Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight. The AuSable River Canoe Marathon is a stunning siren. She can lure you in with her flair and mystique, only to leave you wondering what went wrong. Traveling the waterway from Grayling to Oscoda on a recreational voyage is challenging. Racing the entire spectrum starting at night in under 19 hours is pretty insane. After three in a row with no issues, you forget that this is actually incredibly difficult.
In 2016 I was woo’ing a highly experienced paddler from out of the area. I knew he had spectated our event, and I was enamored with the idea of helping someone complete the 120 for the very first time. Someone had given me a shot the year prior, and now I wanted to return the favor. I wasn’t quite ready to “race” the event. More looking to play local stern than try to make the top 40. This paddler intrigued me. Something about him and his personality caught my eye. It was a steady stream of propaganda trying to bring him to the AuSable.
“Your race is a completely different animal. I’ve seen your race break very good paddlers. Very good athletes. The best.”
It went in one ear, and out the other. I’m not even certain I’ve got the quote correct. Probably not even close. At the time, it was pretty meaningless. I had completed my first 120 in 2015 with ease, conquering the river at a slow systemic pace, designed to maximize probability of success not speed. This race really can’t be that hard on people. Just keep moving.
Saturday night, during the 2018 AuSable River Canoe Marathon, the river won.
Our race was going beautifully until all the sudden it was over.
When the starting gun went off, we streaked to the put in at Ray’s, clearing the chaos of town and reaching the I-75 bridge in 39th position, three places ahead of our spot on the grid. A younger rookie team from out of the area had ran better than us and the Treston’s , whom also found themselves separated from the faster boats we longed to ride. Shortly below Lucey’s, we safely overtook the Treston’s. From there, it was a matter of finding a safe spot to overtake the rookie team. Opportunity knocked about four miles in, when the rookie team completely left the river channel, paddling through the muck on river right. We stayed in the channel, put a little more on it, and cleared them with ease.
At Burton’s Landing, we cleared the timing station in 37th place, but had no one in front of us to wake ride. The time spent passing two teams had left us going into our worst stretch of water with no one to ride. 36th place had put nearly a minute on us. The pace from there to Stephan Bridge was comfortable, having position on the boats behind us meant that we could dictate the speed with which things happened during this twisty technical section. We could go when it felt good, and not kill ourselves when it didn’t. Former Champion Al Limberg and his partner Barb Bradley slipped by, but otherwise it was an uneventful stretch. The Treston’s had overtaken the rookie’s, and conversation was had. They were feeding upriver of Stephan Bridge, we were feeding downriver. With a little luck, we would reconvene after the series of pit stops and work together. Top 40 talk was jovial. Deals were made.
We reached Stephan Bridge in 38th place. A stop to feed, in out and gone. The race was going textbook. The Treston’s slid by and were clearly faster in the shallows than we were. No worries. All along I knew going into this marathon that our race didn’t begin until the 2nd half. Get to the ponds healthy. Open it up, run hard in the deep. A duo from Texas overtook us. It didn’t phase me. This wasn’t our water. Our race hadn’t even begun yet.
At Wakeley we were in 40th, with two boats riding directly behind us. The light on the front of the boat was malfunctioning, shifting from on to ultra-dim to off randomly. It wouldn’t turn off. The moon, radiantly beautiful but creating havoc as it the river shifted, causing constant period of optical transitions. The first boat overtook us in the twisties before Townline road. The second directly upriver from where the South Branch enters in. Once we hit the area above Conner’s Flats, it became apparent that we were running about their speed in what I considered our water. This was a very good thing. We couldn’t catch them, but they couldn’t completely walk away from us. It didn’t matter how we moved in shallower water as long as we could crank in the deep. This vast wide open stretch down by the flats was also a comforting reprieve from the constant optical transitions and full moon lighting.
Before Indian Bend Cut, I felt a little wobble in the boat. The water transitions from wide and slow to narrow and shallow with a slight chop. The level of stability wasn’t correct. Hard to describe the feeling, only that something was very different from the prior Sunday in Spike’s Challenge. I was a little concerned about the exit to the cut, but we passed through with no issues. Our next feed, quickly approaching at McMaster’s Bridge, would certainly restore things to normal levels.
My spirits were high, I was eating and drinking much better than in the past. On top of my regular feed, I was also going to be receiving special surprises along the river. In my prior 120’s, I had consumed completely liquids for my caloric needs, along with the occasional energy gel and some soup at Mio. Last year I found it difficult to drink, and without a backup plan for real food items, suffered a power outage in the second half of the race. Thus, the special zip lock bags full of surpises. McMaster’s Bridge brought me a Fig bar, which I quickly crammed into my mouth, and then spent the next few minutes calling hups, while gumming and chewing like a cow to break it down enough to swallow.
Note to self, next time, don’t put more than a bite full in at a time. But man was that thing ever delicious.
42nd at McMaster’s Bridge was absolutely perfect. Another team was approaching quickly from behind. I was completely okay with them passing. Wake riding is a critical skill that most newer paddlers overlook. It saves incredible amounts of energy when you can ride a wave. And two boats side by side working together are faster than one. It’s something that I’ve spent time working on, staying on the side wave, using hips to lean the boat finding that sweet spot.
