Wilderness Traverse: adventure racing from a volunteer’s perspective

If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a 24-hour adventure race, volunteer at race headquarters (HQ) all weekend and you’ll see the good, the bad, and the ugly, not to mention the hilarious, inspiring, and satisfying! I had the pleasure of doing just that at Wilderness Traverse in 2018, a race which saw teams of 3 or 4 cover 150k of terrain by trekking, biking, and canoeing. Some teams chose to swim on the trek section, and at least one racer in as little clothing as possible (he wore only the race bib – on the bottom!).

While I was at race HQ all weekend, I was able to follow along with the racers by “watching the dots” on the computer screen (each team had a GPS tracker), and by getting news from volunteers around the course (50 volunteers in total, and 48 teams racing), which included pictures of teams as they passed by.

Pre-race planning by an unknown team.

Along with a few other savvy ladies, we provided race assistance and play by play commentary and updates as the race progressed, keeping friends and loved ones at home (and in some cases around the race course) up to date on what was happening. It was exhausting but super fun. 

With Ashleigh and Barb.

It was fascinating to see the logistics of a race like this, which is described on the website as “one of the toughest team-based endurance challenges around and simply reaching the finish line is a massive achievement”. 

Race Director Bob Miller has a whole team of volunteers helping to make this race a reality.

I love volunteering at races (see my post on why you, too should volunteer), and I figured that spending time at Wilderness Traverse would be a great way to prepare for my own eventual attempt at racing it!

I decided to do it again in 2019, this time manning a remote checkpoint in the Haliburton Highlands Water Trails, which the teams would arrive at by foot.

My friend and future Wilderness Traverse teammate Heidi agreed to come with me. On the Friday night, we volunteered at race registration.

At race registration.

I took team photos, and Heidi gathered interesting tidbits from each team. We slept in our tent in a park across the road from the Dorset Recreation Centre (race HQ), and after breakfast on race morning, we watched the 8 AM start of the race.

Bumper boats at the race start!

Then we set out for our remote campsite (Checkpoint/CP 16) on Upper Crane Lake, with one little stop on the way to set out CP 15 (anyone remember CP 15?!).

Just one of the race maps.

We parked my van at an old logging road, took a compass bearing and headed south-east towards Three Brothers Lake. For some reason, it never occurred to me to pack trail running shoes for the weekend, so I bushwhacked in the only shoes I had with me – my sandals! It took us far longer than we expected it to, and we did it during broad daylight. Most teams would do this trekking section in the dark. We were hot, and despite having put bug repellent on, we were getting eating alive!!

We eventually found the blue ribbon that Bob had said would mark the spot where the checkpoint should go… but it was on the ground, not attached to a tree! Luckily, it hadn’t blown away. We hung the flag and SI reader and then headed back to the van.

We drove to the Bentshoe Lake access point, carried the canoe and all our gear across the road, loaded up the boat, and set out! This was Heidi’s very first backcountry canoe trip. We had 4 big packs with us, way more than I would normally take on a canoe trip – but we were carrying lots and lots of treats for the racers! We counted this as our first Wilderness Traverse training session together – Heidi portaged a canoe for the first time!

Based on Bob’s estimates, we knew that the lead team wouldn’t reach our checkpoint until at least 10 PM, and that teams would continue to arrive until 8 AM! Of course, this meant that we too would be staying up all night! We decided not to bring a tent with us – we wouldn’t have time to sleep! We did bring our sleeping bags in case we got cold.

We paddled to the portage into Lower Crane Lake, and then after a short portage, paddled through that lake into Upper Crane Lake and to our campsite. We had our lunch, swam, and gathered tons of wood so that we could keep a fire going all night long.

At some point, another volunteer paddled by in his canoe. I can’t remember now where he was stationed during the race.

Wood and treats ready to go!

We had great cell service at our campsite, so we were able to use the race apps to follow the progress of all the teams, and to communicate with race HQ. We had dinner, and were treated to the most gorgeous sunset!

We decided to try to have a nap. We had set up our thermarests and sleeping bags and settled in! I set an alarm so that we weren’t asleep when the racers arrived! When my alarm went off (I hadn’t fallen asleep), I checked where the teams were, and re-set my alarm. At some point, I did fall asleep, because my alarm woke me up, and when I checked where the teams were, I thought, “Oh no!” I got up quickly and woke Heidi up. She had been out cold and started speaking to me in German (I don’t speak German!). I thought the first team would be there any minute, but it actually took quite a while. We lit our campfire, set out all the goodies (cookies, candies, and s’mores fixings!), and waited with baited breath! Well, we might have also eaten our fair share of the treats as a matter of quality control while we waited.

