The canoe race ended in 1960, but it still lives on in the memories of the competitors.
Gene Jensen remembers how it was. The 450-mile canoe race from Bemidji to Minneapolis exhausted men so much that at night they slumped on their cot in church basements, staring into nowhere.
It's what he calls the "1,000-yard stare," and after racing eight to 10 hours a day on the Mississippi River, “you were so damned tired, you hoped you didn’t die in your sleep,” he recalled this week.
Jensen, of Brooklyn Park, was one of the premier racers in the Paul Bunyan Aquatennial Canoe Derby, an original crew in the annual festival. The event, which ended in 1960, was a world-class canoe marathon. It never paid muchand its winners accepted their relative obscurity, but they felt good knowing they had finished what they started.
Fifty-three years after he first won the race at age 19 - he's now 72 - Jensen still grips a canoe paddle in such a way that you pity the paddle; his forearm veins seem to explode. But "the wheels fell off," he said, and he now has trouble walking. Arthritis plagues the man credited with canoe racing's cry of "Hut!'
He won the canoe race four times: in 1948, 1949 1950 and 1960. The end of the race each year marked the start of the festival. Now the race is a memory, and the Aquatennial holds a leisurely 7-mile canoe "adventure."
"We wish we had our big one back," said racing organizer Kenn Ketter, also of Brooklyn Park, who wants to restore the race as a charity event but without Aquatennial sponsorship. Jensen, who has designed canoes for much of his life, said he isn't involved in such discussions.
"That marathon stuff is tough on you," he said. As a world-class canoe racer, “you live in obscurity your whole life. You could be a 20-time winner and your neighbor wouldn’t know who you were.”
Once the winter ice thawed, Jensen trained four days a week for the Aquatennial and other summer races.
Jensen said he was lucky to find his Aquatennial partner - an old schoolmate - Tom Estes. Before Estes, he said he "couldn't find friends dumb enough to run a 450-mile canoe race.”
After finishing the Aquatennial derby in 1960, French-Canadian Roger Goyette said that it was a dozen times tougher than the la Classique Internationale de Canots in Quebec, which he said was considered North America’s best long-distance race. La Classique lasts three days, spanning 120 miles.
Jensen once races 17 hours one way and 17 hours back in a Manitoba marathon. With only one day of rest in between, that race was one of the few that was tougher than the Aquatennial, he said.
Another canoe racer, Alvin Wisniak, 69, of Brooklyn Center, said that the $1,500 first-place prize for the grueling race was good, but it wouldn’t be nothing for all that work.” In 1960, the only time he raced the Aquatennial, his weight dropped to from 172 pounds to 150.
Wisniak remembers the camaraderie of the Aquatennial racers. Once a racer told him that he felt sorry for anyone who finished last. “They must have had to work harder,” the man told him. He also remembers that the racers who were lumberjacks didn’t like racers paddling in the wake of their canoes. They shoveled waster, and “I thought I was going to drown,” he said.
Jensen said he believes the event ended in 1960 because “it wasn’t getting enough national publicity to justify it.”
Eventually, trophies end up “in the trash can,” he said, but he competed to be like his canoe-racing heroes. He once watched his friend, Irvin (Buzzy) Peterson, of Brooklyn Park, race with appendicitis. Jensen said that Peterson was so tough, “I thought he would live until 120.”
Thus, he said, he was shocked and saddened when Peterson died in June at the early age of 77.
By Andrew Johnson
Star Tribune Staff Writer
Minneapolis Star Tribune – July 21, 2001