The River of Dreams: The AuSable Canoe Marathon
The AuSable Canoe Marathon
Have you ever stood ankle deep in a cold, raging river in the middle of the night wielding a glowing lightsaber? I have; and no, I wasn’t channeling the force. Some thirty-seven years since I moved away from Michigan, I was back home, and I was knee-deep in my father’s beloved AuSable River. It was the night of the famous AuSable River Canoe Marathon, and my glowing lightsaber was the only way my dad and his partner, Chris, could navigate the river safely to the shoreline to find the fuel and water necessary to survive the next nineteen hours in their racing canoe.
The River of Dreams
Growing up, My dad always told me stories about the AuSable River, and to him, the AuSable was the river of dreams. When he was a little boy, he’d watch the paddlers enter Oscoda at the end of nearly 120 miles of paddling. He’d cheer the sunburnt, hungry, dirty, and exhausted racers as they pushed to finish one of the most grueling races on the planet. He sent letters to sponsors and told them that he, little seven-year-old Eddie, would be the next big racer in the sport. But, life happened, my dad grew up, he moved to Arizona, and he put the river and his dreams of canoe racing behind him.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2009 that my dad became reacquainted with the race. After a battle with throat and neck cancer and months of chemotherapy and radiation, he needed something to take his mind off of this cancer. The internet became his escape, and the AuSable Canoe Race once again became his passion. He started to talk about the race like some people talk about college or professional sports. He bought and sold racing canoes and searched for a partner who’d take on a sixty-something-year-old man who didn’t live near a river. The river and the race became a fantasy for my dad, and he vowed to paddle in the AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
The AuSable River Canoe Marathon
The AuSable River Canoe Marathon is a partner river canoe race that begins on dry land in Grayling, Michigan just before sunset during the last weekend of July. Race day is a giant party where people come from far and wide to celebrate the athletes participating in one of the most strenuous sports in the world. Spectators revere the racing teams, whether the racers are seasoned partners or unique underdogs. Every team who dips their paddle into the river is part of the AuSable Marathon family, and every person lining the river cheers and fuels the paddlers with encouragement. The race spans 122 miles of river from Grayling to Oscoda. Racers must carry their canoes over dams, maneuver canoes through pitch-black, tree stump-filled waters, and deal with almost any kind of adverse weather condition imaginable. The race is grueling, and only the strongest-willed and most physically-adept people can make it to the finish.
Canoe Number 69
Sixty-four years after my dad sent a letter to sponsors asking for their support, he and his racing partner Chris, were ready for one of the most challenging nights of their lives. He and Chris were completing the event with a heavy-wooden racing canoe, boat number 69. The heavy canoe, racing inexperience, and nerves put my dad and Chris at a disadvantage, but thankfully both men made up for these disadvantages with their stubbornness and determination. They weren’t going to let anything stop them from finishing this race.
The pride I felt watching my dad and Chris carrying their canoe to the start line was immense. It didn’t matter to me that they were in the very back of the pack. When I saw my dad run around the corner of the river dock, carrying his heavy canoe, I felt chills down my spine. I heard people who I didn’t know yelling his name, and I knew that coming to this race was the best decision of both of our lives.
Like most running and bike races, spectators of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon can only see portions of the course. Unlike most running and bike races, getting from one viewing point to another is difficult. Watching a river race isn’t easy. It is especially difficult because at least half of the race is done in the dark. Spectators drive from one viewing bridge to the next, and sometimes spectators have to walk (with flashlights) over a mile to get to a bridge to see their favorite paddlers fly by them. It’s an all-night hurry up and wait adventure. Because being a spectator for the AsSable River Canoe Marathon is challenging, it’s often called the world’s toughest spectator sport.
After the start of the race, we were also in our own race to get to the first feeding location. I was full of adrenaline and scared that I’d miss the turnoff or worse, that I’d make a mistake that could cost my dad and Chris the race. Since I am unfamiliar with Michigan and I’m severely night blind, my fear of messing something up was amplified. I didn’t want to derail almost seventy years of my dad’s hopes and dreams. Thankfully, my dad had an experienced team of feeders who showed me what the job of a feeder was like, and they were just as excited to see the race through my eyes as they were to be the feeding team for my dad and Chris.
