Andy Hall's First Ausable River Canoe Marathon
The below is from Canoeraceworlds' friend Andy Hall
I guess it was Transworld Sport in 1994 that first showed me the AuSable River Canoe Marathon (I thought it was earlier than that, but if it was I can find no references to it). I had been paddling since around 1983, and started paddling marathon canoes around 1985. Marathon canoeing in the UK was a very niche sport in those days, and I spent more of my time paddling canoe and kayak slalom. In 1989 I paddled the Devizes- Westminster in the UK as a junior, over 4 days, with my brother. That was probably the last year I paddled marathon canoe until 2009. I remember thinking that the AuSable looked pretty crazy when I saw the TV show, especially as I was used to paddling a 21’ ICF rules canoe that didn’t like to turn……
Fast forward to 2017 and the stories of the AuSable from Jeff DeFeo, Adam Gelinas (with whom I had done two Clinton’s) and Seth and Steve Miller (I had done a Clinton with each of them) had finally got to me and 2018 was going to be the year I finally made it to Michigan. Fate then took a hand and I partially tore my intercostal muscles falling cross country skiing and by the Rat Race (mid April) I couldn’t paddle. Thinking I still had time to get paddle fit once I had recovered from that I ran as much as was possible, but at the end of May I tore the labrum in my right hip and that was my season pretty much over and I had surgery to repair it in September.
After a slow recovery, I started paddling again just before Christmas and with a warm winter meaning the rivers didn’t freeze for long, some gentle XC skiing, and a trip to Florida for spring training, 2019 was going to be it! And then my left hip started hurting, though not as badly as the right one had. An MRI confirmed pretty much the same diagnosis as the right hip, but my surgeon said I was OK to paddle as I couldn’t make it any worse and the pain was manageable; AuSable seemed possible! A good spring season of paddling with Kevin Boss led to first place in the mens amateur race at the Clinton (though we were beaten by a young mixed crew) and I finished without any lasting injuries. Kevin and I had tentatively agreed to race the AuSable if we made it through the Clinton OK, but too much work had caught up with him so he had to bow out. Now the hunt was on for a partner, preferably a rookie, 2 weeks before the second entry deadline. After a couple of no’s, a maybe that became a no, a possibly if my other option doesn’t pan out, Patrick Madden suggested I ask Rod McLain. Rod had started the race in 2016 but had to drop out when his partner got injured, so he was a half rookie as he hadn’t paddled the second part of the race – close enough for me! So I asked, and he thought about it for a day and then said no – too many last minute moving parts. 20 minutes later the questions started – got a pit crew? Ever paddled a Corbin 95? Would you want to do Spikes? Where is my GPS? Does my light system work? etc. etc. 4hrs later, after answering his own questions; Me -“So I take it that the answer is yes?” Rod –“yeah, you ruined my retirement” – we were racing!
My first view of the AuSable River was in the pre-dawn light on the morning of Spikes, the Sunday before the Marathon, having just driven out through the night. It was pretty dark and misty at the Old Ausable Fly Shop, and I remember thinking that is not a big river and that jump off the dock doesn’t look inviting. A good breakfast and plenty of coffee later, I met up with Rod who was racing Spikes (the first 3 hours of the marathon course) and headed back to the river. After watching the start of Spikes (the jump from the dock didn’t look so bad in the daylight) I was fortunate enough to borrow a C1 from Trevor Robinson and had my first paddle down the river in the company of some C2’s containing many time finishers of the race, Gloria Wesley and Holly Reynolds, Gary Aprea and Nick Lyesiuk, and Trevor and Tom Trudgeon. Whilst the river is shallow, twisty and small at the start, it is a whole lot of fun as well (just keep your eyes open for underwater obstructions – more on these later!).
The week before the big race was spent paddling sections of the river in daytime and in the dark, and finishing setting up the boat. We competed in the Dash for Cash sprints at the marathon finish line in Oscoda on Tuesday night, having scouted some of the cuts on the ponds enroute from Grayling. Our sprint for our position on the start line of the big race was on Thursday evening, and we did a few practice runs on Wednesday afternoon, finally getting the buoy turn at the top right after a number of attempts. Turning an 18’-6” canoe round quickly in a river that is less than 25’ wide is a bit tricky, especially given the current where the buoy is set and the dock that is right next to the approach. Turn too early and you risk missing the buoy; turn too late and stern is in the current and the water is deeper for the stern guy which, as the accepted approach is for the stern paddler to jam their paddle into the river bottom, means it is much harder to achieve the turn.
