As Steve Lajoie passed the finish line, he pumped his fist in the air then playfully splashed his jubilant partner with a paddle full of clear Au Sable River water.
That makes a dozen titles for Lajoie, of Quebec, who has been in 20 Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathons. It was the first for Guillaume Blais, also from Quebec.
“I am surprised how great it feels to have somebody win their first title with you” said Lajoie, who didn’t race in 2021 due to the pandemic. “It’s a two men boat … you help each other out during some difficult situations… I couldn’t do this with anybody else.”
Blais, who previously finished as high as second at the Marathon, said he had the perfect partner to put him over the top.
“It’s my first time with Steve … He’s a great partner,” said Blais, who made his sixth appearance in the race. “He knows what he’s doing, he’s a legend.”
Lajoie said a key to the win was building on a lead after Foote, the last dam on the 120-mile race to the finish line in Oscoda. Thousands of fans lined up along the Au Sable River in Grayling and Oscoda and at communities in between to root on the 93 teams that started the race.
“We took a little lead,” he said. “And we took a chance and went hard,” he said. “We just hammered down all the way, once we had a minute lead, we were pretty confident that it would last, but we didn’t take a chance and we kept paddling hard.”
While Blais and Lajoie made a triumphant return to the Marathon, the rookies were also the talk of the race, breaking the record for most teams composed of rookies and most individual rookies. One who shined the brightest was Dane Trudgeon, a 15-year-old from East Lansing.
A few years ago, Trudgeon asked his uncle Wes Willoughby, of Traverse City, to be his partner once he was the eligible age of 15. Willoughby kept his promise and joined forces with his nephew and finished 12th, an outcome that surprised both.
“I was really nervous,” said Trudgeon, who has watched and been a feeder at past events. “But I was able to calm down … It helped to see my family there at each of the pit stops.”
Willoughby said he’s been practicing with his nephew for the Marathon for the last decade. He said it only feels like yesterday when his nephew would mimic his movements in a plastic canoe in his driveway when he was just four years old.
“He’s come a long way,” Willoughby said. “If he chooses to, he has a great future in canoeing and at this race… He could be a future champ.”
Willoughby said it was difficult to tell Wes Dean, who he finished second with in 2021, that he was switching partners, which caused a domino effect on the composition of some of the top 2022 teams.
“He understood,” he said. “I had to do this with my nephew, today was the best moment of my life.”
Things turned out relatively well for both the nephew/uncle duo and Dean, who finished second with his partner and previous champion Ryan Halstead, of Grayling.
Dean said there was no shame in finishing second two years in a row, but it’s left him craving a shot at the title next year.
He said he will continue to search for answers on what he needs to do to join the rarified air of champions such as Halstead, Lajoie and now Blais.
“That’s the billion-dollar question,” said Dean, just after family and friends swarmed him and Halstead at the finish line after their latest feat. “But the great thing is that there’s always next year.”
Matt Meersman and Jorden Wakeley, who won last year’s race with the best time ever, finished third.
Meersman, who is the godfather of Trudgeon, yet another example of the ties that bind the Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon, said a repeat championship this year was something the duo desperately wanted and believed was in reach.
“We came out strong,” he said. “But we faced some tough competition… It just wasn’t meant to be for us this year.”