Feeders get special privileges during the race because our teams could get sick or hurt if we aren’t riverside when our teams pass the designated feeding locations. The feeding teams are the canoer’s lifelines. Because of our role in the race, the feeder caravans get to park riverside and bypass the spectator traffic. Feeders need to be in the river waiting with the food, water, clothing, repair kits, and medicine that our teams might need. My dad had been asking me to be his feeding team ever since he signed up for the race, but I didn’t want to take on the responsibility on my own since I had never even seen the AuSable, let alone watched a canoe race. I was still totally clueless about what I was about to witness when my teammates handed me the glowing lightsabers and asked me to wade into the AuSable.
Moments later, I finally understood what my dad had been talking about all of these years. These canoe teams weren’t in summer camp canoes. These canoes sat so low in the water, that I could only see a small portion of the starboard side. These paddlers were not just recreational paddlers; in fact, the speed and the athleticism of these racers far exceeded my naïve expectations. Dumbfounded, I watched the canoes slice through the pitch black waters, dipping their paddles into the river at an almost incomprehensible speed. Because the sun had completely set, it was difficult to see the paddlers approach us. Some of the canoes had lights on their bows while other canoes navigated the river in complete darkness.
Our team waited in the water alongside the other feeding teams. Some paddlers came in for a feeding while other teams continued downstream. It was quiet-chaos at the feeding stations. Each feeding team had a unique style of light up clothing, flashing signs, and other glowing gear that helped alert the paddling team that they needed to pull riverside for supplies. Even though we would hear the spectators screaming and ringing bells in the distance, where we were standing, we could only hear the sounds of the fast-dipping paddles and a quiet “hup” from each team as they moved stealthily past us in the darkness.
Teams came and went. All of a sudden a twenty-something-year-old man was standing next to me asking me if I was a feeder for Ed and Chris. I told him that Ed was my dad, and I was helping feed his team. He told me that he’d been waiting for my dad to pass. Really? My dad? This old guy paddling in the heavy wooden canoe? Apparently, a few weeks before the race, he had struck up a conversation with my dad. My dad had made an impression on him, and now he was vested in my dad’s performance that night. He told me that my dad had an unwavering passion for this race and he wanted to cheer him on. This man was also part of a feeding team, but he didn’t want to head to the next location until he could see my dad and Chris pass. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more proud to be my dad’s daughter than I felt at that moment.
After many of the boats passed us, we continued to yell “boat 69” and then suddenly my dad and Chris pulled alongside us. We had to get them to look us in the eyes, and we forced them to eat and drink what they had in the boat. It was strange because both my dad and Chris were in a trance-like state. They had these blank looks on their faces and nodded when the head feeders gave them directions. Since I wasn’t an official feeder, I screamed and cheered for them and did my best to boost their morale. Before he left the shoreline, I told my dad that I loved him and that I was proud of him, and within seconds, he was gone again.
After they were gone, I looked at Dale. Dale and his wife Michelle were the head feeders for my dad and Chris’s team. Dale had a wild look in his eyes. The flashing lightsabers and his pure excitement created an intense stare. He jumped up and down and shouted, “Let’s go again!” By now, I felt invested enough to stay through the next few feeding stops. Initially, I was going to watch my dad pass the first bridge, and then I was going to go back to Oscoda and get some sleep. I planned to watch the more accessible viewing locations once the sun rose, and then follow my dad and Chris to the finish line. But, the excitement was real, and seeing my dad in that boat made me want to stay late into the night.
Our second feeding spot wasn’t as accessible as the first stop. We had to scale walls and trudge through river mud to get to a place where we could feed our team. There were more spectators at this location, and the energy was intense. Now, the river had a fog bank rolling over it, and more teams were paddling without lights because the fog was messing with their eyes. It began to feel cold, and the teams that passed us gathered warm clothing with their other supplies. Since it was so hot out earlier in the day, my dad hadn’t planned on being cold, and he didn’t have a lot of cold-weather gear. I was worried that he didn’t have the right kind of dry-fit clothing to keep him warm. When he and Chris pulled in at this location, the blank stares on their faces intensified. My dad is an ornery guy. He doesn’t back down from a challenge. EVER. Seeing him like that worried me. How could he get through fifteen more hours? The cold weather, the darkness, the fog, and the heavy canoe only intensified my fear. Knowing our voices might be the only thing they could hear, I yelled loudly for my dad and told him I loved him as he left downriver.
