OSCODA – With the days before the Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon counting down, things are about to get quite exciting for the racers, feeders and spectators. Although it can also be a stressful time for the event’s organizers. The 120-mile long race that spans the river from downtown Grayling to downtown Oscoda, requires quite the amount of work behind the scenes.
“It is definitely crunch time,” Ryan Matthews, one of the many event organizers said. “It is definitely stressful with 12 months of prep work, it all comes down to this week to try and put on a fun and safe event. There’s lots of coordination to be done and still lots of set up. There’s hundreds of volunteers that come out of the woodwork this week to put on this event and it’s really quite marvelous.”
After not having the race in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 83 two-man teams are expected to make up the field; down from 90 in 2019. The race begins on Saturday in Grayling at 9 p.m., in a LeMans-style footrace where competitors carry their canoes four blocks to the river, near the Old AuSable Fly Shop. Teams frantically put their canoes in the water there, then head for Oscoda, where they expect to reach 14-to-19 hours and six portages later. The race concludes at Finish Line Park, near the AuSable Inn.
The two-time defending champions, Andrew Triebold and Steve Lajoie are not in the race, and the field is missing several Canadian paddlers due to border restrictions amidst the pandemic.
Wes Dean and Weston Willoughby could be favorites, as they have won both the Curley Memorial and Spike’s Challenge in recent weeks.
“The field is really wide open, Wes and Weston are definitely the favorites at this point but statistically there are seven teams that could win,” Matthews said. “With the pace the top two teams had (Sunday at the Spikes), if they were to go that hard the whole race, they may have a group or two behind them that is inching up if they burn themselves out too early. Other teams to watch out for are Brett Stockton and Ryan Halstead, both former champions. Mike Davis and Shane MacDowell are one of the fastest pairings this year as well. Ben and Mike Schlimmer, both of New York (will contend), Ben has many second place finishes. Pete Mead and Carson Burmeister, they showed at the Spikes that if one of the front boats falter, they will be right there to scoop it up. Chris Issendorf and Logan Myner are another; Chris has been the fastest paddler in the second half of the marathon in recent years, he doesn’t seem to fade.”
The end result could be a marathon or the ages.
“It is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in a long time,” Matthews said. “The anticipation is the highest I’ve seen in a long time, just because everyone is eager to get to racing or see some racing. It is a wide open field and we might even see our first all-Michigan champion since 2007, which is a big deal.”
Stockton, a 9-time marathon champion and Jeff Kolka, another 9-time winner both return to the race after taking large amounts of time off from the event.
“Jeff last raced in 2005, when he won, he is racing with his niece Naomi and she is probably one of the few that would have gotten him out of retirement,” Matthews said. “It is exciting to see him racing again, even though he isn’t getting any younger, he is still a very fast paddler even in his 60s.
“Brett hasn’t raced since 1992, he went out on top with a win in his last race and said he was done at the time and would never race again,” Matthews added. “(His partner) Ryan Halstead must have really convinced him. Brett is one of the best all time, Jeff is one of the best all time and it is really exciting and will be really interesting to see how they finish after a hiatus.”
Locally, only six paddlers, with two more former area residents are competing. The local crop of athletes is down compared to recent years.
“Only a handful (of locals) this year,” Matthew said. “Jon Webb will be in the top-25 I think, LJ
Bourgeois made a goose case (at Spike’s) that they will be in the top 40 and you have Jerry Killingbeck going for his Iron Paddler Award (10 career finishes), so I know he will be grinding hard.”
Kyle Stonehouse, 27, Grayling, former East Tawas resident
Previous starts: 8
2019 finish: sixth
Partner: Kyle Mynar, 36, Spring Branch, Texas
Kyle Stonehouse was the top finisher of any paddler with local ties in 2019, and he is hoping to have another similar showing this year.
“We’re excited, my partner has been in Michigan for awhile now so we have been getting to train a lot,” he said. “We are going into it hoping for a top-10 and we are excited going into this weekend.”
While Stonehouse’s canoe racing career has taken off in recent years, he admits that he is still probably on the outside looking in when it comes to championship contention.
“I would love to say that I could be in the conversation for getting the crown this year, but we are not going to be within that realm, there are some faster boats,” he said. “Wes Dean and Weston Willoughby are my favorite to win it all, I am just hoping that I can get in the top-10 and I would love to exceed my finish from 2019 and break the top-five barrier. It seems like we have the speed for it, but who knows. I would be happy just to have a good night; we are just looking to have fun and enjoy it.”
Jerry Killingbeck, 52, East Tawas
Previous starts: 15
2019 finish: 72nd
Partner: Keith Wojahn, 57, Tawas City
Previous starts: 5
The lone canoe to feature a pair of local paddlers will be Killingbeck and Wojahn.
