In the late 1970s, Iain Craig signed up with a partner for a canoe race, thinking it would be an easy victory.
“We thought we’d win this,” he said. “It was a crazy boat race. The others were better paddlers, had better boats, and I had no idea what I was doing.”
But even with that loss, the Richmond Hill man had gotten a taste of real competition that has never burned out.
Within a couple years, Craig had helped some friends who lived in Bradford West Gwillimbury start Marsh Mash, a local canoe race that has morphed into a world qualifier competition for canoeists, kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders and outrigger paddlers in the Holland Marsh canal.
It is the fourth oldest marathon canoe race in Ontario, and it is celebrating its 40th anniversary May 12.
In its first year, many of the Marsh Mash competitors used handmade wooden paddles and canoes crafted from cedar strip and fibreglass, he said.
Now, many of the competitors use professionally manufactured equipment to cover the five-, nine-, 18- and 22-kilometre courses — but anyone is welcome to join the event with what they have.
“We have everything but the classic ‘guy and his dog,’” Craig said, laughing, but “if someone wants to paddle and bring their dog, they can.”
The event attracts about 100 competitors each year from around the province.
The town covers the cost of professional timers for the event, and the Holland Marsh drainage commission puts markers in the water.
After a tornado tore through the Holland Marsh in 1985, the commission even had the canal cleared of an incredible amount of debri in time for the race.
Marsh Mash also became a World Team Qualifier in 2007, which means young paddlers who want to represent Canada at the Canoe Marathon World Championships can compete in qualifying races at Marsh Mash for a spot on the team.
Four-time Olympic medalist Adam van Koeverden and one-time Olympic medalist Mark Oldershaw even competed in Marsh Mash in 2013 — a highlight for the event, said Craig.
“They both obviously won their classes. They stayed for their prizes,” he said, noting winners get bags of carrots or onions from Holland Marsh farmers. This year, winners will also receive a T-shirt and travel mug.
“I won the race and was awarded three kilograms of onions and some potted begonias,” said van Koeverden. “I gave the flowers to my mother and made French onion soup. I think Mark won the carrots. Career highlight.”
Craig said many of the same people come back each year to compete in the event, but he wishes more Bradford residents would get involved as paddlers or spectators.
“We have people who have been doing this for a long, long time. The big disappointment is people from Bradford don’t come out to it,” he said. “I can’t get Bradford paddlers to take part.”
He said he is unsure why not as many locals participate, but he pointed to the lack of any organized canoe or dragonboat clubs in town as something he would like to see rectified.
Even having a club to teach children about water safety would be worth the effort, he said, adding he has unsuccessfully attempted to pitch such a group to local schools.
Jim Preece, who lives just south of Barrie, competed at Marsh Mash for its first 15 years. He is returning this year to compete with friends and his son, Chris.
“It should be entertaining, if nothing else,” he said, laughing. “Everyone who does a canoe race wins because you’ve completed it. There’s always a sense of accomplishment doing it.”
He said it would be great to see more local residents take part in the event.
“It’s not as appealing, perhaps, but once people do it, they usually like doing it. It’s a nice body of water to paddle on,” he said. “Just because it’s called a race doesn’t mean you have to do it quickly.”
Preece saw many of the early changes to Marsh Mash, including moving the race date to May from later in the summer because the weeds are not as long then.
Having to “mash” their way through the long weeds is actually how the event got its name.
“It was like ploughing through mud. The back stretch by Highway 9 was completely overgrown. I’m really happy not to see that anymore,” he said.
While Marsh Mash is open to people of any age, Craig said he is hoping more young people will get involved.
“I like competeing; I like racing. It keeps me in shape. (But) I won’t be racing forever,” said the 75 year old, adding he would like to see Bradford, King Township or a service club eventually take over organizing the event.
The Holland Marsh canal has potential, he said, and he would love to see a running or biking path installed — a perfect opportunity for triathlon events — as well as picnic areas and garbage cans to encourage more people to visit the area.
And even if local residents do not compete in Marsh Mash, Craig said he hopes more of them visit the canal to take in its scenery.
“Come down and see our resources. Come back in the fall and see the colours and birds,” he said, adding Frasier Creek is the “scenic part of the race,” where deer can sometimes be spotted from the water.
“The canal is underutilized. It’s the new canal — it’s not water you can drink, but it’s great paddling water. Get out and paddle. That’s what it’s all about.”
Want to check out Marsh Mash?
10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Westside Community Church at 5 Sideroad and Canal Road