OSCODA – The 73rd annual Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon is the latest casualty concerning canceled events in the area due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic.

Event organizers announced in a joint press release issued May 7 that the race, and related events, would be cancel for this year. Those organizers included the, AuSable River Festival Committee, Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committees, Grayling Regional Chamber of Commerce, City of Grayling, Crawford County Sheriff’s Department and Crawford County Emergency Management.

According to race historian Ryan Matthews of Oscoda, this is only the second time in the race’s long history that it has been canceled. He said the first cancellation occurred in 1969.

“Community and individual leadership faltered in 1969,” Matthews said. “As I understand it, there was a lack of funding, and a disagreement between the Grayling, Mio, and Oscoda communities over the format of the race, about whether it should have been ran as a two-day race with an overnight stop in Mio (which was a common race format in the 1960s) or a one-day, non-stop race (similar to the race format of present day).”

This time around the reason for canceling the event, according to Oscoda Chair, and race committee Co-Chair Kathy Erickson, is a matter of public safety for both the racers and spectators of the event.

“The decision to cancel this year’s festival and race festivities does not come easily, however, with the uncertainty that we are all facing at these times, concern for the health and safety of community members, volunteers, guests to our community, stability of the business community, along with the current guidelines set by the governor to reopen Michigan, we are unable to predict the state of our economy and health of our region for July 2020,” stated the press release. “Therefore, our team of festival and race officials, local authorities and emergency management team made the tough decision to cancel the 2020 AuSable River Festival and 2020 Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon.”

The release went on to thank community members, vendors, spectators, racers and sponsors for their support and urged everyone to keep abreast of ongoing race information by visiting the race’s website www.ausablecanoemarathon.org.

Erickson said one of the issues this year was that of permitting. She said there are stacks of permits that must be gathered throughout the communities the race goes through on its 120 mile course from Grayling to Oscoda. She said government agencies, and municipalities are just not issuing permits for public gatherings during the pandemic.

“We have to do Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permits, U.S. Forest Service Permits, city permits in Grayling and others,” she said. “But for the most part we don’t know what the social distancing rules are going to be. There are just so many knowns right now.”

There is also the matter getting insurance for the race. Erickson said that although they could have gotten insurance for the race this year, she said they do not normally take into account pandemics.

Another matter was the racers themselves. Many teams travel from across the United States and even other countries. She said that although ahead of the announcement that the race would be canceled she did not hear of racing teams not wanting to come, several told her after that teams considered not racing.

“There were a couple people who were toying with the idea of not racing because of safety,” she said.

Erickson said she, and other members of the race committee and associated organizations, did not take the decision to cancel the event lightly, as it was the first time in 51 years, and only the second time in race history, that the event was canceled.

“This is totally unprecedented, this was not an easy decision, the committee tried to come up with different ways to run it and not lose the integrity of the race,” she said.

One thought was to run the event but without spectators, as different sports have proposed.

“But you can’t just say that there are not going to be spectators in the stands,” she said. “We can’t control 120 miles of river whether there are spectators or not.” 

Another is the massive amount of planning it takes for the event. According to Erickson, typical race planning begins the month a race ends for the following season. She said there was still large amounts of planning that needed to take place before the July race.

“We’re two and half months out for the race, and we didn’t even know if we could have the permits,” she said. “And Consumers Energy as our title sponsor, they were concerned about their property too, and what was going to happen, even having people on the dams. There were just so many things that we did not have answers for, and we were concerned we were not going to have answers in time.”

Erickson said planners will be working on a plan for the 2021 racing season and hopes the marathon can continue at that time.

“I hope to see the best turnout, the greatest turnout in 2021,” she said. “Our fans are awesome, our sponsors are awesome, and I just hope that in 2021 we can have it be the greatest event that it can be.”