The third time proved to be the charm for Wesley Dean in his quest for his first championship at the Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon.

All it took was unwavering self-confidence in chasing a dream, timely paddling and talent mixed with experience. Of course, teaming up with legend Steve Lajoie didn’t hurt his chance. Lajoie, after all, has been a “king maker” these days in the canoe racing world. Lajoie and Dean made up one of the record 110 teams that participated in the 75th anniversary event.

In 2021 and 2022, Dean finished second in the race with two different partners leaving him questioning when it would be his turn to take home the coveted trophy. That turned out to be this year when the duo defeated hard-charging Christophe Proulx of Shawinigan, QC, and Ryan Halstead of Grayling.

“I’ve been dreaming about this my whole life,” said Dean moments after crossing the finish line as he leaned on his brother Griffin for support in walking to the trophy presentation. Dean was visibly exhausted from the 120-mile trek from Grayling to Oscoda.

“And for it to come true today,” he said shaking his head as a strong contingent of about 60 families and friends swarmed him to congratulate him. “It really hasn’t sunk in yet. It may take a little while.”

Lajoie, from Mirable, QC, won his 13th title and has now won back-to-back Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathons. He won the title in 2022 with Guillaume Blais of Saint-Boniface, QC. Blais finished third this year with Mike Davis of Homer.

“We proved to be a good match,” said Lajoie. “Wes earned this title every step of the way in this race. He’s a great paddler. I get more of a thrill seeing him win a title then winning one for myself. It means way more to get somebody their first one.”

Tradition and Self-belief

The Marathon has grown into an event steeped in tradition and predicated on self-belief.  It’s been a summer attraction that has had its share of thrills, spills and stories that will be passed down generations. And this year’s festivities didn’t disappoint, as it continues to be a race for everyone with a new record number of female paddlers, mixed teams, veterans, and states being represented.

The event is growing, as evidenced by having four paddlers from Australia and the first ever paddlers from Germany, Utah and Louisiana.

Award winners, who won brand new trophies awarded by Consumers Energy include:

Mixed Team Champions: Michael Schlimmer of Cortland, N.Y., and Eve Chamberland of Shawinigan, QC

All Women Champions:  Lydia Huelskamp of San Marcos, TX, and Kaitlin Mynar, San Marcos, TX.

Chamberland and Schlimmer said they decided to team up for the race after a series of text exchanges that they would be a good fit. They turned out to be prophets.

“This is such a great feeling,” said Chamberland, looking fondly at the trophy in her hand. “All the training paid off.”

Huelskamp said they had their eyes on other all women teams who were close to them at Mio Dam, hopeful they could pull out a victory

“To be considered in the same breath as some of the women who have won it in the past is such an honor,” she said.

Mynar, who decided to start her Marathon career after being a feeder for her husband and brother-in-law, agreed.

“This was an awesome experience that I will always remember,” Mynar said.

The Rookies

The common thread each Marathon has provided in its 75 years: there are those looking to win, those looking to break their previous best place or time. However, many are simply looking to finish.

Adam Blanchard of Salt Lake City, UT, and Ryan Ognibene of Louisville, CO, admitted they were true rookies in every sense of the word and fall under they hope to finish category.

“When somebody asked Ryan what type of boat we had, he said a black one,” said both with a laugh. “We may have some things to learn, but we are serious in our goal of wanting to finish this race.”

Their love for endurance sports brought them to Grayling after meeting at a competitive bike competition in Colorado.

“As a kid I must have come to Grayling about 20 times to see this race,” said Blanchard. “It’s been a dream of mine and what better way to do it then on its 75th anniversary.”

George Werderich, one of the youngest participants in this year’s race at 18, joined his father Wally for their first canoe race. Both considered a “dream moment.”

“I am getting goosebumps thinking about what is ahead,” said Wally, moments away from plunging into the Au Sable River. “We have been waiting for this for a while.”

George said he had butterflies since he didn’t know what to expect in the hours ahead.  

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” he said with a laugh.

Businesses Thrive

Bridget Harland, who has owned the Grayling Restaurant for nearly a decade, said marathon week and the weeks that bookend it are its busiest stretch of the year.

Each year the event brings in more than $1 million windfall for Northern Michigan. This year was no different, with streets and shoreline lined up with thousands of people trying to catch a glimpse of the race teams along the race’s path.

“It definitely helps gets us through the winter when it isn’t as busy,” said Harland who also helped run Spike’s Keg O’Nails for 10 years previously.

Since she has been so busy on race weekend, she has never seen the finish in Oscoda.

“Maybe one day when I retire,” she said with a chuckle. “I’ve learned that getting ready for each marathon you take it year by year and when the weekend finally arrives you adjust and take it hour by hour. All of them are special – as the years go by it always seems like the next one is right around the corner.”