Updated: Mar 31, 2020
The great debate amongst Michigan paddlers inevitably ends up being this...Which timing point is the most critical in the AuSable River Canoe Marathon? You can slice this however you like. Personally, I think it depends on what your goals are. Someone looking to win the race is going to approach things a bit differently than someone just trying to finish. If I had to pick one segment...it’s this one. Burton’s Landing to Stephan Bridge. After you pass the road end at Burton’s, you’ll find the main crowd gathered on river right crowding around the actual canoe landing. As you make the left hand turn in front of the crowd, there’s a shallow gravel patch perfect for lifting the boat. If you’re a light team, or able to pop a boat and get it to run in shallow water you’ll love this segment. If you’re heavier...or can’t get the boat to lift. It’s going to be a long four and a half miles. So here we go. The first few corners are relatively straight forward. There’s isn’t anything overly technical about them. Focus on smoothness and carrying speed through the corners. A few bends down you’ll see a small patch of earth creating an option to cut left. If you’re looking to advance a spot dive in, carry your speed through the left hand turn and gain the ideal spot on the left side for the bottleneck created by the tree in the river ahead. On extreme river left there’s an opening. Win the race to the opening, gain the position. There is a small hole to the right of the main opening. Depending on river depth, team weight etc this is a viable option. Keep turning, and next thing you know you’re paddling under a footbridge over the river. As soon as you pass the footbridge you’ll come to Louie’s Landing on river right. One of the aspects of the early portions of this race is that you’re constantly paddling amongst a feverish cult of fans. They will fill front yards and road landings, all for a chance to catch a glimpse of the race. Maneuver your craft towards river right and shoot a narrow opening. If you haven’t already, there’s a semi-straight open area that works nicely for clicking on the light. Darkness is coming. Depending on how fast you’re going, it may already be here. I could go on a monumental rant about lights at this point. But I won’t. We’ll save that for a little bit further down river. More people clamoring and cheering as you’ve hit Keystone landing. You’ve probably noticed a multitude of different lines here and there, with some teams taking slightly different approaches to each area. I’m sure there’s a right way to do it. That said, I’m not sure I’ve got it, let alone the ability to describe the right way to do it. Remember that bit about this being the most important stretch of river? I’m of the mindset that this is it. I just haven’t figured out the best way to get through it. That said, what I do know is this. Go with the flow. Rebecca Davis nailed it. “Don’t over think the line. If it looks right, it probably is.” Now...it’s time for a little pucker up factor. You’ve bounced off things on the sides. You’ve felt that thud against the bottom of the boat. And you’re finally here. The whirlpool curves, a series of wicked sharp (channeling my east coast accent) switchbacks in the river each with a savage eddie on the inside. When I started paddling in 2014, Chris Kucherek took me out a couple days after the Marathon on a Town to Thendara run. He specifically wanted to show me how he ran these curves. I’ll never forget it. The boat moved in ways I didn’t think was possible, my hips hurt and I may have had a small heart attack. We cruised into Thendara and Chris looked back from the bow smiling. “That’s how I run those corners” I could go on for hours with Whirlpool (Grayling version not Oscoda version we’ll get to those in a couple months) stories. The time I tried to ride a C2’s side wake in my C1 through them. Or the time a former champion made one of the most insane passes I’ve ever experienced. I still don’t have the confidence to fly through them like Kucherek...Grayling born and raised. It’s dark now. Hopefully you’ve stayed relaxed. But Bill, you just told us about the Whirlpool, and there’s been things bumping off the side and bottom of the boat for the last 30 minutes. Stay calm. Relax. It’s absolutely critical. Motion sickness of some degree may start to kick in during that transition period from dusk to dark. Tensing up makes it worse. Remember that rant about lights? It’s time. Let’s do it. First...don’t be the paddler with the mega high lumen brighter than the sun piece on the bow of their canoe. Being able to see is important. Anecdotally though, too bright appears to be making people sick. Yep, you read that correctly...too bright. Not too dim. 2018 was an absolutely brutal night for many paddlers. The moon was larger than normal compounded with an absolute arms war in regards to high power candles. Second...don’t be the paddler that doesn’t turn his light off when other paddlers ask. Recognize that your light impacts the visibility of other paddlers. Come up with an easy way to turn your light on and off as needed. If the paddlers in the boat in front of you ask if you can dim the light or turn it off, do it. They may even ask if you’ll pass them to get away from the light. Whatever you do, proceed at your own risk if you disregard the request to dim the light or pass. Remember those things bumping the bottom of your boat? This stretch of river is full of fish beds with random spikes. You may find yourself guided right over top of one. Thing of lore? Nah. I’ve done it. The bow paddler in the boat riding our wave refused to dim the light or pass. And then he got snarky. We bumped the object slightly. The boat following hammered the bed and was out of the race shortly after. Illness. Motion sickness to be specific. I’m guessing that big light on the bow. Of course the gash in the bottom of their boat probably didn’t help either. You’ve been warned. On the other side of the coin, practice good sportsmanship and warn others around you of debris. Look, you’re not going to win the AuSable River Canoe Marathon. Everyone is trying to get to Oscoda. Work together and survive the night. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone hit something. We all train hard in preparation of Marathon night. I’ve never felt as bad as I did during a short night training run. The week of the Marathon, guiding an out of state team through the Burton’s Landing to Stephan Bridge stretch. Look out on the left. Crunch. Inevitably, you’re going to connect with something here. This is the worst stretch for fish hides. Rebecca offers this advice: “If you’re going to hit something, lean/rudder with the current, not against it. Use the current to get away from the object, don’t cross the current trying to make a quick adjustment.”
At this point, you’re probably going...Bill...where’s the detailed course description. We need more “run the river on the left here, and the river on the left there. Cut this corner. Stay out on that corner.”
When I started drafting this segment of the river, I outlined the river bend by bend. Contacted Marathon historian Ryan Matthews for some stats. Lead the race at Stephan Bridge in the modern era, you’ve got something like 70%+ chance at winning the overall race. I was hoping this would prove my obsession that this stretch is the most important. It’s close, but not quite there. Had a great conversation with another highly analytical paddler about this stretch of river. His key to this stretch...a quiet boat. Which led to a different observation that he’d made when studying how paddlers approach this stretch.
The best paddlers on this stretch of the river struggle to describe how they paddle it. They don’t know how or why. It’s a mixture of instinct and learned conditioning. They don’t think about putting the boat here, or doing this there.
They simply do it.
No. You will not get a detailed turn by turn description here. Work your boat down a relatively straight stretch. Pass Hank Feldhauser’s house. And you’re there. A place that on the last Saturday in July 2015...changed my life. The place where I heard my nine year old daughter yelling as loud as possible “GO DADDY GO”. It didn’t matter that her paddling coach was the legendary Jeff Kolka- a guy that had won this race multiple times... and I...in my first attempt to finish was nearly the opposite. Current position 80th place of 84 entrants. In that moment we were equals.
She’s still my biggest fan.
And the reason I race.
Welcome to Stephan Bridge. The second timing point of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon.