Canoe Orienteering, this time with photos

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(No, I am not setting this up again, getting out of the canoe in the marsh 25 times in one day is a younger man’s game)

I have mentioned this event before, but now have illustrative photos. If you are part of a canoe or outdoors group, or just have a bunch of paddling friends, I highly encourage trying something similar; the Canoe Orienteering challenges were among the best of group canoeing times.

The object of the Orienteering Challenge was to find small, brightly painted scrap wood “Duckheads” on stakes, placed back in the Marsh hidden at various distances from the water’s edge, with different degrees of point value/difficulty. The back in marsh locations were marked with a piece of surveyors ribbon at the water’s edge.

An easy one-pointer, left in view on the bank, might require only a still-in-the-canoe stretch and lean way out to retrieve. A high value target might be a long ways up a narrow gut, at the most awkward of exits, requiring a hundred+ feet distant overland searching.

Participants each received an object-numbered, marked-map of the marsh loop, a spreadsheet with various point values, compass headings, distances, occasionally esoteric clues/hints of where to search, and an honor-system explanation of How the Game is Played.

P1200036 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

The set up, usually done the weekend before, was at least as much fun as participating in the hunt. Maybe more fun, the production crew got increasingly devious as the years went on. To wit:

“#17 is 87 feet NNW of this surveyor’s ribbon marked on the edge of the marsh”. Except that 87 feet NNW is measured across the water to the other side of the gut, and you got out of the canoe on the wrong side before looking at the compass heading. It’s a learning experience.

“#20 is only 15 feet from the tape”. Except the flag tape is in the middle of a long bank of waist deep pluff mud; we landed 100 yards away on firmer ground and Spartina hummock jumped over to place the marker 15 feet back in the marsh grass. You really don’t want to exit the canoe in that mudflat. Another learning experience.


The set up was an exhasuting day-long challenge. Think four guys, in two tandem canoes, heading on opposite directions around a marsh circuit, each canoe to set out 25 of the most confounding markers they could imagine/devise. Paddling up every gut and channel to the narrowing end; the marsh loop is only 5.4 miles long, each set up tandem probably paddled 15 miles that day

After a few years our devilish imaginations reached peak trickiness, but the day-long setup, done the weekend before, still meant mud-exiting the canoe at least a couple dozen times in the marsh, and stumbling across the Spartina alterniflorus with selected marker, compass, long tape measure and notepad in hand. It made for a long but mostly enjoyable day.

EK_0035 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

We held that Canoe Orienteering contest every (sometimes windy/chilly, but no bug) March on the Transquaking River in the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, a salt marsh with no end of guts and sloughs and back marsh ponds.

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Fi...6!4d-75.931808


Participants, especially repeat participants, employed a variety of strategies; from “Grab as many easy ones as possible” to “Go for the high value targets”. Friend Chip brought a spry bow partner one year, an experienced Tough Mudder participant.

Their plan was that Chip would put wet suit clad Tough Mudder Lady ashore on the inside of the circuit, and she would run the few miles across the marsh loop collecting tokens, while Chip paddled the perimeter, capturing what he could on the outside rim.

Maybe not the best plan. Mudder Lady eventually ended up on the far side of the river. After having swum across assorted wide guts, ponds and channels the serpentine river appeared to be just another damn channel, and she ended up not quite sure where she was, on the far side of the river, with no Chip in sight.


That plan did work better than the year Chip brought an oversized bow partner, who unwisely exited the canoe into chest-deep pluff mud. Extracting her bulk from the sucking mud nearly required a helicopter hoist. So glad I didn’t have to make that rescue call.

No matter the partner, as long as Chip was rewarded with a beverage, provided in appropriate stem ware, he was happy.

EK_0031 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr



The knee-deep exit-the-canoe into shoe-sucking Pluff mud action on the course was worth the oh-dang-I’m stuck-again consequences, people came back muddy as hell. The invitation recommended bringing at least one change of clothes.

EK_0022 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

These folks, with exhausted smiles and a multiple marker collection, have the hopeful look of potential winners.

EK_0023 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

But my wife and sons were still out on the course, and have a time tested and refined strategy; I wouldn’t count your Duckheads ‘til team McCrea paddles back.

If you got skunked there was a prize for the dirtiest canoe, usually a sponge.

EK_0025 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Nope, not even close to the Dirtiest Canoe winner, hope they brought their own sponge. Funny, or not so funny thing; every year I worked on some friend’s canoes left unwashed since that event.

