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New Mississippi River paddle race begins in Brainerd

The inaugural Mississippi River Paddle Weekend took place June 10-12, 2022. The weekend was filled with races down the Mississippi River and celebrations at the start and finish of the races.

A man in a surf ski paddles down the river.
Micah Cox of Atlanta, Georgia, paddles down the Mississippi River in Brainerd in a surf ski during the MN-140 on Friday, June 10, 2022.
Sara Guymon / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — The river was the calmest thing Friday, June 10, in Lum Park.

Three men stand on a boat.
Scott Miller, left, Bryan Pike and Todd Foster stand on a boat after watching the start of the race Friday, June 10, 2022, at Lum Park in Brainerd.
Sara Guymon / Brainerd Dispatch

Emotions and nerves were high as racers gathered near the water, getting ready for the MN-140, a long paddle race down the Mississippi. Friends and family gathered to watch their loved ones embark on a journey to Anoka filled the shoreline and dock.

The inaugural Mississippi River Paddle Weekend took place June 10-12. The weekend was filled with races down the Mississippi River and celebrations at the start and finish of the races.

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The longest race, MN-140, began at Lum Park in Brainerd and ended near Anoka. It was about 135 miles long after being shortened due to some water issues, and participants had 48 hours to complete the distance. Every participant or team raced on self-powered boats such as kayaks, canoes or stand-up paddleboards.

The race was organized by Two Paddles, an organization to help people experience paddling on the Mississippi River. Two Minnesota friends, Todd Foster and Scott Miller, founded the organization.

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The two met while at summer camp and have been best friends since. They share a love for paddling and have made dozens of canoe trips around the United States. Miller has even participated in many long distance paddling races, like the Missouri River 340 and the Great Alabama 650.

“(The MN-140) was modeled after a race in Missouri called the Missouri 340,” Foster said. “They have over 1,000 participants. So we'd love to, at some point, get to that size.”

Many kayakers, canoers and paddleboarders wait for the race to begin.
Participants of the MN-140 wait for the race to begin Friday, June 10, 2022, at Lum Park in Brainerd.
Sara Guymon / Brainerd Dispatch

In addition to the MN-140, the paddle weekend also offered four other races at shorter distances. The duo wanted anyone of any skill level to be able to participate. The shortest distance was 7.5 miles, a fraction of the longest race.

However, the MN-140 was the big event of the weekend. The race featured more than 60 participants and 40 boats from 15 different states. There were a few racers from Manitoba, Canada, as well.

“We're excited that it brings out the community,” Foster said. “The Brainerd (Ski) Loons are helping us start the race and over 70 volunteers are helping us put on the race at checkpoints, making sure people are fed and hydrated.”

A women smiles as she paddles a canoe.
A participant of the MN-140 smiles at the start of the race on Friday, June 10, 2022, at Lum Park in Brainerd.
Sara Guymon / Brainerd Dispatch

The safety of the racers was a huge concern for organizers, and they took precautions. Volunteers stood by at every checkpoint, and safety boats floated along the route in case someone needed assistance. In addition to the volunteers available, every racer used an app called RaceOwl. The app tracked the location of every racer and allowed the organizers to watch the rate of the race.

“It tells us their speed, how fast they're going, and all those kinds of things and we know exactly where they are at all times as well,” Foster said. “So if somebody gets into trouble, we can see, ‘Oh, they haven't moved in a half an hour. Let's call them, let's see what's going on.’”

The race included six checkpoints racers had to pass within certain time restraints. If a racer didn’t make it to the checkpoint within the allotted time, they were eliminated from the race.

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A lot of the paddlers continued through the night to finish the race in time, Foster said. Others took breaks and started fresh in the morning. No matter what the paddlers decided to do, they all had one goal in mind: finish the race.

Racers get out of their canoe in order to walk around the dam.
Racers in the MN-140 paddle race portage around the Brainerd dam Friday, June 10, 2022, the first of five dams along the route ending in Anoka.
Sara Guymon / Brainerd Dispatch

The paddling wasn’t the only challenge of the race, though. The route included five dams requiring portaging. In total, the racers would spend over 2 miles out of the water, walking their boats around the dams.

The first three boats to cross the finish line received a commemorative trophy, and everyone else who finished received medals. There were also shirts and hats for sale to help support the events of the weekend.

“This is not a Sunday afternoon paddle for two hours,” Foster said before the race began. “At the very least, 21 hours — at the most, 48 hours of constant battle.”

However, Foster’s guess turned out to be a little more than the actual time it took for some contestants to finish. The race officially ended at 5 p.m. Sunday, but the first boat crossed the finish line much earlier and contained duo Jim Pechous and Patrick McCarthy of the Men’s Tandem Category. The two racers from Illinois finished the race in 16 hours and 18 minutes, finishing about 9 a.m. Saturday morning.

Finishing first for the Men’s Solo category was Bobby Johnson, a kayaker from Florida. He finished not far behind the duo.

Man operating a stand-up paddle board.
Brad Friesen of Manitoba, Canada, is ready at the starting line of the inaugural MN-140 race on Friday, June 10, 2022, at Lum Park in Brainerd.
Sara Guymon / Brainerd Dispatch

McCarthy, who knows Johnson and trained with him in Tampa, Florida, knew Johnson was right behind the duo for most of the race. Knowing what kind of competitor Johnson was motivated McCarthy to keep going and finish strong.

“I knew he wasn’t going to quit or slow down,” McCarthy wrote in a blog post about the race. “He is known for beating people in the last sections of races using his killer mentality to push harder than anyone else. We still had a race on our hands.”

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Finishing first in the Women’s Tandem category were Julie Ardoin and Lena McKnight. The duo finished just after 5 p.m. on Saturday, June 11.

There was only one participant, Brooke Vaughn, in the Women’s Solo category.

“Overall, this was a great experience,” wrote Mark Fingerhut, who finished fourth place in the Men’s Solo Category. “It was well organized and volunteers throughout the race were super friendly and helpful. I really liked the 5pm start time. And the portages interspersed throughout the race were a nice break to the monotony of endless hours of repetitive motion paddling.”

In addition to kayaks and canoes, two people raced on stand-up paddleboards. Brad Freisen traveled down from Manitoba, Canada, and was the first of the two racers to finish. He placed 11th overall with a time of 20 hours and 9 minutes, finishing just after 1 p.m. Saturday.

Two Paddles already picked out the dates for next year’s races: June 9-11, 2023. Foster and Miller said they’re very excited to continue sharing their love for paddling and are hoping the event continues to grow in size each year.

SARA GUYMON, Brainerd Dispatch, staff writer, may be reached at 218-855-5851 or sara.guymon@brainerddispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Sara_Guymon .

Sara Guymon recently joined the Brainerd Dispatch as a staff writer.
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