The rest of the night was mostly a blur. I went on with my team to another feeding location. By now, the crowds had thinned, and the teams were more spread out over the river. My dad and Chris were racing to make it to the next checkpoint. Paddlers have to pass certain checkpoints by a specific time, or they could risk being pulled from the race. By now, some teams had already missed their time checks. Other teams had sick paddlers, damaged boats, and injuries. My dad and Chris weren’t the fastest of the teams, but they made the next checkpoint with minutes to spare. Once they passed us, I knew it was time for me to drive back to Oscoda. It was 2:00 am. I made a deal with Dale and the rest of the team to meet up with them once the sun came up. I don’t remember much after that. I remember driving down the tree-lined two-lane highway in the pitch dark. My phone had no service, and I couldn’t see very well. I remember a badger lumbering across my path and scaring me back awake. I remember getting to my camper and looking to see if my dad and Chris made the next time check. I had cell service and wi-fi at the KOA, but my racing app wasn’t updating. I was scared and worried about my dad. The next thing I knew, I heard pounding on my camper door, and a whispered, “darlin’.” I stumbled half-asleep out of my bed and found my dad, looking exhausted, standing outside of my camper door.
Apparently, in the two hours since I last saw my dad, he and Chris got turned around and found themselves in a field of tree stumps, and they had dumped their canoe a few times. Those mistakes, although typical, were enough to make them miss their time check, and they were pulled from the race. I felt terrible for them, but in a way, I was happy that they were safe.
My dad and I decided to get a few hours of sleep. He headed back to his house, and I crawled back inside my camper and fell asleep immediately. We agreed to meet up at the finish line sometime around nine in the morning. The 122-mile race finishes in Oscoda, and the finish line is a spectator-filled party. We found our spots directly across from event announcer and awaited the first teams’ approach. I loved sitting so close to the finish line because we were surrounded by feeder teams who were telling stories of the night’s events. It seemed like everyone had a story to tell, and no one’s teams had a perfect race. Some fourteen hours after the race started, the first few teams came into sight. Two teams were battling for first place. After sitting in a boat for fourteen hours, and paddling at that intense rate, these exhausted teams seemed to launch into hyperdrive as they fought for first place. The crowd screamed as the boats moved almost neck and neck. The finish was insane. Christophe Proulx and Samuel Frigon crossed the finish with a time of 14:18:45 and Steve Lajoie and Guillaume Blais crossed with a time of 14:18:46. I can’t imagine how these teams felt after finishing such a grueling race within one second from each other. It would be another 8 minutes before Mike Davis and Weston Willoughby would cross the finish line, and after that, the boats came in sporadically until the last boat crossed the finish with a time of 18:48:02. To say the AuSable River Canoe Marathon is one of the most challenging races is an understatement. Each team whether experienced, mixed gendered, young, old, or an all female team paddled their hearts out that night, and I consider it an honor to have been both a feeder and a spectator at such an incredible event.
The End of an Era
After the race’s events finished, the teams took part in a celebratory dinner at the VFW. All of the sunburned and physically exhausted paddlers ate dinner, shared their stories of the night’s events, and awaited their awards. Any team that started the race was a part of the meal, and I was lucky enough to sit next to my dad as his guest. It was an honor to watch so many of the teams come and tell my dad congratulations. I know he was disappointed that he wasn’t able to complete the race, but not one paddler balked at my dad’s accomplishments. It’s not every day that a 70-year-old man who doesn’t live near a river paddles in his first AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
After the day’s events, my dad seemed at peace with his attempt to complete the race. He did what he came to do, and I thought he had all of his racing aspirations behind him. But as the days passed, he started to talk about racing just one more time. Now, he knows what it will take to prepare for the race. He knows what to expect on the river, and he knows what it will take to complete the mighty AuSable River Canoe Marathon. He knows it won’t be easy, and he also knows that most people will think it’s crazy for a 73-year-old man to paddle for close to nineteen hours. I guess most people don’t truly understand my dad. He has what it takes if he puts his heart and soul into just one more paddle.
This year my dad is planning on going back to the river as a spectator. He wants to see his friends try for another finish. This year Chris and Dale are partners. Dale is on his 5th attempt to finish the race, and he hopes this will be his year to say he completed the AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
The AuSable is truly my dad’s river of dreams. He is at peace and his happiest when he is in Oscoda, standing next to his beloved river. As for me, I won’t ever regret the week I spent with my dad in Michigan. Not many daughters can take part in something so incredible with their fathers. It was an experience I will never forget, and perhaps it’s just the first of two mighty AuSable River Canoe Marathon Races for us.