Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Every race has to start somewhere. The AuSable River Canoe Marathon starts on Peninsular Avenue in downtown Grayling. It’s a Le Mans style start that finds the fortunate running 300 yards, and the not-so-fortunate over 800, all while carrying their racing canoe and gear. It’s the most electric experience in competitive paddling, possibly the most electric moment for most athletes ever. The streets are lined with cheering fans. A right hand turn, followed by a quick dash, and then a left onto the storied boardwalk along the AuSable River. And then a leap down into the river bed below. For the top of the pack, the start is absolutely critical. Slow motion video analysis shows Andy Triebold taking his first stroke before his body is firmly planted in the seat of the canoe. Each year, the top paddlers place a large emphasis on running with the canoe, along with quickly getting in the cockpit and getting the boat moving. For the middle of the pack, the start is equally critical. A fast run to the river may allow you to transition up a row or two. The run then positions that team in a manner which enables them to ride the wake of the faster teams, sucking them out of town at a pace faster than that which they would normally be capable of. Further back, the run has less of an impact. Teams can finish the event with a slow run, or even a walk to the river. The AuSable is definitely a canoe race, not a foot race. Less experienced teams may intentionally start slower. The wakes and waves are not nearly as bad in the AuSable as the start of the Spike’s Challenge race, but they are still present. A tip at the beginning of the race makes for a rough start, in a waterlogged canoe with wet gear heading into the night. Dry and cautious is a viable start to the race, as it truly is not where you start, but where you finish at the AuSable. The first mile of the race course is a series of twists with shallow flats tossed between turns. Immediately below the bridge at Penrod's is the first of many cuts. It’s a tight narrow chute used by Penrod’s Canoe Livery to launch canoes in. Missing it is not the end of the world, but if you find yourself on river left, by all means shoot the small entrance if possible. The value of the cut is about two boat lengths, allowing a team to potentially make a pass, or drop the team behind them. The river narrows in spots below this, making passing difficult. The East Branch of the AuSable comes in on river left, shortly after teams approach a boat wrecker known as the "steel wall" or "iron bend". The turn is a hard right with a stiff current in the channel on river left. River left is lined with by the wall, with a cedar tree positioned in the way of teams that flirt with the wall staying in the channel. Rub the metal wrong and you’ll cut your boat less than a mile into the race. After the river straightens, you’ll approach the I-75 overpasses. Wave to the spectators on river left immediately up river of the first bridge. That’s my place. Slice of heaven for #Paddlewife, Bandit and family. Congratulations. You’ve survived the madness of the start. Take a deep breath, and decide to stay either extreme river left in the channel under the bridges, or mid-river right to try to pop the boat and sprint the shallows. The majority of the teams will stay left in the channel. The brave...opting middle right. If you can pop the boat, this is a great spot to pass. If you opt for the brave route, be sure to get back in the channel before you run out of momentum. The exit point is absolutely critical. Stay right too long...you’re probably going to give up any gains that may occur.
Which leads to a discussion around trying to shorten the river. Cut the corners- or don’t cut the corners. Former Marathon champion; Jeff Kellogg (Winner 1974-75) - "Don't try to cut all those corners short in first hours of the race when you're up in that narrow twisty part. You won't cut much distance and you'll wear yourself out. Wait until the North Branch comes in (below McMaster's Bridge) before you start cutting corners." Our friend Shawn Burke, Ph.D. from The Science of Paddling recently completed a fantastic piece on the subject, appropriately named “Cutting Corners”. He takes a deep look at the actual data behind corner cutting, developing a formula for when it’s appropriate, and when to stay in the deeper channel. Someone once asked me if I cut corners. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Water level, team strengths, and course position all play a part
Another few bends and you’re faced with a decision at the islands in front of Jansen’s place. Right. Left. Center. This is a team dependent decision, everyone having their own personal preference. Some teams will run only a set line. Others will use this spot to try to pass or advance their position. At the exit of the islands is Lucey’s house. Teams that do not run with their drinker will make arrangements at spots from this point down to grab jugs and supplies. It should be noted to take every “legal” cut between here and Burton’s Landing. None of them are critical, but missing one will result in a penalty of multiple positions lost. The cut at "Spider" is off limits and has been deemed illegal as well as the cut known as “Moose”. You’ll work your way through a couple more miles of random houses before entering the Rayburn’s stretch. The Rayburn’s property has approximately three miles of river with zero human development. You’ll see spectators at the footbridge shortly after entering the property, but from there expect very little spectator interaction. The river in this area is fairly straight-forward and relatively easy to read and paddle. As you exit the Rayburn’s Property you’ll pass Canoe Camp, or the rustic campground at the end of Headquarters road. The steps on river left serve as the start of the iconic local paddling loop where paddlers put in, paddle up river to the I-75 overpasses, and then turn paddling back down to the steps. The stretch can be hard on equipment resulting in broken paddles, but is located conveniently close to town. As such, you can almost always find local racers training here. A few more bends. Some short gravel runs. A stronger right hand turn and the cheers you’ve been hearing reach a crescendo. You’ll sail past people clustered around what seems to be nothing on river left, the main crowd slightly further down river. Bow your head and pay homage to the spirits of the gatekeepers of the AuSable. A pair of men that helped me at the start of my paddling journey. On your right, the keeper of Burton’s Landing Tom Brooks. Best described by the Michigan Canoe Racing Association, Tom was a long time canoe race supporter , paddler, and friend to all. His son Don is still paddling strong. On river left, the keeper of Headquarters Road, multiple time AuSable River Canoe Marathon competitor Joe Seifert. He was a friend to all paddlers, and introduced many to "marathon fever". His daughter Gwen carries on the family paddling torch.
“Seifert learned all the paddlers vehicles going in and out of the campground at Headquarters road. One fall afternoon, our paths crossed just upriver of the campground. I was heading back down, he was on his way up. That was fast Bill. I’m feeling pretty good Joe really moving the boat well. I see this. Figured I’d make it up much further than this before our paths crossed and then paddle back with you. But you really moved good today. We need to get in the boat sometime and see how we move. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I did not complete the entire loop, cutting my trip upstream short and giving him the perception that I was flying. Joe would pass away before we had a chance to paddle.” Congratulations and welcome to the first timing station. The end of the road at Burton’s Landing.