It all started on a summer day in 1947 and was simply known as “The Marathon” with canoers in wooden boats and massive, clunky paddles used to navigate the splendors of the Au Sable River.
There was little fanfare, nobody had any idea what to expect. What was clear: There were no expectations there would be another, let alone it would become a signature event that would one day celebrate a 75th anniversary. But this summer, it will do just that; festivities will take place the weekend of July 29 and 30, 2023.
The Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon has been churning out memories in northern Michigan for decades. Hundreds have accepted the daunting challenge of taking a plunge into the Au Sable River. They participate as a rite of passage into a close-knit club, to the delight of thousands who have converged on Grayling and Oscoda and communities in between to witness a race known as “The World’s Toughest Spectator Race.”
“This unique race attracts many from around the country and the world,” said Phil Weiler, an event organizer. “And the 75th anniversary is a testament to the thousands of people who have been involved in this race, whether they were a sponsor, participant, feeder, spectator or organizer. And 75 years from now, I am confident this race will be even bigger.”
More than 100 teams are expected to take their shot at the 120-mile race from Grayling to Oscoda. The goal? That depends on the participant. Some will try to dethrone the defending champions — Steve Lajoie and Guillaume Blais, who both live in Canada. Last year was Lajoie’s 12th title and the first for Blais, who reached the finish line in not long after 14 ½ hours.
Others are shooting for a Top 10 or 5 finish. And some, especially those in their first year, are hoping to simply finish the 120-mile trek to Oscoda.
Weiler, who has volunteered at the event since 1985, said every year the battle is the same: it’s every person against the Au Sable River.
In 2022, the start of the race was in jeopardy due to a massive tree falling across part of the race’s course.
“You never know what challenges the weekend will bring,” Weiler said.
“The Au Sable River can definitely humble you at any moment. And what will add to the anticipation this year is we expect a wide-open field because we expect a few canoers to come out of retirement to say they participated in the 75th anniversary,” said Weiler.
Danny Medina of Homer, who raced with Colin Hunter of Grayling in 2022, and Lynne Witte of Cheboygan, who raced with Andrew Weeks of Battle Creek in 2022, agree with that assessment.
“It’s a beast of a course, no doubt about it” said Medina, who has participated in 10 AuSable canoe marathons and many other marathons all over the country. “You really have to be on your game just to finish it. And that’s no small feat.”
Witte, who has participated in 42 consecutive AuSable canoe marathons, said she has seen it all during the race, including major changes in the canoes that were wooden when she started racing in 1980, and competing against the children and grandchildren of people she raced against in the 1980s. However, a few things remain the same.
“To expect the unexpected,” she said. “The weather is so unpredictable. Hail, rain, too humid or seeing your breath. We pretty much see it all. And there’s no telling how the Au Sable River will be flowing at the end of July. But one thing is certain: These races always produce some great memories for all involved. I have my share.”