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But this is all he sees in time of calm:
On sleeping waters light obscures the map
Of mysteries so readable in storms,
And kayak embarkation is a trap.
—Deborah Eibel, “Kayak Sickness”

In 1997, I happened to catch a TV documentary on the Discovery Channel about the ups and downs of an unusual wilderness competition called the Eco-Challenge. Like millions of other viewers, I was captivated by the dramatic footage of this so-called “expedition with a stopwatch.” I even pictured myself among the hardy co-ed teams of five that chased each other over storm-swept mountains, down glacial-cold rivers, and through the dense coastal forests of British Columbia for pride and prizes. Like most armchair adventurers, I did little more than daydream and wait for the next broadcast of the annual race. Some viewers, however, were inspired enough by the televised spectacle to get off their sofas and compete in, even to organize, similar events.

Five years later, I was working as an editor at explore, an outdoor travel magazine based in Toronto. At the magazine, we had tracked the rapid growth of this new sport, called “expedition racing” or “adventure racing,” as it evolved from multi-day, multi-sport team events such as the Eco-Challenge (often a week or longer, with dropout rates of seventy percent) to include softer, single-day sprint races, off-road triathlons, and urban treasure hunts. In an issue that spring, our magazine publicized one such introductory event near Saint John, New Brunswick. At the time, I knew little about the Fundy Multi-Sport Race beyond a brief description on the website of the outdoor retail store that was sponsoring the event. Several months later, I learned that a fatal paddling accident had overshadowed the very race we had helped to promote. According to police reports and news articles, participants had completed trail-running and mountain-biking stages when a sudden storm had struck the Bay of Fundy and turned the final kayaking section treacherous.

By 2002, the pop-cultural fascination with all things extreme had reached its zenith. Oddball activities ranged from the insane (parachuting off electrical towers) to the inane (ironing clothes atop mountain peaks), and reality TV hits such as Survivor and Fear Factor pitted ordinary people against each other in physical and psychological ordeals. Adventure racing often fell under this extreme-branded umbrella. Marketing of races played up the dangers—one event was called the Canadian Death Race—and the sport had been featured in ESPN’s X Games, the annual Olympics of extreme sports. In reality, adventure racing shared more in common with sober, adult endurance activities such as marathon running and sea kayaking than such reckless Generation Ritalin hobbies as street luge and skydiving. In fact, I had never before heard about a fatal accident at a competition. Was Canada the site of the sport’s first death?

Our magazine had encouraged readers to attend, so we felt a responsibility to determine what had happened at the race, how the fatal misadventure could have been prevented, and who—if anyone—was to blame. That proved to be difficult. When we contacted the organizers, the young couple was too upset to go on the record. Family members of the deceased weren’t talking, nor were the RCMP, nor the Coast Guard, nor the New Brunswick coroner’s office. We were left with more questions than answers.

Something about the incident bothered me, so I decided to keep digging. As I made inquiries and trawled adventure-racing websites for witnesses, not everyone seemed pleased that a journalist was asking questions about their sport. “I was at the race & I was in the kayak portion when the shit went down,” one participant wrote on an internet discussion group. “My concern is if you talk to this gentleman & put a negative spin on the race you could be hurting the organizers’ future not to mention the future of adventure racing.” Other respondents were less skeptical about the glare of outside interest. “Circling the wagons in some sort of defence against negative media attention is a recipe for negative media attention,” replied another racer on the same online forum. “The more people that are aware of the consequences of being in the wilderness, the better.”

Soon I began to field messages from participants who had been at the event. For some, it had been just another race that they had endured, even enjoyed, until news of the accident trickled back to the finish line and colored forever their memories of that day. For others, the signs of potential calamity seemed obvious in hindsight. All agreed that they had made their own choices, to turn back or push on through the storm, and that they bore the consequences of their actions. Many had returned home, having approached the lip of disaster on the turbulent bay, with a more complex understanding of what risks they take in their outdoor adventures.

Residents along the Fundy coast were more blunt in their assessments. “I’m a fisherman,” said one lobster-boat captain who had helped to rescue kayakers. “We’re taught to respect the sea and know what it can do and not to challenge it. These people were doing the exact opposite. It makes me angry to see that.” Other locals echoed his outrage. The Bay of Fundy, they insisted, is not a playground for adrenaline-seeking yahoos and yuppies. And yet eco-tourism, guided adventures, and action sports of every variety were gaining prominence on the East Coast, across the continent, and around the world.

The whole concept of adventure tourism suggests a paradox. Can you really organize an adventure? How do you simulate the thrills of the outdoors without the risks that are an essential part of any wild place? And in competitive events, might not the ego-driven desire to be first across the finish line trump the caution that is a necessity of safe wilderness travel?

Five years and more than a hundred interviews later, I understand better the broad reach and deep impact of this one small tragedy, as well as the larger issues it raises. The sequence of decisions and indecisions, actions and inactions, mistakes and pure bad luck that led to the death by adventure on the Bay of Fundy drew hundreds of people into its orbit: sixty-eight racers and their families, dozens of race officials and volunteers, two fishing villages, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Canadian Forces, the RCMP, the local fire rescue detachment, ambulance attendants, emergency room doctors, coroners, Crown prosecutors, lawyers and insurance adjusters, the vast bureaucracy of a province and a nation. Few of the people intimate with the events of that day would ever be the same again.

The story of the race only loomed larger and more mysterious as I chased it from one coast to another and back again. It continues to gather momentum. Organizers, outfitters, wilderness teachers, backcountry guides, amateur adventurers, and eco-tourists of all sorts—everyone, in fact, who cares about the responsibilities we share when we step into the outdoors—may be affected by the final answer to the question: What really happened at the Fundy Multi-Sport Race?

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