Under the direction of their coach, Huntsville’s Bob Vincent, Chris Prater and Oliver McMillan did something no one has done before: they completed The Meanest Link in five days, a full two days faster than anyone has completed it before.
The Meanest Link is a canoe route devised by Gord Baker and Alex Hurley to honour the memory of Bill Swift Sr., one of the co-founders of Algonquin Outfitters. The Meanest Link—Meanest or Mean Dude were two of Swift’s nicknames, in reference to his gruff exterior persona—connects the four Algonquin Outfitters stores serving Algonquin Park: Huntsville, Brent on Cedar Lake, Lake Opeongo, and Oxtongue Lake.
The full link is 420km with 65km of portage. Some choose to do it a section at a time, others all in one go.
Prater and McMillan have been paddling for more than five years and heard about The Meanest Link from Bob Vincent and Gwyn Hayman. With canoe races cancelled this season due to COVID-19, they were intrigued by the physical and mental challenge that the route would provide.
The pair trains four to five times per week, a mix of paddling and hiking. Their participation in other events such as the Muskoka River X and AuSable River Canoe Marathon provided ample experience with paddling at night.
They credit coach and mentor Bob Vincent as the reason they were able to achieve something like this.
“I met Chris six years ago. He called me and said he might be interested in marathon paddling,” said Vincent. “Oliver called the next year. I took them in my canoe the night they called and have been coaching them since that time. My surprise was they live three blocks away from each other. After a year I was able to get them in a canoe together. That was when their training became intense. Marathon canoeing is a mentor sport so I have spent many hours with both of them.”
They began at the Huntsville Town Docks on Sunday, August 2 at 5:00 a.m. and returned on Friday, August 7 at 1:00 a.m.
The paddling duo decided to travel The Meanest Link clockwise as it would offer them more downstream sections.
But the route wasn’t without its challenges.
They walked their boat up the Big East in the heavy current and on slippery rocks for approximately six grueling hours. They portaged steep, rocky terrain in the darkness of night while sleep deprived. They were charged at by a moose at 2:30 a.m. in the Nippissing after coming around a corner and spooking it. And then there were the four-foot whitecaps on the East Arm of Lake Opeongo.
Vincent and Hayman along with Steve Jones and Dr. John Eastmure, were the pair’s support crew and fed the paddlers four times throughout the route: first at the Distress Dam where they fed them each Egg McMuffins and cold water then again at Brent where they also slept for two hours. Egg McMuffins provide protein and carbohydrates—the perfect mix just before sleep because it helps to bring the body back after a mere two-hour sleep. They met their crew again at Opeongo for a whole pizza each and another Egg McMuffin, before taking another two-hour nap. Then it was off to Oxtongue Lake where they were met again with two egg McMuffins and had another two hours of sleep before making their way back to Huntsville.
To officially complete The Meanest Link, teams have to observe some traditions. Prater and McMillan complied, including the consumption of a certain Cream Ale in honour of the Meanest, stopping at all Algonquin Outfitters stores, and paying a dockside visit to Camp Pathfinder during their five-day trek.
Gord Baker, assistant general manager of Algonquin Outfitters and co-inventor of The Meanest Link said that Prater and McMillan are highly trained, experienced athletes and the key to their success on The Meanest Link route was how organized and focused they were, along with their dedicated support crew.
“To me that’s impressive, if they can pull all those things together and make it happen,” said Baker, adding that it was a different strategy than other paddlers have used.
Prater and McMillan both consider The Meanest Link to be the toughest physical, mental, and emotional challenge they have ever faced and said that they will use the experience as a source of inspiration in life when they are faced with other challenges that at first seem insurmountable.
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