“It is good to get back into it and get going again and hopefully everything will work out,” Killingbeck, who has a finished as high as 31st in his career. “It is a little different feel, after the year off. A lot of people are glad to be back, I know that. We are just trying to get through it and put the grind in and get to the bottom.”
Assuming he can finish this year’s race, Killingbeck will have 10 career finishes, giving him the Iron Paddler award.
“It is going to be an interesting race this year, who knows who is going to win,” he said.
For Wojahn, he has enjoyed training with someone local.
“That’s the reason we paddle together, it makes it easy to get together and train and everything,” he said. “Our mindset is to go in and finish so Jerry can get his Iron Paddler. We want to finish the best we can, I would like to break the 17 hour barrier, but with the water low I don’t know if that is going to happen this year.”
Wojahn is a third-generation paddler, as his father and grandfather both also competed in the marathon. In 1960, his grandfather Ed Wojahn took first place in the marathon.
“We are glad the tradition is continuing, I’m never going to be a top paddler but I’ll keep doing this as many years as the good Lord lets me,” he said.
Jon Webb, 61, Oscoda
Previous starts: 25
2019 finish: 18th
Partner: Dan Mecklenburg, 59, Columbus, OH
Canoe racing veteran Jon Webb will be competing with a relative newcomer to the sport in Mecklenburg, who has just one prior start in the marathon. Webb, who has a career high finish of 18th, feels that they should fare well in the water however.
“He is a relatively fast paddler, we seem to click, we jump in the boat and it seems to go pretty well,” Webb said. “We haven’t had a lot of time to be with him in the boat, but we have potential and could be anywhere from 13th to 16th. This could be my fastest race, maybe my best finish.”
While there was no marathon last year, Webb, who trains in the off-season in Florida, still completed the race course solo.
“I train a lot with my wife Sarah, who is quite an accomplished racer herself,” he said. “Last year I had a wild hair and decided I was going to do the entire race in my solo canoe. I took off at 5 a.m. and I did it in 16 hours, 43 minutes, 43 seconds. The way I look at it, I kind of kept my marathon streak going.”
Chris Scully, 61, Lincoln
Previous starts: 16
2019 finish: DNF
Partner: Ed Butler, 74, Phoenix, Ariz.
Scully has a goal of getting to his Iron Paddler Award, a feat given to those that complete 10 marathons. He’s so dedicated to the cause that he pushed off a surgery that would have kept him from entering this year’s race.
“I have two more to go for my iron paddler award,” Scully, who said he will have hip replacement surgery next month said. “I wanted to be in the marathon, I don’t want to miss the chance, even if I don’t finish it; though I do plan on finishing. Thank you to the volunteers and the committee for putting on such a wonderful race. This is first class canoe racing.”
LJ Bourgeois, 44, Greenbush
Previous starts: 3
2019 finish: 53rd
Partner: Nicole Rice-Owens, 43, Frederic
While Bourgeois is happy with his 2019 showing, he is hoping that this year’s race can go even better.
“I have a hope of making the top-40, we are running really good,” he said. “I have always had a dream time of beating 16 hours 30 minutes and I think we have a chance if everything works out perfect.”
While Bourgeois is teaming up with a different partner, he feels the transition has been a smooth one.
“Our focus during the season has been on learning how to use other teams to advance, doing what we call wake-riding, which is basically surfing the wave other boats make,” he said. “We’ve focused on that and communication and we’ve put a lot of emphasis on fitness, as you can imagine. I can’t wait to do it, I can’t wait to get in the river and not have to run anymore. (The Lemans start) is the hardest part. I’m just hoping for a good year and I’ll have it.”
Josh Kellogg, 38, Curran
Previous starts: 3
2019 finish: 54th
Partner: Jeremy Kellogg, 35, Plainwell
The Kellogg family has certainly had a large presence in canoe racing over the years. Josh Kellogg, who will be competing with his brother, says that the family is proud to have so many paddlers competing.
“We had nine people race earlier this year in the Betsie River race,” he said. “For our family, it is like having a mini family reunion when we paddle. We are continuing the tradition, our dad and grandpa raced too. We look at it like it is a fun thing to do, all get together, get out on the water and have a good time.”
Mickey Kimsel, 47, Bay City, former Oscoda resident
Previous starts: 1
2019 finish: 79th
Partner: Bryce Martin, 28, Kawkawlin
In what will be just his second attempt at the marathon, Kimsel will still have the most experience in his boat, as his partner is making his marathon debut.
“We just want to get through the race, make it to the finish line,” Kimsel said. “We did pretty decent (at the Spike’s Challenge) and hopefully I will do a little better than I did in 2019. (This week we will) rest and prepare and gather all of our food and just mentally prepare for the long race. It will be fun.”