Long after the early finishers in the 34th annual Paddle & Portage race had hit the beer and brat stand at Olin Park, a hard-fought battle was playing out Saturday along the shore of Lake Monona.
Coming down the home stretch, the canoe paddled by a couple of bananas surged past the canoe of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger to beat them by about two canoe lengths.
“We took Pooh and Tigger down at the end,” said Chris Iglar, 41, of Middleton, one of the banana paddlers.
“Might be the only boat we passed all day,” added his banana-garbed partner, Chris Thompson, 41, of Madison.
For the vast majority of the 436 entrants in the annual event sponsored by Isthmus, competition is the least significant part of the festive event.
Certainly, Pooh and Tigger weren’t bummed about being passed by a couple of bananas. Their goals for the day were in keeping with their characters.
“I just want to get a few smiles out of random people,” said Sara Zeman (Pooh), a 19-year-old UW-Madison student. “I just hope it makes their day to see Pooh and Tigger paddle their way across Lake Mendota.”
Given the heavy costumes they were wearing, Molly Schommer (Tigger), 21, also a UW student, had a modest pre-race goal.
“Not to capsize,” she said, “because we would go under.”
Like many of the participants, the pair were not particularly accomplished paddlers.
“I have canoed a few times in my day,” Zeman said as they approached the start at James Madison Park. “But I wouldn’t say I’m a pro or anything. I think it may be one of those things where I’m not exactly sure what I’m getting myself into, but I’m going to give it my best shot.”
Paddlers start out with a 11/2-mile loop in Lake Mendota beginning and ending at James Madison Park. They then hoist their vessels for the 1-mile trek across the Isthmus down to Lake Monona, where they paddle another 11/2-mile route to Olin Park.
Zeman and Schommer were dreading the uphill climb toward the Capitol Square in their heavy costumes but said things went all right.
“The portaging went a lot better than I thought it would,” Zeman said.
Keeping in Pooh character, she said the toughest part was bypassing the honey stand at the Farmers’ Market. “I need some honey,” Zeman said. “I’m going through withdrawal.”
While Zeman and Schommer were newbies to the event, the paddling bananas were old hands.
Thompson and Iglar participated for the ninth time, the eighth time in costume. Why dress up as bananas?
“We woke up one morning and just said, ‘Let’s be bananas,’ ” Iglar said.
Their experience at the event should not be confused with expertise, they said.
“We get our time and we don’t care,” Iglar said. “As we say, it’s more about style than performance.”
Thompson said the toughest part was the first paddle.
“It’s the one time a year we go canoeing and your muscles aren’t used to it,” he said. “We come for the beer, the fun, the costumes. Not so much the paddling.”
For Emily Kosmerl, the event offered an opportunity to feel like a real Madisonian. A Michigan native who came to Madison a year ago from Columbus, Ohio, Kosmerl, 28, joined with friend Mo Kappes, 42, a three-time participant and former age-group winner. After a couple quick paddling lessons, they donned matching bright blue wigs and were ready to go.
“It’s about the most Madison event you could possibly do. So as part of my tour of living in Wisconsin, I wanted to do this,” Kosmerl said.
“I love the fact that this town stops traffic for canoes,” Kappes said. “I think it’s great that we can portage up to the Capitol and down on one of the busiest days and that’s OK.”
UW student Elise Sieracki was so excited when she heard about the event that she invited her dad, Carl Sieracki, to come down from Manitowoc to partner with her for a reprise of their family canoeing experiences.
The big difference being that he didn’t dress up like Bullwinkle Moose and she didn’t wear a Rocky the Flying Squirrel helmet while canoeing the Boundary Waters or around Door County.
“It’s funny because all the little kids would look at us with no recognition,” Carl Sieracki said. “But all the older people were yelling, ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle.’ ”
Elise Sieracki said her dad, a teacher at Manitowoc Lincoln High School, originally suggested they dress as Boris and Natasha from the same cartoon, “but I said Moose and Squirrel because I love squirrels.”
She’s also quite fond of Paddle & Portage.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I would definitely make this an annual thing.”