Thursday dawned, the day of our sprint. After a relaxing morning we headed down to the river to do a few practice buoy turns before the sprints started. Our sprint was scheduled for shortly after the start of another race, a C1 race for the pit crew members, so we did an early warm up and then waited around to get on the water before our actual sprint. 3 boats sprinted before we were up. The starters were great, going through the rules and making jokes to keep us from getting too nervous. 3, 2, 1 and we were off….. For the upstream leg it is necessary to keep out of the current as much as possible, so you hug the shore as close as you can. The water is generally shallow so paddling is a mixture of paddling and poling off the bottom, and when you are paddling your paddle is often hitting bottom. The upstream went well apart from getting a little too close to the shore along one section where there was cribbing. The top turn was almost perfect, with me getting a good firm plant of the paddle on the bottom of the river to push the back of the boat upstream and back toward the dock while the current pushing on the front of the boat and Rod’s post pulled the bow downstream. Looking back at a video of our turn I should have held the push a little longer, as Rod had to put in a draw to make sure the bow was fully downstream, but we were off cleanly and quickly without getting too close to the far shore. A big hard effort downstream, using the current as best possible, and we finished with a time of 5:33 and change, which was good enough to put us in the top 15 at the end of the day.
After a late night Thursday, shuttling cars for a night paddle by other teams, I spent some of Friday repairing one of the three boats that got damaged during the night paddle. As I mentioned previously, there are a lot of obstacles in the river. The AuSable river is considered one of the premier trout fishing rivers east of the Rockies so trees that fall into the river are often left where they land as habitat, and manmade structures known as fish hides (constructed from logs with steel rebar to anchor them to the bottom of the river) are added. Fish hides are of varying heights; some are underwater and some stick out of the water – the former are sometime tricky to spot and hitting them can result in a swim, boat damage, or both sometimes. Further down the river there are areas of stumps in some of the ponds, the remnants past logging activities and in the final section there are pilings lurking just below the surface in places. My friends Steve and Seth Miller had hit one of the hides and ripped a 2’ long gash in the bottom of their boat, and I was enlisted to repair it. Thankfully they had access to an orbital sander as hand sanding a repair wouldn’t have been good preparation for the race the next day! The other two boats that were damaged were apparently worse off but were also repaired in time for the race. Friday afternoon saw the conclusion of the sprints for starting position. There were a number of fast teams, and we ended up getting pushed back to 21st position, and Row 5, for the start.
Race day dawned dry and cool but with a forecast of storms later in the day and a clear warm night. We cleared out of our accommodation for the week and moved to our sponsors “man-cave” to avoid the crowds and finish pre-race food and drink prep. The race starts at 9pm, but competitors have to be introduced to the crowds at the start from 7pm onwards. From 6:30 on we were on the street near the put-in, trying to find shade from the sun and drinking plenty of water. Once the paddler introductions were completed, we picked up our boats from where they were quarantined after a coast guard safety check and attachment of the GPS tracker. After installing our light system and putting drinks and some food in the boat, we walked it to our start position on the road through the gathering crowds. It is crazy how many spectators come to watch the start of the race, but so cool that they do! A quick run to warm up and some stretching and it was approaching 9pm and the start…. and the clouds were gathering and looking ominous. Oddly I really didn’t feel that nervous – more a case of slightly detached from the whole experience.
9pm and all was quiet on the street; paddlers were set, with their hands on the carry handles of their boats, the crowd was silent; the starting cannon (? I don’t remember what the starting signal was!) sounded and we were off through a wall of noise heading for the river. I don’t know how many teams ran past us on the start – we weren’t moving slowly but some teams were flat out sprinting. Looking back at videos we appear to be in about 30th place at the final turn off the road and to the dock alongside the river. With the first teams having got into their boats and gone, we were able to run most of the way down the dock and get a clean jump into the river, scramble into the boat and we were off in the waves and chaos that is the start of the course.
The first few minutes, down to the interstate bridge, were chaos with boats everywhere. We were passing people, people were passing us, waves everywhere. I recall having to do a bunch of steering to avoid crashes, but also a lot of sprinting to try and get clear of other teams. Fans lined the banks in sections, yelling encouragement and positions, not that I recall any of what was said. Somewhere in the midst of this, thunder started crashing and rain started falling, and whilst the rain didn’t last long there was lightning and thunder for a while.
