KALISPELL – The name says it all.
The Epic Shore to Shore Race dares paddlers to voyage the largest natural freshwater lake in the West. From the south shoreline in Polson to the northern cove of Somers, the fleet of participants brave 26 miles of Flathead Lake, essentially the entire length of one of the 300 most monstrous natural lakes in the world. It’s believed to be the longest one-day paddle race in the U.S.
During last year’s inaugural event, paddlers confronted white-capped waves and sharp squalls, encountering added elements of gutsy excitement in an adventure that was already exceptional.
“It was epic,” said John Schukei, who was among the 70 participants last year.
Schukei, 60, is making the trek from Great Falls again this summer for the second annual event, which is slated for Saturday, Aug. 10.
The longtime paddler said he’s excited for the challenge, but he’s also eager to help the cause that it supports.
Proceeds from the Epic Shore to Shore Race benefit First Descents, a Denver-based nonprofit organization with roots in northwest Montana that provides free outdoor adventure therapy for young adults with cancer.
Schukei’s wife, Keely Hall, who graduated from Columbia Falls High School, was diagnosed with cancer more than two years ago. She was the first family member of Schukei’s stricken with cancer, and it opened his eyes to the daily battle for those fighting the illness.
“I kind of understand the battle these kids have,” he said. “I plan on doing this race every year to support First Descents. The battle the young kids have gone through or are going through is much greater than my four hours of paddling.”
The Epic Shore to Shore Race is welcoming all paddle sports enthusiasts to take part in the upcoming fundraiser event.
The competition features the 26-mile race down the length of Flathead Lake for teams or solo paddlers; a 10-mile solo race; a five-mile solo race; and a four-by-two relay for teams. The races are open to any and all human-powered crafts, including stand-up paddleboards.
Besides the 26-mile race, all events begin and end at the North Flathead Lake Yacht Club. The event is free for spectators. Paddlers can register online at epicshoretoshore.com.
“The Epic Shore to Shore is one of those events that aligns with First Descents’ mission in every way,” said Brad Ludden, founder of First Descents. “The challenge of paddling the length of Flathead Lake, the camaraderie experienced along the way and the celebration at the end of the challenge are all very much in line with what we empower young adults with cancer to achieve through their experience at First Descents.”
First Descents began as a passion project for Ludden, who grew up in the Flathead Valley and became a highly touted and well-known professional kayaker.
When he was 20 years old, Ludden founded First Descents and took 10 people in kayaks down rivers in Colorado. Twelve years later, Ludden has stepped away from the spotlight of professional solo pursuits to be CEO, and the organization now offers more than 50 programs in North, Central and South America. First Descents offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors between the ages of 18 to 39 a free outdoor adventure experience designed to empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same.
It’s in that spirit that the adventurous Epic Shore to Shore Race emerged. Last year’s race raised enough money for several young adults with cancer to attend FD camps.
Organizers are hoping twice as many participants will sign up this year, to accomplish their own individual pursuits while supporting a greater cause.
“We just hope to be able to send more and more young adults to camps,” said Eve Dixon, an event organizer.