Minutes before 9 p.m. Saturday night, paddlers and fans eagerly awaited the blast of the starter gun in Grayling signifying the beginning of the 74th annual Consumers Energy Au Sable River Canoe Marathon.
Just about 24 hours earlier the race was in jeopardy. The weekend kicked off Friday evening during the first Au Sable River Adventure Race, also sponsored by Consumers Energy, which mimics the distance of Saturday’s race. Those who don’t want the high-pressure stakes of competing in Saturday’s Marathon now have this as an option and can use watercraft other than canoes. But things didn’t go quite as planned in the maiden voyage for two canoers.
The root of the problem: a 50-foot-tall tree crashed into the Au Sable River about 60 miles downstream from the start of the Marathon in Grayling – and about a mile downstream from Mio Dam, around the halfway point of the Marathon.
The tree covered almost two-thirds of the river from one bank to the other side. This set an emergency plan into motion to keep the Marathon on schedule and give the crowd of about 20,000 people what they came for – a 120-mile, all-night race of some of the world’s best canoe teams. Organizers said they dreaded having to make the unenviable decision to delay a few hours, postpone or even cancel the event.
“It could’ve been catastrophic if we didn’t find out when we did, thanks to the race the night before,” said Phil Weiler, an event spokesperson, adding canoers would have been going through that area at about 2 a.m. Even worse – there is no way some would have seen the fallen tree. “There was a great fear that a tough and unpopular decision might have to be made. But luckily calmer and cooler heads prevailed, and the show was able to go on.”
Tanya Rice and Frank Taber, both of Grayling, were paddling down the river when suddenly, they crashed into the tree at about the 58-mile marker of the Au Sable River.
“It really came out of nowhere,” she said. “It was jarring. We tried to push through the brush but to no avail.”
They had to abandon the canoe, which was firmly stuck in the tree, and each sat on separate sides of the bank waiting for help.
“It was pitch black, I mean pitch black – you couldn’t see anything – it was tough to see your hand in front of your face,” said Rice, who said she hit the GPS button that is on all canoes participating in races over the weekend to summon help.
No other traffic went through – Rice said she believed they were the last watercraft through, so it’s possible the tree fell down minutes before they hit it.
A boat with an Oscoda County sheriff’s deputy and someone from the Department of Natural Resources and rescued the duo, bringing them to safety.
“If we had to go through that to save somebody the next day – I’m good with that,” said Rice. “It stinks that we couldn’t finish the race, but there is always next year.”
Plan Prepares First Responders
Days before the race, first responders in the area gathered with Consumers Energy representatives and race organizers to go over last-minute details for the weekend.
“Thanks to the first responders working together, including the DNR, US Forest Service (USFS) Oscoda County Sheriff’s Department and canoe marathon organizers, the immediate danger was resolved safely,” said Rich Castle, Consumers Energy area manager for Northeast Michigan. “Whether we are restoring power or a sponsor of an event, public and employee safety is the No. 1 priority at Consumers Energy.”
As the clock ticked closer to race time, the next hurdle was somehow removing the tree from the river. Typically, when trees fall, they are left to be pushed down the river. That wasn’t an option on July 30.
Ever mindful of preserving Michigan’s natural landscape and wildlife, Castle went to plan B – working with land and natural resources officials.
Andy Vanderheuel, US Forest Service battalion chief, told him they would assist to ensure the event would go on.
“We knew we were facing a time crunch with the marathon start time closing in,” he said. “Our crew hiked about a mile through the forest to get to the tree.”
Once there, they realized another obstacle stood in their way. The nearby Hinchman Acres Au Sable Resort visitors were floating down the Au Sable River by the downed tree, making it impossible for the crew to safely remove the tree.
Castle got back on the phone with the owner of Hinchman Acres, who quickly helped clear the nearly 500 resort guests from the area for 30 minutes.
“That was big for us to get what we needed to have done safely,” Castle said. “We can’t thank Hinchman Acres enough for stepping up to make the race a reality, even though it temporarily affected their guests.”
After the forestry crew was cleared to proceed, they made quick work of cutting it into four sections. “The pieces were left on the bank near the water and, as nature intended, will drift down the river at some point. In fact, it’s good for the local habitat,” said Vanderheuel.
Justin Griffith, a marathon organizer, noted positives came from the averted crisis, including the GPS system locating Rice and her partner.
“That worked exactly the way it should for emergencies,” he said. “It pinpointed where they were, and they were able to be brought to safety.”
Rice said she was thankful the Marathon and Consumers Energy take public safety seriously. The ordeal has also strengthened her resolve to be in the Marathon next year.
“Something always sucks you back in and I will finish the race next year,” she said, adding she had to drop out of the 2019 Marathon within the first three hours due to a hole in her canoe. “Hey, as long as I survive, I can walk away as friends with the Au Sable River. It’s not my enemy.”