Things settled down after the interstate bridge, and we set to chasing and passing boats. By Burtons we were in 27th place, and by Stephans we were 24th. Somewhere in here it got dark, so the light went on and I quickly discovered that the GPS that was mounted in front of me, low in the boat, was really distracting despite being set on the lowest backlight setting I could use. After a while I decided that there were generally enough boats around that would lead us where we needed to be, so I took off my hat and covered it up for a while. When we ended up on our own I would uncover it for a while, especially if I thought there was a cut coming up, but we ran a lot of the night without the GPS just reading the river as best we could.
I don’t recall exactly where, but somewhere between Burtons and Stephans we were following another boat, but apparently not quite closely enough, as they kept going and we ended up grounded on a fish hide. An impact, lots of screeching noises from the bottom of the boat and we were stationary in the middle of the river. We quickly jumped out onto the hide, put the boat back into the deeper water and got back in. I wasn’t fully in the boat as we tried to paddle away and I quickly discovered my foot was wedged between a couple of logs and we had to stop and back up to free it before we were off for real. One boat passed us while we were in this situation, but thankfully we got away without any real damage. The only real issue we had following this was that I lost one of my foot straps – I kicked the clamp that holds it round the bar and try as I might I couldn’t get it to slide back round. This tormented me for a while, as I pull on the straps with my toes to help control leans, etc. but in the end I resigned myself to the fact that I would be without the strap until the first portage, at Mio.
At our first pit, Town Line, our very capable pit crew of Rusty McLain and Chip Loring got us our drinks and food cleanly and we were settled in to a groove. We kept the grind going and we were feeling good, clicking off the miles and getting the full race experience with spectators cheering us on from camps along the river, flashes of lightning in the distance, catching occasional glimpses of boats in front of us that were slowly getting closer. McMasters passed with deafening crowds and blinding light and we disappeared into the darkness again right behind Jon Web and Charles Darchen, who we passed shortly thereafter. Somewhere approaching Parmalee we caught a boat, and quickly, which was a surprise. It was the Pellerin brothers who were having boat trouble and ended up pulling out of the race there. We paddled straight past Parmalee, not realizing it was the pit until it was too late, but neither of us felt the need to pull over as we both had food still and with it not being too hot I, for one, hadn’t been drinking that much. Somewhere around here our main light started to die. Rod switched it down to a lower setting to try to conserve batteries but it didn’t last and we were running on our dim reserve light, but thankfully catching boats and were with Tim Sheldon and Anthony Massicotte through the Mio cuts. We got a great grind on heading out across Mio Pond toward Camp 10 and caught Adam and Sarah Lessard at the bridge and, lacking any real source of light, stuck to the stern of Tim and Anthony through the stump field. We caught the boats of Rebecca and Edith, and Bill Torongo and Ray Trudgeon as we were heading for the dam and after riding for a bit pulled them all to the portage.
Getting out at the portage, after 5 hrs 40 minutes was not graceful, and as we were picking up the boat and getting ready to try to run Rebecca and Edith and Tim and Anthony sprinted past us and off into the distance, shortly followed by Bill and Ray. We got to the end of the portage just as Bill and Ray were setting off, but messing with our light we lost any chance of a ride and we set off into the dark running on our reserve light and in 20th place. Thankfully the sky was clear and with a new moon there was some light to let us see the treeline and get a clue as to where we should be on the river. We would occasionally get a little light from Adam and Sarah’s light, way behind us but oh so bright, and would catch glimpses of the boats that were ahead. After hitting something in the river, Rod decided that we needed light and paused to change the batteries in the light, and things went better for a while until it again started to die. We concluded there must have been a short in the system somewhere and resigned ourselves to paddling the river, most of which I had never been on and Rod had only paddled once on his previous attempt in 2016, by the moonlight.
I don’t recall much else about the section from Mio to Alcona other than concentrating hard to make out the river banks, determine what seemed to be the best line and looking out for potential obstacles. I was using the GPS some down this section but given the lack of any other light it was messing with my night vision so I kept it covered except when I had any doubts as to where we should be heading. I also recall seeing shooting stars – or was I just seeing things? Approaching Alcona we were gaining on another boat and, best of all, it was getting light which gave us another boost as we could see the best lines again.
