It's almost time for one of the Mad City's maddest scenes. The 33rd annual Paddle & Portage will be held Saturday, July 21.
"It is unique and very much fun," says Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc., which founded the event. "It takes place on probably the busiest Saturday of the year - it's during Maxwell Street Days and a Farmers' Market," she says. "So you have all of these people downtown, and then you have people carrying boats across the isthmus. I mean, how cool is that for Madison, to take advantage of our downtown and the beauty that we have?"
Last year more than 681 entered with 329 kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. They came from as far away as California, Arizona, Texas and Washington, D.C.; Illinois and Minnesota sent 19 entrants each.
"Paddle & Portage is a great time. It really embodies the spirit of Madison," says Chris Majchrzak, marketing and events manager for Isthmus, which this year is managing the race for the first time.
"You get competitive racers, people in costumes, even parent-and-kid teams," he says. "But this is no cakewalk. It's mid-July, you're running uphill carrying a canoe, and that's just one leg of the race. But everyone is rewarded with food and drink at Olin Park as part of the awards ceremony."
In 2011, the fearless but famished paddlers and their fans downed 1,700 brats, 350 veggie brats, 240 hot dogs, 19 barrels of beer and five cases of energy drinks.
They had a lot of calories to replace, after all. Starting at James Madison Park, entrants paddle a triangular course on Lake Mendota that brings them back to North Hamilton Street. They then cross one side of the Capitol Square, at Pinckney Street, and head down King and East Wilson streets, entering Lake Monona at South Blair Street. From there, they paddle another 1½ miles to the finish line at Olin Park.
Needless to say, just sitting back to watch 681 boaters dash through the Farmers' Market is something of an event in itself.
"It's fun to take part, but it's also so much fun to be an observer and watch those people carry those boats across the isthmus," says Schmitz. "And people who win it are usually running with their boats."
Paddle & Portage began as a somewhat unlikely fundraiser for Downtown Madison Inc. The community already had a healthy population of paddling buffs, so a friendly competition was created, "kind of copying what the Native Americans did, how they would get from one lake to another," says Schmitz.
"It was pretty creative," she recalls. "It was a fun fundraiser for us for a number of years."
Eventually the Wisconsin Sports Development Corp. was brought in to run it as a more ambitious competition. Downtown Madison Inc. still serves as a sponsor.
While Paddle & Portage salutes the spirit of Madison's first residents, the Ho-Chunk, it's unlikely that they ever portaged the isthmus themselves. After all, they knew very well about all the hills that modern competitors must brave. And besides, until 1851, "Mendota and Monona were virtually the same level," says David Mollenhoff, historian and author of Madison: A History of the Formative Years. Until it was dammed, Native Americans just crossed by canoeing the Yahara River.
So leave it to modern Madison to take an impracticality and make it into a cause for celebration. But that's also what makes Paddle & Portage so rare - and perhaps so fun.
"There is nothing like it in the paddling genre," says Schmitz. "That's why it brings in folks from all over the country."
Harmonious Wail will perform as part of the finish-line festivities at Olin Park, to which spectators are invited, free.
There's a variety of classes by which people may enter, by craft and age. Coast Guard-approved life jackets must be worn by all competitors. Cost is $50 day of registration. Advance registration is highly recommended and is $10 less. Entrants receive T-shirts, and winners will be awarded ribbons and medals.
Paddle & Portage begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 21. Olin Park activities begin at 11 a.m. For registration or more information visit paddleandportage.com.