We heard many owls calling to one another while we waited for teams to arrive.

At one point, we freaked ourselves out when we saw a bright light through the woods in a direction that no team should be arriving at our checkpoint from. We wondered who was in the woods behind our campsite. We couldn’t hear anything. It was unnerving. Eventually, the light got bigger, and higher, and we realized it was… the moon!!!

Eventually (after midnight!), we heard voices and spotted headlamps coming down a hill across the lake from us. And then we made out French accents. As they got closer, we heard them discussing whether they were going to swim. They did. It was incredibly cool (and exciting!) to see them swimming across the lake, a distance of probably 25m or so. They made their way through the woods to us, inserted their SI stick into the SI reader, and took off! No idle chatter or food for them. We were a little disappointed but we understood. They were on a mission! The next team wouldn’t arrive for more than an hour.

Speaking of disappointment, when we learned that only the teams on the full course would reach our checkpoint, we wished that our checkpoint was earlier on in the race course. While there were 45 teams registered, we knew that the majority of teams would be pushed onto short courses (due to not making certain time cut-offs).

The next team arrived more than an hour later. And then, as the hours passed, the teams ate more and spent slightly more time at our checkpoint. It was really interesting to see their route choices. Some came to us from the south, and some from the north. Some chose to swim, but the majority didn’t. At least one team overshot our campsite, and then eventually returned.

We made sure that for each team’s approach, we had a good fire going, so that if they were wet and cold, they could warm up.

There were a few teams in particular that I hoped to see, because I knew people on them. Before the race started I had heard Kelly from Spinning out of Control say that she’d love a coffee on course. And then I found out that Heidi had packed a bit of instant coffee. When we discovered that Sunday was Kelly’s birthday (the race started on Saturday), I knew we had to have a coffee ready for her arrival! I had been watching their dot all day and night, with my friend John also on the team. And then we saw on the race Facebook page that they had been redirected to a short course (and wouldn’t reach our checkpoint after all). I was so disappointed! But then we saw their dot move… and it continued to come closer to us. And then, around 6 AM, they got close, and we could hear John’s laugh.

When they arrived at our site, not only did we get to wish Kelly a happy birthday, but we got to give her a mug of hot coffee! She was very appreciative.

The birthday girl and her cup of coffee.

After munching on some snacks, they headed out. We wished them well and hoped they would make it to the finish line (they did!).

The sun came up and teams were still arriving at CP 16. Over the course of the night we heard how much trouble some teams had finding CP 15, the one we set out (and the one they visited before coming to us). We weren’t surprised!

We had so much food that we encouraged teams to take some with them, more so as the last few teams came through. One was completely out of food, so they were very grateful.

We did make s’mores for some teams, and one racer even made one for himself. I hand fed another racer whose hands were too dirty (you’re welcome Chris L!).

In the end, I think we had 12 teams come through our checkpoint.

Planning how to get to CP 17.

When the last team left our campsite, we packed up our things, and waited until we were told by race HQ that we could leave. We set out for CP 15 to collect the flag and SI reader, this time by canoe. We had trouble finding the place we intended to leave the canoe, trouble finding the path we wanted, and after a while of seemingly getting nowhere (or getting nowhere fast!) , we wondered whether it would have been better to just park at the logging road and get to CP 15 the same way we had originally put it out. But it was too late by then. It seemed to take forever, with us having to add distance to avoid climbing and descending super steep hills. We made it there, eventually! And then we headed back to the canoe, paddled to the takeout, and loaded up the van.

We went back to race HQ, dropped off the flags and SI readers, had some post-race food, and drove home!

We had so much fun at CP 16.

In 2020, Heidi, Rebecca and I will be at the start line to take on Wilderness Traverse ourselves!

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A newbie orienteer, and an interview with Orienteering Canada

Recently I was approached by Orienteering Canada, who was interested in interviewing me as a newbie orienteer and blogger of my orienteering* adventures. [* Orienteering is “a competitive or noncompetitive recreational activity in which participants use a map and compass to navigate between checkpoints along an unfamiliar course (as in the woods)” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Orienteering Canada provides leadership and resources to those involved in Canadian orienteering (athletes, coaches, officials and volunteers).

You can read the interview here. See why you, too, should try orienteering!

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