Alcona came and went too quickly – it was nice to be out of the boat for a bit – but back onto the water to continue to chase down the boat we had been gaining on. Pretty soon we caught up with Bill and Ray and rode them for a bit. Every time we tried to move up to pull them for a bit they would sprint, or head off on a different line to the one we wanted. After 15 or 20 minutes of this we just decided to go for it and pulled ahead. Shortly after we got to the Timewarp cut at Loud Pond and after checking the GPS we confirmed with Ray and Bill that it was indeed open and we headed in. We were pulling away from them slowly, and could see the open water at the end, when I realized that they were no longer behind us. I checked the GPS; nope, we were on the line, so where had they gone. We headed out into the pond, aiming for another couple of boats that were in the distance, and soon realized that they had gone round the back of another island and we were struggling in suck water. We upped the effort and made the pass stick and put a minute on them by the dam for 18th place at this point.
I think we paid for our efforts on Loud Pond, as we were relatively slow on the short paddle between Loud and Five Channels Dam. It could however have been down to the need to eat, and the can of Starbucks Double Shot Espresso (which tasted oh so good after a night of drinking Skratch) that I drank 2 sips at a time and would put in the bottom of the boat, balanced precariously, between each drink. Five Channels came and went and we were into the Cooke cuts. We had scouted this earlier in the week and so were ready for the weeds that come with taking them (these cuts take a fair distance off the route of the main channel, but are shallow and cut through beds of reeds that also contain branches and stumps). Thankfully the boats in front of us had started to carve a path through so we caught less weeds on the bow than we had in training, and had an obvious track through rather than having to rely on the GPS. Jon and Charles caught us somewhere in here, and we worked together riding the stern wave for a couple of rotations of 5 mins. The third time they took the front they took off and we didn’t have the speed to stay with them and we dropped back to 19th place, where we would remain until the finish. We kept grinding along, enjoying the deep water and the lack of any noticeable wind, thanking the marshal boats that were out on the pond for being there and getting cheered on by spectators at waterside camps.
Cooke dam is steep! We got out and headed over the lip, and Rod took off with the boat down the slope with me doing my best to keep up. We put on about 30s behind Jon and Charles, and attempted to chase them down Foote pond, but they were just steadily pulling away the whole way. We were again in unpaddled territory for us, so having a boat in front and the GPS track to follow made us relatively confident of our lines and ensured that we didn’t miss the cuts. No one was in sight behind as we approached Foote dam so we felt pretty confident that we weren’t going to be caught, and similarly no-one was in sight as we got back on the water so the chance of us catching a boat in front was slim, but we kept pulling as hard as we could in the hope that someone ahead might fade.
The last section down to Oscoda and the finish went slowly. We ran with the current on many of the bends, as the shallow water on the insides felt like too much work for our tired bodies whereas we could just keep grinding in the deeper water and maintain the boat speed. The land got flatter around the river, and it seemed like the end should be close, but it took a long time to get to the railroad bridge which is the first sign of getting close to town. We upped our effort a bit from here, knowing that the finish was getting close, passing under the highway bridge and finally rounding the bend toward the finish where we could hear music playing and hear the commentary. The final straight, that we had sprinted down on Tuesday evening, seemed to take a long time but then we were there – 120 miles in 15:23:36 and we were in the top 20! I don’t really recall my emotions immediately after finishing, other than being glad that we had finished and that it was over. My butt was hurting, my wrist (which had been hurting since Mio) was really sore and I was just totally beat. A quick dip in the river at the end and chocolate milk from race crew soon perked me up a bit though.
I think I was still on a high from finishing, as I was unable to sleep that afternoon when the rest of our crew was napping in the van. I hung out around the finish line, congratulating other teams I knew that had just finished and exchanging tales of the race with them and their pit crews, until it was time to head for the awards dinner.
The time I spent in Michigan, and the ARCM, was a great experience that I will be certain to return to next year. It wouldn’t have been possible without my partner Rod (100% Good to Go) McLain and our expert pit crew of Rusty and Chip who willingly waded into the river in the middle of the night to feed us – thanks again to them. Thanks also to Gary and Taylor McLain for their assistance and encouragement during the race, and to the NY crew at the Woodlands for everything. To all of the dedicated volunteers who work throughout the year and put on the race, many many thanks. It obviously takes a lot of work, and is something that you should be very proud of!