In the summer of 2020, the morale and bottom line for many Northern Michigan businesses and residents was close to rock bottom.

They learned that the Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon, held annually the last week of July, was called off due to the global pandemic that was already wreaking havoc on them. And with that single announcement came the harsh reality that their piece of the pie from the $1 million economic windfall – projected annually by chambers and organizers from the marathon – vanished. That left many depending on the event, for a financial and psychological boost, devastated.

That includes businesses along the route of the 120-mile trek from Grayling to Oscoda ranging from restaurants and gas stations to hotels and campgrounds. Novelty businesses also shared in the mighty struggle.

Two years later, things are looking up for Northern Michigan after the race came back in 2021 and many are confident that momentum will continue into the 2022 marathon, held July 30-31.

Jason Sharpe of Roscommon is excited to have the race back on two counts: as a business owner and participant.

Jason and his wife Jessie own Two Rare Design, a print shop in Roscommon, that has had ties to the Marathon since it originally opened in 2014. They print custom apparel on items ranging from T-shirts, hoodies and hats to vinyl sponsor decals for marathon participants boats, in addition to the official Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon Competitor shirts. This year they were also given the opportunity to design and print limited-edition shirts in conjunction with the Marathon Committee and Paddle Hard Brewing Co. of Grayling, from which a portion of the sales will go toward supporting the race.

Jason and Jessie Sharpe, owners of Two Rare Design

“It hurt a lot of businesses missing out on that money in 2020 when the race was cancelled,” said Jason Sharpe, who plans to race in his second Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon. “It was like having snowmobile season with no snow.”

Sharpe said the Marathon helped jump-start his family business. Initially in 2014, they helped outfit and decal seven teams for the marathon. That will grow to about 30 teams this year.

“There were a lot of long nights in the beginning,” said Jason Sharpe. “But we got a better handle on things now. The Marathon has been a great thing for our family, our community and the rest of Northern Michigan.”

Over at Luzerne Express and Campgrounds, they are also delighted to have the race back. The grocery store is a popular destination for spectators the Saturday night of the race since it follows the path to the finish line in Oscoda.

Mark Pattullo, owner of the express mart and campgrounds, said they usually stay open until 10 p.m. on Saturdays, but race weekend they stay open until 2 a.m.

“It’s a nice shot in the arm for us,” Pattullo said. “It’s a great sight to see people with license plates from all over coming into our store. We have an extra register running that night with the extra traffic coming in. The race being back two years in a row has been great for business and the morale of our community. Hopefully the momentum will continue.”

Employees over at Northbound Outfitters, a Grayling business that sells items ranging from bicycles, canoes, cross country skis and outdoor clothing, notice a pick-up in energy in the community the week before the race.

“You can’t duplicate race week,” said Heather Compton, owner of Northbound Outfitters. “It’s the best week of the year in Grayling. Everything is super positive, it’s an energy that we thrive on.”

Compton said not having the race in 2020 was a tough blow to the community that it will never forgot. “The uniqueness it brings to town is remarkable,” she said. “Hopefully, we will never have that experience again of not having it. It’s become a huge part of who we are as a community.”