Paddling & Surviving the Au Sable Marathon

Editor’s Note: At both ends of the river weekend festivals are staged as part of the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon Race. Grayling calls it’s event Au Sable River Festival and it includes the Black Bear Bicycle Tour, a 100-mile bicycle ride to Oscoda on Sunday that finishes near the end of the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon. For more information check out Grayling Visitors Bureau, the Oscoda Visitors Bureau or the Black Bear Bicycle Tour web site.

If you are heading to Grayling for the July 28 start of the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon don’t forget that at MichiganTrailMaps.com we just completed our coverage of Hartwick Pines State Park with the addition of the park’s mountain bike trails.

By Jim DuFresne

I was concentrating on a trout that was rising in the middle of the Au Sable River, trying to float a drag-free dry fly over it, when suddenly there was a canoe within arm’s reach of me.

“Whoa!” I said as they totally caught me off guard but before I could add “you guys are quiet paddlers” they were around the next bend and out of sight.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

Must be marathon time.

The two paddlers were obviously veteran racers training for the annual Au Sable River Canoe Marathon. They were flying down the river in a slim and low-riding C-2 canoe, paddling with determination and almost mechanical precision. No stroke was a wasted motion.

Effortless effort.

It’s how you train for what some call the most grueling sporting event in North America. This summer the 65th Au Sable River Canoe Marathon will be staged July 28-29 in Grayling, the starting point, and Oscoda, the finish line.

In between 20 to 30 teams will compete in a 120-mile race that lasts from 14 to 19 hours and consists of some 55,000 stokes. It’s why organizers call the all-night run down the Au Sable the longest non-stop professional canoe race in the United States.

They also call it “The World’s Toughest Spectator Race!” During the event more than 40,000 spectators are expected to converge on the two towns and the river in between.

An estimated 12,000 people will witness the start in Grayling when at 9 p.m. paddlers dash “LeMans” style down Main Street carrying their canoes into the Au Sable at the Old Au Sable Fly Shop docks. Others spectators will gather along the final 14 miles of the river to its mouth on Lake Huron in Oscoda on Sunday morning to watch the canoeists wrap up their ordeal.

But the real marathon fans, the spectator that has no equal in the world of sports, are the ones who hopscotch in cars and vans throughout the night to cheer on the racers as they paddle beneath bridges, pass public access points and portage their canoe around six hydroelectric dams.

C-2 race canoes at the start of the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon.

C-2 race canoes at the start of the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon in Grayling.

The first race was staged in 1947 when a pair of Grayling canoers finished the route in 21:03. Ralph Sawyer, who founded Sawyer Canoes in Oscoda, won the first of eight titles in 1956 when he and his partner broke the 17-hour barrier.

But the most amazing paddler was Serge Corbin of Quebec. Corbin won the race 18 times, including 15 out of 17 years from 1987 to 2003. In 1994 he and his partner broke 14 hours when they arrived in Oscoda in 13:58.08 and the mark is still the Marathon record.

For that brutal and record-shattering run down the Au Sable the pair of Canadians won $5,000. They’re professional canoe racers but they are clearly not in it for the money.

Most of the field isn’t thinking about winning, just finishing. Not all will. But in 1999 a 74-year-old Al Widing, Sr. teamed up with a “youthful” 54-year-old Robert Bradford to complete the run in 15:21:22, finishing 15th overall.

And in the year that Corbin set his Marathon record, a pair of 15-year-olds from Grayling, Matt Ashton and Mo Hardwood, Jr., arrived in Oscoda in 15:30.46 to become the youngest team to have ever have completed the Marathon.

I suspect that for youths in and around Crawford County, ever just entering the Au Sable Canoe Marathon, much less finishing it, is as high a pedestal that you can step onto.

A half hour after the first C-2 race canoe flew past me in the Au Sable, a second one appeared, manned by two boys who appeared to be in high school. Shirts were off, youthful muscles bugling in their upper arms and shoulders, beads of sweat running down their backs.

They didn’t have the precision that that first pair displayed. Their strokes seem to be more of a struggle, not as nearly as fluid as their counterparts down the river.

But you could see the determination on their face to take on the Au Sable and survive a 120 miles of non-stop paddling.

That’s good. They’re going to need such resolve at 3 a.m. Sunday, July 29 when they have been up all night paddling and still have still have nine more hours of strokes in front of them.

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