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River Riveters

St. Paul women hope to make waves in world's longest canoe race


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Minnesota Gneiss teammates Emma Burgeson and Paige Norman prepare for the yukon 1,000 Canoe and kayak race. Photo Courtesy of Paige Norman.

For Emma Burgeson and Paige Norman, the challenge of a lifetime began with a simple conversation at breakfast.

Gathered around Burgeson’s St. Paul kitchen in the summer of 2014, the childhood friends were discussing Burgeson’s recent attempt at completing the Yukon 1,000 Canoe and Kayak Race with her family. When Burgeson mentioned that she wanted to try again at the next race in 2016 (she had to drop out because of her partner’s rotator cuff injury), her mother casually suggested that Norman join her.

To Burgeson’s surprise, Norman, who had no clue how to canoe, excitedly agreed: “Yeah, let’s do it!”

Nearly two years later, the friends have stuck to their decision. On July 18, Norman, 22, and Burgeson, 24, after months of training and preparation will begin paddling in the Yukon 1,000, the world’s longest canoe and kayak race. The stakes are high for the team, called Minnesota Gneiss, for if they cross the finish line, they will be the first women’s team to do so.

The race runs 1,000 miles on the Yukon River from Canada to Alaska, and isn’t for the faint-hearted. Participants need to be mentally and physically strong, as racers are required to paddle 18 hours a day for up to twelve days. To reiterate the intensity of this challenge, the race’s official website boldly asks visitors, “Do you really want to do this?”

For these competitive and determined friends, their answer is a loud “Yes.”

While Burgeson and Norman each bring different talents and experiences to the race, both agree that living in the Land of 10,000 Lakes has inspired them to canoe the 1,000 miles. This influence is most obvious in the team’s name, Minnesota Gneiss. Gneiss, pronounced “nice,” is a type of metamorphic rock that is found in Minnesota.

“It’s kind of a fun play on a geology term, because we both studied geology-related majors, and I feel like we are both Minnesota Nice,” Burgeson said. She graduated from Western Washington University in 2014 with a degree in Environmental Science, while Norman graduated from George Washington University this year with a degree in Geography and a minor in Geographic Information Systems.

The St. Paul Central graduates also said that their Minnesota childhoods led to a lifetime love of freshwater.

“Growing up in Minnesota was a really unique experience,” Burgeson said. “There aren’t a lot of places with as many lakes, so I just grew up with this incredible appreciation for water.” As a child, Burgeson spent her summers on backpacking and canoeing trips through Camp Widjiwagan, a YMCA camp near Ely. 

Norman said that growing up in Minnesota helped her fall in love with water sports. An avid swimmer and rower, Norman was recruited onto George Washington’s Division 1 Women’s Rowing team, where she rowed for two and a half years.

“I’m just bringing muscle and enthusiasm to the team,” she laughed.

Norman added that the donations and encouragements from fellow Minnesotans have pushed the team to work hard. The pair set up a Facebook page and a blog to keep supporters updated on their training and journey, and have raised more than $4000 dollars towards their race through their GoFundMe page.

The team’s local support also includes a sponsorship from Bent Paddle Brewing Company, a canoe-themed, sustainable brewery from Duluth; and the Ann Bancroft Foundation, a local organization that provides young girls grants to pursue their dreams. Norman said that the team plans on giving their leftover proceeds to the foundation’s Dare to Dream grants so they can give back to their community and help other girls explore their passions.

“I definitely wouldn’t be able to do a race like this if I didn’t feel like I had this support and complete group of cheerleaders in Minnesota,” Norman said.

With so much encouragement from home, the duo has been hard at work in preparation. On top of coaching gymnastics, Burgeson recently joined an outrigger canoe team to train for the race, while Norman has picked up swimming and rowing again to strengthen the muscles needed for canoeing.

Equally as important, the team is deciding how they will stay focused and motivated for their 18-hour days in the canoe.

“It will be totally dependent on the mood,” said Burgeson, who estimates it will take the team between eight and 12 days to complete the race. “It’s a long time to spend with another person.”

Norman said that the team plans on singing to keep spirits up, and will blast Disney, Justin Timberlake, and other tunes from their portable speakers. “Beyoncé is one of our main supporters,” she said.

While the team has many singing sessions and beautiful sights to look forward to, they are well aware that the race will be anything but easy.

“I’m not worried about the pain, because it is inevitable,” Burgeson said. “There will be some low points, but just being able to work through those with each other as a team will be really important.”

Reaching the finish line in Alaska will not only make a statement in the canoeing world, but also in each of the teammate’s lives.

“To be able to say I paddled 1,000 miles in the Alaskan Wilderness, I think I can do anything, whether it’s finding a job or moving somewhere new,” Norman said.

For Burgeson, finishing the race will mean reaching a goal she set out to achieve nearly two years ago.

“I think I’m going to just cry and sit on the ground,” Burguson said of crossing the finish line. “I’m not going to want to be in a canoe for a couple of weeks. It’s going to feel good.”

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