Locals and visitors flooded the streets of Grayling, Mich., last weekend to watch the 2018 AuSable River Canoe Marathon. Spectators enjoyed live music, food trucks, and a local art festival before the race, while 84 tandem canoe teams anxiously prepared to be 'hup all night' ('hup' is what canoe racers say to signal switching sides), paddling 120 miles through the night from Grayling to Oscoda. The week before the race was filled with smaller races and events leading up to the grand finale: the greatest non-stop canoe race in the U.S. While there are much longer and arguably more challenging annual canoe races around the world, the AuSable River Canoe Marathon provides a surreal experience beyond the race itself for paddlers and spectators alike. Here's why it is the greatest canoe race in the U.S.
I arrived in Grayling early to partake in the festivities before the start of the race, scheduled for 9 p.m. Yep, PM. Twelve hours before paddlers hit the water, spectators were setting up lawn chairs and laying down blankets to reserve the best viewing spots on the small grassy hill overlooking the narrow river and boardwalk where the racers would start that night. The spectators seemed as competitive as the racers themselves, staking out their territory and squatting there all day to ensure they had the best view for the short (less than two minutes) but entertaining start of the race.
"Hup! All! Night!" echoed over the entire city. Hundreds of people chanted in unison while a quarter-mile away the teams lined up (in order of their time trial the day before) down the street. A loud horn blew over the cheers from the crowd to mark the start of the race. Paddlers lunged forward into a sprint, carrying their boats and bumping into other racers and canoes on their frantic run to the boardwalk. Spectators waited in anticipation, watching for the first racers to turn the corner and b-line for the boardwalk.
Standing in the thick of the crowd cheering, I eyed the boardwalk and the herd of paddlers and boats racing toward it. The sun had just sunk beneath the horizon. There was a four-foot drop from the top of the wooden walkway to the river, and the river was about a foot or two deep at best. The stampede of racers approached the river before I had time to wrap my head around the logistics and liabilities involved in the perilous launch site. The first team ran onto the boardwalk and flawlessly jumped off the ledge into the shallow water with their boat, got in, and took off downstream before the inevitable canoe jam ensued. Some teams jumped right into the river while others carefully sat on the edge of the boardwalk and gently hopped down to the river. For one team, the person in the bow jumped down while the person in the stern stood on the boardwalk, hesitant to make the leap. Their boat slammed hard against the edge of the walkway, causing the crowd to 'ooo' and 'ahhh' at their mishap. In what seemed like seconds, all the canoes had disappeared into the night down the shallow winding river.
The race has a reputation of being the 'world's toughest spectator race'. After the start, spectators quickly scrambled out of town to catch the racers in action. Novice spectators hopped from bridge to bridge throughout the night while more veteran viewers visited less obvious viewpoints on the river to cheer on the paddlers. I parked my car behind the long line of vehicles pulled over on the street for the second viewpoint, Stephan's Bridge, and walked about half a mile to the river. There were already a hundred people or so on the bridge waiting for the first canoe to pass underneath. Though the moon was bright, organizer pointed a large light at the water for better visibility. Most people stared at their phones, intently watching the race map, with GPS tracking for each boat, and leaderboard. "They're coming!" someone yelled from the bridge. Everyone went silent. The water level seemed to rise, as if the paddlers were pushing a wall of water in front of them. The first team appeared, moving at a solid 9 mph. I tried to take a picture on my phone, but what appeared was only a blur of color: They were there and gone in an instant. Many teams chose this spot as a 'pit stop' where their support team waited and waded into the river to throw snacks and water into their team's canoe as it sped past. To differentiate support teams, some people wore neon headpieces and signs with their team's number illuminated with LED lights.
"You're in the way! Get out of the middle of the river!" A woman yelled from the top of the bridge. The crowd began rally with her, upset at a support team that had apparently waded too far out into the water. I left just as they broke out into a yelling match — the competition was heated, both on and off the water.
Many spectators followed the race throughout the entire night without sleeping. I caught some shut-eye at a campsite on a wider stretch of the AuSable near Cooke Dam and awoke to "Hup! Hup!", the sound of the first racers passing by. They had been 'hup' all night and finally had the sun to light their way. I waded into the water to watch and cheer them on before heading to the finish line in Oscoda, where paddlers would arrive as early as 11 a.m. and as late as 4 p.m.
OBSTACLES & CHALLENGES
The first stretch of the race on the AuSable River leaving Grayling is narrow, winding and shallow. Before the race, I kayaked the first eight miles to scope it out. I beached on a few turns, maneuvered around old fishing weirs (in the daytime, mind you!), and occasionally scraped over rocks through very shallow stretches. I did not envy the racers who would have to navigate those waters in carbon-fiber canoes at night.
There are six dams along the route from Grayling to Oscoda, where the river flows into Lake Huron. Paddlers have to portage around these large and potentially dangerous obstacles, usually in a sprint while quickly consuming snacks and slamming liquids. The current is weaker around the dams, forcing paddlers to power through bathtub after bathtub before getting to a narrower and faster section of river: the last push into Oscoda.
Enough said — 14 to 19 hours of paddling as fast and as hard as you can (see race results here). The AuSable River Marathon is longest nonstop, canoe-only race in North America and the second race in the Triple Crown of Canoe Racing, a series of three races throughout the summer: The Clinton Regatta in NY, paddling 70 miles non-stop on the Susquehanna River, The AuSable River Marathon, paddling 120 miles nonstop, and the La Classique near Quebec, paddling 125 miles on the St. Maurice River over three days (with stops).
Beyond the thrills of hosting the greatest race, the AuSable River is a destination for paddlers and fishermen/women across the country. The river boasts high water quality, lush scenery, amazing recreational opportunities, a coldwater fishery, and a 23-mile stretch designated as Wild and Scenic. Grayling and Oscoda both have outfitters and provide modern comforts like lodging, food, and activities on land, connected by pristine wilderness and primitive camping opportunities in between. Come for the race. Stay for the river.