Al Widing Sr. was the type of guy who bristled when people called him tough. "'Tough' is meat you can't chew," Widing, who was ironically a lifelong vegetarian, once told a reporter.
The retired contractor also recoiled at the adulation he garnered for his enduring passion for marathon canoe racing. "We call him 'Amazing Al', but he hasn't embraced the nickname," said Ryan Matthews, a volunteer organizer of Michigan's 120-mile AuSable Canoe Marathon, in which Widing raced an astounding 41 times, in a 2013 interview. "He always said he is just an average guy who likes to paddle. But, there is no denying that what he does at this age is amazing."
Now, the marathon canoe racing community is mourning the loss of Widing, who passed away on Jan. 11 at the age of 92. He lived near Mio, Mich., on the banks of his beloved AuSable River, where canoe racers paddle from Grayling to Oscoda in a brutal one-day sufferfest each July. Widing started his final AuSable marathon in 2014, at age 89. Right up until his last race, photos of the wiry competitor capture a modern-day voyageur: Compact, sinewy and bronzed. Yet Widing is a legend most remembered for his humility and quiet kindness.
"He went about [racing] in the most under the radar way possible," says Steve Southard, a volunteer organizer of the AuSable Canoe Marathon since 1983. "For most people, competing in and finishing this race is a huge deal, and as it should be. It's a milestone for most folks. For Al, it was quite the opposite."
In a profile for Canoe & Kayak, Widing recalled his first canoe as "a 16-footer that we bought from some old farmer, sitting out in his field." The wood-and-canvas craft cost Widing and his brother, Roy, $25. They paddled it in the 1955 AuSable marathon, making it all of 14 miles down the rock-strewn river before bowing out. "We had put a good hole in the bottom," said Widing in a 2013 interview. "There was water all around our feet."
That was all it took to launch a lifetime of competitive paddling. Widing finished the 1956 marathon, beginning a pro racing career that spanned a remarkable seven decades. He raced far beyond the borders of his home state. Widing won the grueling 260-mile Texas Water Safari in 1964 and 1965, and competed in the Triple Crown of canoe racing—consisting of New York's General Clinton Canoe Regatta, the AuSable, and Quebec's La Classique stage race—in 18 consecutive years, an unprecedented feat.
Regarding his home race in northern Michigan, Widing said, "I finished second three times. We just about tasted a win so I'm satisfied…well, I shouldn't say satisfied. It's been a big part of my life." At age 74, Widing claimed a senior division record, finishing the 1999 AuSable with his partner, Robert Bradford, in 15 hours and 22 minutes.
Widing raced with 21 different partners, including his son, Al Jr. Father and son raced together for the first time in the 1970 AuSable Marathon, when Al Jr. was 17 years old. Their final race together was in 2014—the year in which their combined age totalled 150 years. At the time, 61-year-old Al Jr. said, "I can't think of anything more special to me than paddling the AuSable Marathon one more time with my dad."
Southard describes Widing as "a close friend and a life's mentor." He recalls learning about Widing's service as a gunner in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, aboard the USS Aaron Ward (DD-773/DM-34). The destroyer turned minelayer was part of an intense 1945 sea battle chronicled in the book Brave Ship, Brave Men by Arnold S. Lott. Widing's gun station on the vessel was destroyed during one of six kamikaze strikes. "Al told us that he was knocked unconscious from the blast and when he came to, he found that the full beard he had sported had been burned off, and that his life vest (which he had fastened up completely) was split wide open and all the stuffing was exposed," recalls Rich Rowbotham, Widing's son-in-law. "He told us, through misty eyes, that his shipmate next to him had not fastened up his vest and that his body had suffered the same damage as Al’s vest."
"Long story short, he lived through hell," adds Southard. "Paddling the marathon was no big deal."
Southard predicts that the 2018 AuSable Canoe Marathon, scheduled for July 28, will be a big deal. "It's going to be a celebration of Al," he says. "Not only of his individual example, but what he did for the sport overall."
"He was the kind of guy who wouldn't want to be the stuff of legends," said Sean Casey, a canoe racer who partnered with Widing in several Triple Crown events, in a recent newspaper article. "But it's probably going to happen anyway. He deserves to be remembered."
— Watch the Al Widing Sr. playlist on YouTube
— See a summary of Al Widing Sr.'s race results in the AuSable Canoe Marathon
— Follow the AuSable Canoe Marathon on Facebook
More at CanoeKayak.com:
— Photo book: The 2011 AuSable Canoe Marathon
— Inside the Texas Water Safari