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Pushing the limits of endurance in the outdoors

July 11, 2009
Joe Hackett

Some people like a challenge and some like to challenge themselves. Over the years, the Adirondacks have attracted both breeds.

The thrill of wilderness adventure has gained considerable attention in recent years, as speed climbers have tackled the task of climbing the 46 High Peaks in record time.

The task of climbing the 46 peaks was first accomplished by Bob Marshall, his brother George and Herbert Clark, the family guide.

Article Photos

Marathon kayaker Mike Stavola rests at the base of Grand Falls on the St. John River while paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine.
(Enterprise photo — Joe Hackett)

Bob Marshal, whose name has long been synonymous with the wilderness, was one of the original speed climbers. Marshall was renowned for 20- and 30-mile days while knocking off numerous peaks.

Last summer, the record for climbing the 46 was reduced to 3 days, 17 hours and 14 minutes when Jan Wellford clocked in after an exhausting personal accomplishment.

Wellford, a trail running enthusiast from Keene Valley, finished the ordeal with less than 10 hours of sleep during the nearly four day effort.

The idea of running through the forest to push the extremes of endurance may not be everyone's idea of a wilderness experience.

In the 1960's, Dick Emperor, a local woodsman and State Game Protector from Saranac Lake commented on the growing popularity of peak bagging. He remarked, "The trouble with people today is they're so busy covering ground, they don't take the time to notice what's covering the ground they've covered."

Perhaps some folks, in their hurried efforts to tempt exhaustion, actually do miss the forest for the trees. But for many, the exhilaration of exhaustion is the reward they seek.

Often, these efforts are not intended to be solely about breaking records. Commonly, the feats are all about personal rewards, the satisfaction comes with pushing personal limits and achieving an individual accomplishment. Pleasure is derived by testing one's self!

Although a few advocacy groups have voiced concerns over the environmental impacts and aethestics of hosting trail runs or ultra-marathons on wilderness lands, such as the 32-mile long, Damn Wakley Dam Ultra, very little attention has been focused on comparable paddling events like the Adirondack Canoe Classic.

The popular, three day paddling event that runs from Old Forge to Saranac Lake annually hosts over 100 boats that race along a major canoe corridor through the heart of the park.

The event is welcomed and celebrated in all of the communities along the route and the winning team usually finishes with just over a combined 12 hours of total time on the water.

Race organizer, Brian McDonnell of Lake Clear and paddling partners Gene Newman, Chad and Bruce Kennedy have completed the entire route in 14 hours and 34 minutes while paddling a four-man canoe. Their one day effort, labeled the Cannonball 90 Miler, has attracted other paddle sports enthusiasts.

Solo kayakers, John Ders and Rich Waters finished the same route in 16 hours 11 minutes. Both records are certain to be lowered in future years.

More recently comes news of "Kayakathon", a paddling feat completed by 67-year-old Gil Whitney of Maine.

On June 26, Whitney became the first and oldest kayaker to solo the entire 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Route when he paddled into Fort Kent, Maine. He finished 57 days after launching off in Old Forge on May 1.

Whitney didn't set out to make history or establish any records. He took on the task because loved wild lands and "thought it would be a good thing to try with a kayak."

Fast on his stern was 57-year-old Mike Stavola, paddling a 55 lb. touring kayak packed with over 75 pounds of gear. Stavola pushed the limits of endurance when he finished the water trail in only 32 days. He set new records for the fastest thru-paddler on the route.

It will be interesting to see what the future brings as lighter gear, brighter lights and faster athletes take to the local woods and waters in an attempt to raise the bar.

Is there a wilderness based Ironman in the future?



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