Even as the non-participating Judge and Master of Ceremonies that gathering of contestants, from readying for a chaotic mass start to eventual return, was always hail & well met old (and some new) friends times. Of course it routinely late-arrival got off an hour after the announced start time, but such as always are group events.

EK_0001 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

EK_0034 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

The contestants widely spaced returns to the launch were even more enjoyable as waiting MC. As the ground-bound Judge, waiting for the participants to return in dribs and drabs - Who will be back first?, Who last?, Who will be covered in mud from head to toe? – all the while watching a pot of chili warming on the camp stove and making sure the beverages were still cold - was fun in itself. Hell, I’m dry, warm, rested and clean; as long as everyone eventually returns I got no worries.

Those MC duties were most enjoyable once the first few paddlers arrived back at the launch, and began sharing tales of their travails and difficulties at interpreting some of Tom’s set up crew bafflingly “poetic” clues:

Beyond King Duckhead’s base
a “can-o-pea” stands in place,
Stand at the south most peak
Reverse this course 124” to seek

(That was a four-pointer near the start. We recovered it the following weekend when we removed the remains of the course)

Some Duckhead artifacts were much easier to find. Congratulations Gretchen, but that single one-pointer isn’t winning any prizes. Your Dad did not fall in the river this year while attempting to enter the canoe, so that’s bonus points.

EK_0026 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

The family “secret” to that orienteering contest, beyond knowing how to read a map and compass, was to have a couple spry young children in the canoe, willing to scramble out and run through the marsh grass muck with a compass, ISO some hidden marker while mom held the canoe in place against the bank.

Champs four years or five years running (after the first couple years they won an updated commemorative license plate holder); the McCrea boys played to win, while the Missus sat quietly in the canoe; no dummy there either.

Amongst other strategies they brought a “mud platform”, a semi-circle of plywood with a rope extraction handle, to set beside their canoe and ease their soggy bottom exits. Absolutely no sense trying to keep the inside of the canoe clean when retrieving it, just get on with business.

Of course we also own two 100 yard tape measures, used in setting up the course, so 87 feet on a NNW heading usually put the boys close enough to spot some brightly colored artifact. Unless the accompanying clue read “Hidden under a rock that has no earthly business in a Maryland salt marsh”

EK_0029 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Topher & Tania, congratulations, but I expected a better showing. Did you employ the Squatter Sister’s practiced technique – find a marker and then spend the rest of the day drinking beer and misdirecting fellow competitors who stumbled upon you stationary in the marsh? “Oh yeah, I think there are still two markers further up the gut, go for it!” Not that there is anything rule-wise forbidding that.

EK_0030 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Side note: We only ever had one cheater, who not only stole Duckhead markers from another contestant’s canoe while the paddlers were ashore searching, but who also left the Take-the-surveyors-ribbon-flag-when-you-obtain-the-adjacent-marker (see “How the Game is Played”) flagging at the water’s edge to deceive other folks into fruitlessly searching. Dis-freaking-qualified, and don’t come back next year. Never did like that guy.

Those silly Canoe Orienteering Contests were the most laughs we ever had on a day’s paddle with a group of friends. The excited chatter amongst returnees, their relief and being dry, warm, rested and fed, the “Awards Ceremony” - prizes for First, Second and Third Place finishers, Muddiest Canoe Award, Last Place Award - a new compass, or occasionally an old compass that no longer pointed north – alone were worth the price of (free) admission.

I highly recommend setting up a devious Canoe Orienteering course of some sort if you have a half dozen or more paddling friends, or belong to a paddling or outdoors club. It may serve to heighten the participant’s map reading and compass skills. It will surely increase their situational paddling awareness, if not their level of trust in the devious set up crew.

Seriously, set up a course and invite some friends. I guarantee that Year Two will be well attended, and you’ll soon have a crowd. The first few years we placed 20-25 markers around the march, by the time it was a movable zoo we needed to set out 50 to give everyone a chance.
 
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Those canoe-o events were more fun than should be legally allowed!

One thing that struck me was the amount of work the organizer or organizers put into it. In Mike's post he talks about the effort of setting it up. But it went beyond just setting the course and collecting the leftover markers, which were both full day endeavors on top of several hours driving to and fro. Somebody, (Mike, I presume) had to make the festively painted duckhead markers. Somebody had to assemble and reproduce maps and clue sheets. And then Mike made prizes for this and that, and as I recall, there were very few store-bought prizes. And seems there was food and beer for the apres, too. There were no fees, so all the costs in time and money were born by the organizers (Mike. with perhaps a few Duckhead cohorts?). It was beyond generous.

