Three weeks ago, I introduced you to a 40-year-old La Crosse man with a multitude of interests, both personally and professionally, whose passion for canoe racing is unrivaled.
The adventures of Judson Steinback, it seems, intrigued a number of you as much as it did me. The last time we connected, Steinback was off to Belize, a small country in Central America, where he was entered in a four-day, 175-mile race called the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge.
This week, it was time catch up with Steinback. He didn’t disappoint.
“Far and away, it was one of the coolest events I have ever done in my entire life. It was above and beyond incredible,” Steinback said of the race, which was held March 4-7. “For a Wisconsin guy, a northern guy, to be paddling a river to the Caribbean Sea, it was just incredible.”
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This guy, who one reader described as someone who does “crazy canoe races,” no doubt added another exploit to his growing list of worldwide treks that could easily be made into a book.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s just say canoeing the Mississippi River, Black River, Trempealeau River, La Crosse River or even the Kickapoo River has its own set of challenges, rewards and nature-pausing moments, but none feature crocodiles or “attacks” by other canoeists.
Welcome to the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge.
“It is a really challenging canoe race, but you are also surrounded by endless beauty,” said Steinback, a former teacher who has been co-owner of Coulee Region Ecoscapes, an environmentally friendly landscape and design business, for the last 11 years.
“The birds and the fish and the wildlife — it is unrivaled; it is so beautiful. I have been to Nicaragua, Guatemala, southern Mexico, and all have their own stunning beauty. But this, it was unrivaled in pure beauty.”
With that said, don’t get the idea this was a pleasure cruise. Hardly.
In fact, teams train for a year or more for this highly-competitive, three-person canoe race that features four segments, the longest being 60-plus miles, where teams slice down the Belize River as thousands of fans line the river banks.
Steinback’s team, “The Wateva Boyz,” was comprised of Steinback, Joe Mann of Kansas City and captain Adrian Williams of Belize. The team, despite never paddling together, finished 15th out of 46 boats with a time of 20 hours, 28 minutes, 12 seconds.
That was 2 hours, 14 minutes, 21 seconds behind the winners, PACT (Protected Acres Conservation Trust), which had a combined time of 18:14:39. PACT narrowly beat second-place Slim & Trim Like Guava Limb by just 12 seconds.
It took a bit of time to get the canoe racey, or in race mode, Steinback said.
“I think the biggest surprise was the boat’s ability to trim, and how temperamental the boat was to trim. If we were not in the right spot, the boat became quite tippy,” Steinback said. “Most teams spend a month to dial in their trim; we had a day.”
That didn’t deter The Wateva Boyz, nor did the constant attacks by other competitors. Having done their research, Steinback knew there would be attacks, but reading about them, and experiencing them, were two vastly different things.
The attacks were not violent, but strategic in order to gain a competitive advantage. It was not that different that cycling packs in races like the Tour de France, or even the pack attacks by cars in draft-friendly NASCAR races like the Daytona 500.
“It is much more (effective) than drafting. There are two ways to ride a canoe: one, behind the stern wave, which is physically the easiest way to ride a boat. You not get a draft from the wind, but having the waves from the boat ahead of you pull you into its wake,” Steinback said.
“I tell people it is like if you were floating down a river and see a boulder. What is happening behind that boulder, with the water going the opposite direction, that is exactly what is happening when a canoe moves though the stern wave, it pulls you along and draws you into the boat.”
In other words, competitors form alliances, pack-style, throughout the race and attempt to use those to gain strategic advantages at the most opportune times.
“The attacks are just ruthless and they never stop. If you would be with another team and everyone knew that you were better, they would still come at you and after you. They knew they would not be able to stay with you, but they would just come at you and try and try and try,” Steinback said.
“Sometimes, (canoes would be) less than 12 inches. Sometimes as close as a couple of feet, but no more than three feet. It was super fun. That is racing. That is what makes it amazing. You are sort of nervous as you don’t want to let your team down.”
There were a number of adrenaline rushes during the race, including the second day — the longest leg of 60-plus miles — when right at the end there was a huge rapids. An area where a number of competitors capsized.
These rapids, as Steinback described them, are far more than you see in streams or rivers in the Driftless Region. And, of course, our area streams and rivers are crocodile-free.
“The second day was really long, and that suited us well. We are all better at really long distance and endurance. None of us on the team are great sprinters. It was a long day and we put a lot of ground between us,” Steinback said of the more than 60-mile segment that the team finished in 6 hours, 27 minutes, 28 seconds.
“Except there was a huge rapids at the very end of the race, with waves hitting you in the face. A number of teams capsized in the rapids, and we did, too. Before we were able to recover, the river washed us down a half mile.”
The Wateva Boyz survived, but lost about seven spots, Steinback said. And no, there were no close-up crocodile encounters during their unexpected dip.
“There are crocodiles all through the entire race course, but there has never been a problem with them. They are not really aggressive,” Steinback said. “If you went and messed with one, you would probably have a bad day. In 25 years of the race history, there has never been a problem. It is sort of scary to see them.”
The fourth — and final — day of the race provided some intense action, too, as teams sprint — and attack — throughout the segment as they race toward a canal that leads to the Caribbean Sea.
“By the end of the day, the last day, it is the shortest and least technically demanding, but that ... day is a pure war. For the first 20 miles everyone is fighting to get to the canal first, as it is only five feet wide,” Steinback said.
“It is six miles long, and everyone is fighting to get into there. I bet we had to defend 50 attacks before the canal. Once you are in there, you are stuck in that position.”
While the race itself was intense and very demanding because of the conditions — 92-degree heat and high humidity — and physical demands required to paddle 175 miles, there were moments where the river environment captivated the team.
“The third day we are coming around the final bend of the race, and we are in an absolute war with this other team and we finally put a gap on them and broke away from them and had the whole river to ourselves,” Steinback said. “A beautiful tropical bird just flies down the river, I can still picture it in my mind.
“It is a really challenging canoe race, but you are also surrounded by endless beauty. You’ve got teammates in the boat you that you cannot let down, and the sheer physical difficulty of it makes it fairly difficult to focus on anything else, but you try and engage in and admire the beauty around you.”
Overall there were so many things that happened throughout the race, Steinback said, that is was just a rush. Speaking of rushing, Steinback said he couldn’t leave out the fact the race would not have been possible without a support team, the Williams family, that literally rushed/swam out from shore to provide food and water to the team as it paddled down the river.
“They swam through the rapids to get us food so we wouldn’t have to stop. I absolutely plan to do it again. With that said, there is no way I could have done without the Williams family. They were our biggest supporters,” Steinback said.
“They were our team sponsor (D&D Consultancy from Belize). They fed us, they lodged us, they cheered for us, they provided the support staff to feed us along the race course.
“If our service team members would have missed a stop in 92-degree weather when you are going as hard as you can for 62 miles, we would have been done.”
ANY IDEAS? I’m always open for ideas, as the outdoor community is full of interesting people who do fascinating things. I just need help finding them. It can be someone who is into canoeing, trapping, hunting, fishing, skiing or runs ultramarathons. If you know of someone, send me a note at email@example.com
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org