Some men say they would kill to win the Stilson. The five-kilometer canoe race separates the boys from the men, and the weak from the strong. In a camp that boasts itself as the best canoe-tripping camp in the world, being the Stilson champion is the ultimate victory.
Camp Ahmek is one of many prestigious camps in Algonquin Park, Ontario. The camp tests, young privileged, and often spoiled city boys to embark on intense canoe trips that can last up to 50 days. For twelve years, this camp has been my summer home. Completing over 300 days of canoe tripping has shaped who I am today.
Since it’s founding in 1921, Ahmek has developed a sense of pride and identity as the best tripping camp in Canada, and even the world. From Switzerland to Nigeria, Tanzania to the United Arab Emirates, campers travel to Camp Ahmek in Algonquin Park, Ontario to experience life in the old cedar-strip canoes.
The camp puts a huge emphasis on tripping endurance, speed, and technique. Other camps stare in awe as we effortlessly pass them on the portage, loading packs into canoes and paddling away as if the motions are engrained in our muscles. For this reason, we needed to determine the best of the best. In 1952, the Stilson race was founded. Done only by Camp Ahmek staff, the Stilson puts egos and honour to the test, as one team emerges victorious.
Since I was 11, I watched the Ahmek men compete against one another in the race of a lifetime. We stood on the bridge that marked the end of the race and saw lives changed, and character earned. Even at such a young age, I knew immediately that I must win. The level of respect earned by winning the Stilson was unparalleled by anything I had ever experienced. Names were displayed in the dining hall forever, memorized and idolized by the campers and staff. I watched these seemingly huge men achieving the impossible, and someday dreamed that it would be me.
After being humiliated in the Stilson, placing 22nd and 18th out of 30 boats as a young staff member, my best friend Aaron and I were determined to attain the highest level of respect at the camp. That spring, Aaron and I worked at his cottage in Georgian Bay. After work, we would canoe and focus on the attributes that make paddling more efficient. Having spoken to many legends of the Stilson, we became accustomed to the qualities that make a better Stilson team: switching paddling sides before the boat turns to maintain a straight course, using the “mud” stroke to minimized inefficient splashing and pull more water per stroke, keeping a steady core, being sure not to rock backwards to maintain forward momentum, and many more.
Working at the cottage alone allowed Aaron and I to focus. We began to see ourselves as professional athletes, with every though and every movement bearing the Stilson in mind. We strategized and came up with new ideas four months before race day. Our training was grueling, and each day we spent working towards our goal, the greater the pressure we felt to win.
To most, it seems trivial to put so much time, thought, and emotion into a camp canoe race. What these people do not understand is the level of intensity and passion that everyone at the camp has for the Stilson. It is the only topic of conversation in the days preceding the race, and often on race day I have seen racers vomit behind the canoe docks to the overwhelming stress.
After our second year at the cottage, race day was finally here. Three solid years of training and hard work had been built up in anticipation for this race. A year of disappointment in finishing third the year before, this had to be our year. The atmosphere is tense as we walk from our cabins to breakfast.
A camp normally bustling with energy in the morning had turned silent that day. I knew what everyone had on their minds, some fearful of the paint about to be endured, some desiring the ultimate achievement.
I speak only to Aaron. I cannot afford any distractions. We leave early from breakfast to avoid the announcement that the Stilson would begin at 10AM. We wear the same clothes that we did in training and meticulously place the duct tape that holds the foam to our canoe for portaging. I place a lucky loonie sent from my girlfriend in Halifax under my foam on the canoe’s bow deck. The canoe is ready.
Aaron and I start our warm-up outside the dinning hall. There is a distinct feeling I get as we prepare for our fourth Stilson together. I feel like we are going to battle, like I will give absolutely every ounce of energy no matter the cost. 22nd, 18th, 3rd. Anything other than first place would crush my soul. We do a practice start on the canoe docks. Intentionally, we remove our shirts and are confident as our competition looks on. They are noticeably silenced and intimidated by our clean transitions and crisp no-splash paddling.
As the gun is about to go off the start, I lift my paddle in preparation for the first stroke. My arms tremble. My heart pounds in my chest. The gun goes off and all goes silent in my head. This is a new level of concentration I have never experienced. All around me chaos has ensued as 30 boats try to break free from the pack, but all I can hear is my own paddling and Aaron yelling, “hut” to signal when to switch sides. I am in the zone, and I can see we are just about to break ahead to more spacious water, when all of a sudden a boat sideswipes us and out boat dips under the water. I feel my heart sink as I look back at Aaron and see our boat has taken in an enormous amount of water. We are now in last place, but I know my game plan hasn’t changed – if we don’t win, it won’t for a lack of trying.
We begin what turns out to be an unprecedented comeback. Water is now soaking my legs and dragging the boat down, but I am more determined than anyone to win. With each stroke hope builds as we pull closer to the lead pack. I am back in the zone not hearing or registering any insignificant sensory information. I feel a sense of mastery over canoeing now; not missing a single stroke, the fluidity with which we transition is unparalleled. I snap into focus and realize we are paddling with the lead pack and have broken free from the crowd.
Our main strength was approaching. The portage. Not many teams can maintain the furious pace of the start, while Aaron and I are paddling comfortably. We watch ahead of us at the portage as first place flips the canoe up and drops it. My eyes widen and I feel like a wild animal that has locked onto its prey as I watch them struggle to recover.
Our boat doesn’t even come to a stop before it is on our shoulders, and our feet moving. We chase after first. We pass them with ease as their sternsman crumbles with exhaustion and is forced to walk the portage.
I remember the feeling all too well from the year before. Head-spinning, nauseous, losing control of my feet, wanting to go faster, but being unable when last year’s winners blew by us on the portage. The memory flashes through my mind for an instant, but now we are in first and I am filled with excitement. I start to feel the pain sweep over my legs and my lungs begin to burn, but my adrenaline is pumping and I am racing scared. I have had nightmares about this situation, only to be passed in the final 100 meters.
We make it to the end of the portage and put the boat back in the water with a comfortable lead on second. We turn the first corner and this is when I believe. Nostalgia washes over me as I see hundred of campers packed shoulder-to-shoulder on the bridge. I was once one of those campers watching in awe as fully grown men paddled to victory. I had looked up to the counsellors who has won the Stilson as legends and now I was about to be past of the elite class of Ahmek men.
With the final stroke of the race, I jump out of the canoe and am tackled into the water by Aaron as he is overcome with joy. Euphoria takes control of my minds and body. After 4 years of relentless training I has risen triumphant in my most important goal of my lifetime.
The Stilson has changed my life dramatically. It showed me the significance of hard work and perseverance. Someone once asked me if I would rather have won the Stilson or $100,000. Though this money would erase my student debit and provide a significant change in lifestyle, I will always choose the former. The Stilson shaped my character and my life irreversibly, and is the greatest indication that hard work pays off.
– Andrew Irwin; two time Stilson winner (2013, 2014)