A note on my heavy-set friend who almost disappeared in the mud: she was a "blind date" arranged by Mike. The canoe-o event was the first time I ever met the woman. I was impressed when she got into the bow of the boat and almost lifted the stern, with me in it, out of the water. She explained that she had just returned from a trip to Mexico during which she had taken a horse-back ride. The horse threw her (smart horse), and she had suffered a strained leg as a result, so she wasn't planning to get in and out of the boat much. Then, towards the end of the day she declared she needed to go collect at least one duckhead marker, and that's when she went waste deep into the mud. I was unsuccessful at trying to extract her, and she urged me to go collect the duckhead and she'd work on her problem. While I was out of the boat, she used her paddle to dig mud from around herself, then flopped backwards into the little gut of water we were in. This was March. The water temp was about 40F. The woman had pluck, if not luck. It began raining. Hard. She changed into dry gear, in the rain, so not that dry. She did not complain or utter a negative word. She had pluck! Mike loves a practical joke and I think he was pleased with himself about his match-making.

Next time I attended, I brought my hashing and rowing friend, Lisa, who Mike labeled, above, Tough Mudder Lady. Our plan was to drop Lisa off on the island, the interior of which was rich in 3-point duckheads. The 3-pointers were generally far up a gut in the interior of the island. Lisa was to roam the interior of the island and collect those points, while I paddled around the island collecting 1-pointers near the river. Then we'd rendezvous on the far side of the island. I'd warned Lisa that she would encounter guts of water on the interior of the island, which I knew would not deter her. The plan was working, but when Lisa reached the far side of the island long before I did, she figured the Transquaking river, at least 100 feet wide, was just another gut, so she swam across it, too. Mike described her as wet-suit clad, but she had no wet suit. The water was cold. We were fortunate that other participants found her and brought her back. No telling where she would have ended up. It was a good strategy.

Mike used to be a pied piper of Maryland canoeists. Dozens of canoeists would materialize for his canoeing events, and the annual Canoe-O was one of the more anticipated events of the year. I regret not attending earlier years' canoe-o. I'd see it scheduled on the canoe club forum and think it sounded whacky. Words could not describe how much fun it was, so I just ignored it. It was a sad when a few years later Mike took a year off doing it, which has now became many years. When was the last one, 2009?

It's March, Mike. Canoe-O time! Resurrect the event and get others to do the work. You know I'd help, but I'm no pied piper.
 
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Those canoe-o events were more fun than should be legally allowed!

One thing that struck me was the amount of work the organizer or organizers put into it. In Mike's post he talks about the effort of setting it up. But it went beyond just setting the course and collecting the leftover markers, which were both full day endeavors on top of several hours driving to and fro. Somebody, (Mike, I presume) had to make the festively painted duckhead markers. Somebody had to assemble and reproduce maps and clue sheets. And then Mike made prizes for this and that, and as I recall, there were very few store-bought prizes. And seems there was food and beer for the apres, too. There were no fees, so all the costs in time and money were born by the organizers (Mike. with perhaps a few Duckhead cohorts?). It was beyond generous.

Making the Duckhead markers was easy, saved scrap wood cut to shapes, some dowels and leftover paints; my sons helped with the “decorative” painting. We started with a couple dozen “Duckheads” and finished with 50.

The maps and score sheets? Eh, “someone” had access to photocopier at work, an enlarged copy of the area topo map and packs of transfer letters. Love that guy’s job. The First Place prizes were easy after I realized my wife and son’s were damn near unbeatable at that game, and I know for certain that I ate better food and drank better beer at the recovery landing than I brought; I mean, it’s a Duckhead trip after all. I know I didn’t bring the fancy-assed glass or cocktail that Chip is sipping.

The effort was a 3-weekend continuum. Weekend day 1, setting up the course – four guys in two tandem canoes for eight hours, measuring distances and compass headings, making notes, 25+ marsh exits. Weekend day 2, conducting the challenge; of course the guys who set up the course were ineligible. Weekand day 3, go back and collect any unrecovered Duckheads and surveyors tape.

Shucks and darn, no excuses to come hell or highwater, gotta paddle at least 2 days on the best DeMarVa marsh loop around several weekends in a row? We gotta go was not a bad thing.