The boat came along side us in the North Branch cut. We quickly worked on finding that side wave, but were unable to hold it. The other boat’s lines were erratic, unpredictable, and often wrong. It was a continuous washing machine of tumultuous water as we came on the wave, and then back off again. Our boat was unstable underneath as well. The wobble was back. Hup’s, that motion when paddlers switch sides, a touch shaky.
I dropped us back on the stern wave. Much smoother sailing here. As the other boat continued to zig and zag, we simply maintained proper course. When they returned to the normal path, we rode. Otherwise, we didn’t follow. Stability returned. Our light was still doing funny things, but the big open areas mitigated the impact. As we rode and maintained, the boat I was looking for approached. It was Sean and Rod, friends that I knew would be great to make time with.
They were moving well. Fluid and smooth, an easier boat to ride. We quickly went with them. The water was good, deeper and calm, pace quickened, and friends worked in unison to create separation between us and the zig zaggers. A peek behind showed that we had completely dropped the third boat, as they were nowhere to be seen. Discussions were had about where our teams were taking feed at Parmalee. This was it. Everything I had worked for was happening. There was a fast ally to work with. The boat moved smooth and fast where I expected it to. I ripped open another energy gel packet, sucked on my drink hose, and grinned from ear to ear. The stretch from Parmalee to the pond, and then the pond itself was going to be a riot. After that, my favorite stretch of water in the entire race, Mio to McKinley. Hell yes.
The water coming into Parmalee transitions from calm with depth, to shallow and choppy. It narrows slightly, and the large openness is replaced with trees and shadows. Wisps of fog over the river appear and then immediately dissolve. The stability of the boat erodes again. During a hup, my leg is immersed in the river before I could reach to brace and pull the boat back level. After narrowly avoiding a swim in a cold river with 48 degree air temperatures, my smile has departed. Something is very wrong. A statement is made about a lean on the boat. A quick glance shows that the boat is perfectly level. Something is very wrong. There’s a fair amount of water like this between Parmalee and the ponds. The entire run to McKinley has the same chop and feel. Sean and Rod instantly walk away from us.
“Is it okay if we stop at Parmalee?” My partner is very dizzy.
We’re plenty ahead of the cut-off times, all alone, without a team in sight front or back. No problem stopping at Parmalee, let’s hop out of the boat for a minute, get your bearings back, and then we’ll tackle the next section. We’ve got plenty of time before cut-off. The original plan was 45th at McKinley. Even if we slide back further we’re way fast enough to make it up in the second half of the race.
Hoping back in the boat never came. The realization of just how bad vertigo had set a few moments later, as he laid on the river bank clutching my leg, pleading to make the world stop spinning. I waited as long as I figured we had to make the cut time at Camp Ten Bridge before removing the GPS tracker to turn into the race committee. I had to remove myself from the situation for a moment, walking out of the landing up to the bridge to sign us out of the race.
During that walk I was thankful for the darkness, which cloaked the tears streaming down my face. Hugs were exchanged with my children. When told to enjoy the night chasing the race with Granny cheering for other teams, he trembled and responded, choking up
“But Dad, I don’t have another team”
It melted me in a way I never imagined possible. I don’t do this for me. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy paddling, love canoe racing, and this race means more to me than the world will ever understand. But I do not do this for me. I do it for our children. Katie would be on the river every day if we took her. Liam started paddling classes this past summer. He blabbered non-stop about Coach Kolka. He took a canoe paddle to bed with him at night. Interests change over time. But right now, this is it for them.
Sunday morning was surreal. We went home after pulling out of the race. I slept for a few hours. Woke up and started my morning routine of push-ups, pull-ups and yoga. And then it hit me. This was Marathon Sunday. And I’m at home. I didn’t make it to that spot between Mio and McKinley that I love so much. I sobbed a bit while firing up the computer to check status of the other teams. Sean and Rod were out of the race. The zig zaggers were out of the race from illness as well, shortly after we left the river (explaining the zig zagging as these gents normal paddle a good boat). I yelled at the screen when Flash and Matt stopped at Foote Dam. GET IN THE F*****G BOAT AND GO YOU’RE THERE DON’T STOP NOW!! I watched Al and Barb stop moving on Cooke. And then their tracker appeared a bit later along with another I knew was out of the race on top of the dam.
The next question was whether to drive back over to the dinner. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to answer the questions or talk about it. I had to go. If this was it, the last chapter of Andy and Steve, I didn’t want to miss watching them announced as the winners. I had to go. To clap for every other finisher of the 2018 AuSable River Canoe Marathon. The last finishers surviving the same the siren song as the winners.
That’s what I tried telling myself. And certainly those things were important as well.
A few paddlers commended me on coming to the end. It was “noble”. Good sportsmanship. I cracked the joke that I went because I couldn’t cancel the hotel room, and was going to get billed for it anyhow. Might as well use it.
But that’s not really why I went.
I had to go to feel the pain. The pain of everyone else collecting a coin and jacket. The twist of the spoon, knowing that the goal of Top 40 was well within grasp. Knowing that this was a lost year.
I needed that hurt.
still to come if I keep writing…what happened/how the race unfolded for the rest of the competitors
also still to come…what’s next for me…