either of us dared to say it aloud, we had both begun to think the same thing: We might just do this.
The halfway point came and went. It barely registered. We had a new goal now. And it was waiting for us in Bengtsfors marina. The finish line. All we had to do was keep moving.
We distracted ourselves with telling jokes and making awful puns for the situation.
“So what do you think of Sweden?” “Oarsome!”
“We can do it… can(y)oe?!”
I told you they were awful.
As the hours ticked by and the miles trickled past, everything became a greeny-blue blur. I stopped gaping at my surrounds. Everything was channelled into simply paddling. If we stopped for even a minute our muscles would seize up. We stopped taking pictures. We stopped talking. We just paddled. And paddled. And paddled. And paddled.
And we did it. We did it! 11 hours after bobbing nervously on that cold misty lake, we crossed the finish line. Words can’t explain the elation we felt. People applauded as our friend Stig introduced us over the loudspeaker.
“I… I… I don’t believe it! It is the British guys! I don’t believe it!”
It was one of the highlights of my life.
That night we attended a crayfish party in Bengtsfors. My memory is hazy, but judging by the photos, we had a very good time.
I woke the next morning – a bonus in itself – and experienced another dose of male intuition, or whatever you want to call it. Something… I don’t know what… but something told me that getting heavily inebriated the night after a canoe marathon was not a wise choice.
But who cares – we did it!
Text and images, Will Jones, My Destination