A note on my heavy-set friend who almost disappeared in the mud: she was a "blind date" arranged by Mike. She had pluck! Mike loves a practical joke and I think he was pleased with himself about his match-making.

Chip, in my defense, I didn’t say you had to keep paddling with her on subsequent trips.

She, let’s call her Girt, eliminating the H, seemed afflicted with Munchausen by Canoe Proxy. If there was a way to fall in while entering or exiting the canoe Gert found it. If there was no apparent way to fall in while entering or exiting the canoe she still found it.

On one little class nothing shallow river daytrip we came around a bend to find Gert spread eagle atop a minor strainer alongside her overturned canoe. Mind you this was a partial strainer, a simple no-debris-pile fallen log that spanned half the river, with a plainly open 20’ wide gap on the far side. The far side being the outside curve of faster water. The inside curve, where she was splayed out apparently helpless, was calm as a kiddie pool (and not much deeper). WTF and how the hell?

Lord I have some Gert stories; trying on a too-small pull-over PFD at an outfitter. It took two guys to pull the thing off her, and she was bare to the waist when she was extracted. A friend still has bad dreams.


Mike used to be a pied piper of Maryland canoeists. Dozens of canoeists would materialize for his canoeing events, and the annual Canoe-O was one of the more anticipated events of the year. It was a sad when a few years later Mike took a year off doing it, which has now became many years.

I appreciate that “pied piper” reference. With the local clubs becoming more WW oriented in cruise schedule I was a natural fit for novice funsies games and nonsense.

The Canoe-O, like some other Duckhead events, was a victim of its own success. The “schedule” of events for the following year came out in late December, timed to coincide with favorable tides, or moon phase or meteor shower events. That looking ahead planning for one trip every month was actually the hardest part and the weather, months away, was of course a dicey scheduling proposition.

The last ever “Anything that Floats Trip” was as memorable as any, and I’m glad I did those, but I never again want to cat-herd 64 people down 12.5 miles of novice class-nothing river, even launching more skilled paddlers probe-and-sweep with groups of 5 or 6 a few minutes apart. The mid-trip muckle up picnic lunch at least was a treat, and friend Will Derness knew just the accommodating place.

EK_0045 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

The last Canoe-O challenge was a complete clusterf#$%. Cold and windy, with people immediately capsized adjacent to the launch.

EK_0009 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

It got windier as the day went on; with some participants finally getting back near dusk, having resorted to grabbing Spartina grass along the bank and pulling themselves back. I was having serious How-do-I-explain-this to S&R thoughts.

Mid-way though that last challenge I had a pissed off muskrat/nutria trapper accost me; some idiot Canoe-O-er had been removing his (obviously not Canoe-O polka dot pink) surveyors ribbons, marking his traps.

Those days are unlikely to happen again, but live on in local paddler history. And in court records; the “Menacing Duckheads” were brought up in one divorce proceeding.
 
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About the Menacing Duckhead Camping, Canoeing and Carousing Origins

A friend recently sent me some scans from 1970’s photos, including a few from the actual naming day of the Duckheads, which started out as a group of young University post-docs and lab techs, spouses and girlfriends/boyfriends, eventually including some of their friends and neighbors, and later some like-minded (cherry picked) members of local canoe clubs.

I kept records for a while, nearly 900 different people paddled with the Duckheads. And 35 dogs. And one cat.

The Duckhead name was born in the late 70’s when friend Harry brought along some scroll cut scrap wood to burn. Two couple oddly shaped pieces were not burned that night, but were instead “painted” with available pens, Sharpies and even car touch up paints. The next morning we awoke to find them propped up atop the fire pit.

IMG_6032 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Someone said “Those look like Duckheads” and friend Rob (whose sole camping gear then consisted of a chaise lounge, a blanket and a guitar) remarked “They look like Menacing Duckheads”, and a local legend was born.

The then 20-somethings on that trip now hold positions as Department Chairs, Professor’s Emeritus (Emeriti? Emerita?) or as highly respected researchers in their fields. And I’m still just a guy in a canoe.

IMG_6033 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

Sure enough, there were some attractive single women in that collective. And that blond bearded young guy in the background? He was quite the catch.

The kids who grew up with that carousing crew?

IMG_6035 by Mike McCrea, on Flickr

They turned out OK too.
 
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Thanks for the story- I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.!You were fortunate to have found a group of ”like minded” enthusiasts. Can we assume that Chip and Girt (h) lived happily ever after together??
 
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