Shawn Burke is a 53-year-old engineer from Andover. When he gets the itch for a little competition, he looks for something that challenges his brain as well as his brawn.
His favorite outlet? Canoe orienteering.
“It’s ridiculously fun,” said Burke, who has been competing in canoe events for seven years. “I like the combination of the physical aspect of paddling and the problem solving, where someone hands you a map and says ‘OK, figure this out.’ ”
Think of canoe orienteering — or Canoe-O — as an amphibious Easter egg hunt, with a paddle and vessel thrown in for good measure. Essentially, Canoe-O is low-tech orienteering done from a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard. Individuals or two-person teams start at staggered intervals, and are timed as they navigate a series of control points (most controls are accessible by water, but a few are on land, requiring paddlers to leave their boat). At each control, racers punch a card indicating that they have successfully found the control. The individual, or team, that completes the course in the shortest time wins.
“Marathon canoe racing is the best sport no one has ever heard of,” said Burke. “Canoe orienteering is a niche within the marathon canoe niche, so it’s the best sport that absolutely no one has ever heard of.”
On Saturday, Burke will introduce this modern-day Lewis and Clark vibe to Amesbury, teaming up with the Lake Gardner Improvement Association to host the inaugural Lake Gardner Canoe-O adventure race, part of the New England Canoe and Kayak Racing Association flatwater point series.
“It’s a race,” said Burke, who has staged the Great Stone Dam Classic canoe race in Lawrence for the past three years. “The idea is that you’re presented with a map at your start, a map that has a number of locations marked on it with circles, and those are called controls. You then decide how you’re going to navigate a course, which you define yourself — there’s a bit of a puzzle-solving element to this — so that you can complete the course and visit all the controls in the least amount of time.”
Since competitors receive their maps just moments before the gun sounds, prior planning amounts to making sure their vessels are seaworthy. Some general fitness and basic paddling skills are required, but participants do not need to be experts in backcountry orienteering.
“It’s not a map-and-compass skill sport,” said Burke. “I have never had to use a compass. As soon as you introduce a compass, that’s only going to attract people who are orienteers. So, the orienteering level is very basic. You can do pretty much everything by dead reckoning.”
However, the ability to process information quickly and communicate accurately with your teammate (in the tandem category) is essential.
“I personally think it’s a lot of fun to do as a team,” said Burke, noting that often tandem teams will split up, with one racer finding the water controls and another finding the land markers. “It’s a sport where you have to talk. It really does make you communicate and share the strategy.”
The event also highlights 80-acre Lake Gardner, an artificial lake first built in 1872. The dam was constructed with granite harvested from Cape Ann.
“Lake Gardner is actually a very pretty spot,” said Burke. “But like many waterways, it can be subject to threats from invasive species and pollution, so I think [the Lake Gardner Improvement Association members] have a goal to get people out there to see it, appreciate it, because then they’ll care about it.”
Bruce Georgian of the association said the race is another way to “foster stewardship.”
“Because it’s orienteering, you get out and look at some of the details” of the lake and surrounding property, said Georgian. “We figure if people come, they discover the lake, and they enjoy it. Then, going forward in the future, they’ll be inclined to protect it, preserve it, and defend it.
“People also discover Amesbury, because you have to go through downtown Amesbury to get to the lake,” he said.
It does not hurt that Lake Gardner, which stretches 1.3 miles, is also a nice fit for canoe orienteering.
“The lake itself isn’t very big and doesn’t have a very complicated shoreline,” said Burke. “Typically you’re looking at places like Lake Quinsigamond [in Worcester], which has a very complex shoreline and islands. But Lake Gardner lends itself to the event for several reasons.
“One, it has a great beach that we’re going to use as the start/finish. So people, after they finish, can bring a lunch and hang out and go swimming,” he said.
“It’s also adjacent to a trails system that Amesbury has, so we can combine land-based controls and water-based controls in very interesting ways. Plus, above the lake, on the long course, is the Powow River, and we’re actually taking the long course up the river.”
According to Burke, the event is divided into three different races — small, medium, and long courses — so every competitor can find a race to match his or her fitness and ability level. The short course, with a half-dozen controls, is well suited for parent/child teams just dipping their toes into the sport.
“We’re making it accessible for families,” said Burke. “An adult and child could do the short course in under an hour. So it’s not a big time investment.”
The medium course, with a dozen controls, is designed for experienced paddlers new to orienteering, while the long course (15 controls) should test Canoe-O veterans. However, Burke stressed that racers do not need canoe orienteering experience to participate.
For newcomers, Burke and his wife, Monica Schnitger, will also host a free clinic the day of the race, at 9 a.m. The clinic will provide an overview of Canoe-O, discussing how to read a map, illustrating what a control is, and basic strategy and route selection.
“I’d like to see canoe orienteering grow,” said Burke. “It hasn’t because it’s such a niche. So far, it’s only been promoted within organizations like the New England Orienteering Club,” or within the New England Canoe and Kayak Racing Association. “So it’s only going to people who are orienteers or canoe racers. But if the word can get out there that this is a sport that’s accessible to folks who like to paddle — and on the short course it’s recreational paddlers — that would be a big help.”
Brion O’Connor is a freelance writer based on the North Shore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.