BY REBECCA BARTON-DAVIS
Most Saturday nights in small-town northern Michigan are pretty tranquil with bonfires and small, backyard get-togethers; enjoying the light summer breeze, watching fireflies, reminiscing with friends and listening to the sounds of silence. The last weekend of July in Grayling, Michigan, the town is anything but quiet. The air has an intensity that you can feel … an audible buzz. It’s 8:55 p.m., and while the crowd of 10,000 spectators have dulled their conversations to a whisper, everyone is filled with anticipation. The atmosphere is electric. It’s 8:59 and not a peep can be heard. The streets are barricaded and not a car is on the road. Stillness has been achieved but only for a moment. The crowd waits with baited breath.
One hundred canoes are lined up in rows of five on the street, half a mile from the AuSable River. Two paddlers for each canoe are poised to start, in a sprinter’s stance. Nobody moves a muscle. Hundreds of hours of training and preparation have culminated in this moment. It’s 9:00 and the cannon booms.
The teams take their first steps, lifting their canoes in stride and sprinting for the river. The crowd goes wild as the racers pass in a blur. The field slows as they hit the boardwalk – a bottleneck – as teams start jumping off the dock into the river. Within a few minutes the dock is clear and the paddlers have disappeared into the darkness.
At first the river is tight and technical. Low hanging trees, short cuts and fish hides do their best to shake the confidence of the paddlers in the dark. Tributaries are confused for short cuts. Low footbridges and log jams on lesser used channels can cause carnage before the relief of the fabled still waters. The respite is brief as the current picks up again, this time wider, but full of false bends and hull-smashing gravel bars. Teams meet momentarily with support crews for a resupply, before quietly slipping back into the darkness once more.
Fifty miles in and the first opportunity to stretch stiff legs comes at the Mio Dam. The unwavering gatekeeper of the race, Mio holds the key to finishing. The cut-off time is aggressive, severe and unwavering. Spectators line the spillway as the teams appear seemingly from nowhere, some traveling with no light through the treacherous stump field and into the floodlights of the dam. There is no pause in movement as each paddler glides up to the wall and hoists the boat out of the water, running as fast as numb legs will carry them down the gravel path below the dam. Teams make it onto the spillway, with seconds to spare, heading off again, into the most desolate miles of night-time racing. Others are left behind, their journey cut short.
McKinley marks the halfway point and the last stragglers of all-night fans rally around the teams as they pass under the bridge. Realizing the distance must be covered again is daunting, but determination sets in as teams that make this checkpoint most often finish the race.
The world turns grey. Pre-dawn brings the coldest weather of the night. Fingers and toes are numb, but spirits start to lift. The night is conquered, but celebration is premature. With 45 more miles of mainly still water, the challenge is far from over. The first “pond” appears, the winners crossing it in darkness. Like flipping a light switch, the sun comes up as they run down the portage and paddle off into the longest unsupported stretch. Again, the current quickens and paddlers are eager for the next checkpoint – Loud Dam.
The pond appears achingly slow – a subtle change from fast to still water over many miles. Once on the pond it feels never ending – the shallow depth and weeds testing the reserves of strength. Next, we travel over Loud and onto Five Channels, Cooke and Foote – the last three in relatively quick succession. Every stroke hurts, the sun feels hot and high and each lazy turn on the pond mirrors the last. Minutes feel like eternity, but the pull of the finish grows stronger.
Foote Dam is eerily quiet, with spectators barred from viewing due to security. It’s where the final sprint starts 11 miles from the finish. There are bottlenecks at the take-out and at the put-in. The possibility of passing five more teams is there, if only one is strong enough to make the last push while others give in to the demands of their bodies to ease up. The only option is to paddle hard across each shallow corner … and there are many. Fatigue and pain are normal now. Up ahead a bridge comes into view, just one bend above the finish line. The final right turn, the finish comes into view as William Tell Overture blares over the sound system. The crowd roars again as each team finishes, but the paddler only has eyes for the checkered flag marking completion. That finish line separates those who try and those that can.
Once the line is crossed, athletes join an elite group – a brotherhood for life. There is something about traveling a river, a trail that many only view from the occasional bridge, with 200 other comrades who share the same obsession. It’s both seeing the world from a different perspective and passing a mental and physical test.
The warm embrace of Oscoda envelopes the paddlers. Each athlete receives a dinner, a jacket, a finisher coin at the awards banquet Saturday night and many take home some prize money as well. Stories are shared around Lake Huron beachside campfires and the planning for the next one begins.
First or last, finishers earn their glory – immortalized on a monument dedicated to their efforts, on murals in the riverside towns, in the bars and restaurants. They are forever interwoven into the northern Michigan lore. T-shirts, stickers, car decals, trading cards and fantasy prediction contests are proof of the dedication of the supporters … of the fever that follows the AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
Known mostly for being a world-class trout stream, the AuSable is also popular with weekend paddlers. There are plenty of boat launches, campsites and river stops to occupy a weekend. You can also use the entire length of the river for a full week of canoe camping. However, “the marathon” is built for speed. Competitors only have 19 hours to complete the 120 miles, with winning times around 14 hours and 15 minutes each year. That’s averaging a minimum of 6.5 miles per hour through the dark, fog, portages, the many sharp turns and short cuts. To put the cut-off times in perspective, if running marathons had an equivalent cut-off time and the winner ran a 2:05 marathon, the last finisher would have to cross the line in under 2:45. Paddlers from all over the United States, Canada, Australia, Belize and even the United Kingdom have traveled to take on the mighty AuSable. While a few only make the journey once, many are hooked for life, returning year after year.
There are many Midwestern races on the endurance athletes’ “bucket list,” be it the Birkie, the Iceman, an Ironman or a running marathon. The AuSable should be one of them. It may not be the longest, most remote, or even the hardest long-distance canoe race, but it is one of the most competitive.
The task can’t be underestimated, with skills in reading the river and handling in the wakes generated by other boats key to making a successful attempt. Like other endurance events, nutrition comes into play, as does weather, mechanical failure and fatigue. Canoes can work together – similar to a pack in a bike race, drafting and leading, to gain on teams ahead or leave other teams behind.
The “races with the race” are celebrated, with women, mixed (man/woman), masters, out-of-state and out-of-country teams earning special recognition. Records are kept on everything from point-to-point splits, to fastest finisher at each numerical age, so all speeds and abilities have a chance at history. The race is covered extensively online and on the radio, so friends and family can follow along even if they can’t make it to the storied event.
At the very least, watching the AuSable River Canoe Marathon is a must-do Michigan summer activity. Billed as “America’s Toughest Spectator Sport,” even the fans have to be committed to make it to the finish. Be there for the running start, go to an early bridge and be part of the crowd, cheer as the teams clear Mio, view the sun rising over Alcona, watch the pace quicken over Foote and stand on Mill Street Bridge to see the notoriously close finishes between the top few teams – less than a second apart after 14 hours of paddling! Travel to the AuSable and try your hardest not to catch the fever – I dare you.
Editor’s note: Rebecca Barton-Davis is the women’s record-holder for the fastest AuSable River Canoe Marathon finishing time in history – doing so in 2017 with a time of 15:17.39 (16th overall) with Edith MacHattie, which broke a 23-year-old record. Her fastest time ever was with Mike Davis in 2015 (9th overall) with a time of 15:15.