There was something off about this past Saturday that I could not put my finger one until I opened up Facebook and realized what I was missing. I was reminded with sudden clarity, much like having a bucket of ice-cold water tossed in your face without warning, just what was missing. The realization was that this was the summer that the AuSable River International Canoe Marathon was canceled.
The race, which would have been the 73rd, was canceled back in May, and like most of the canceled events this year COVID-19 is to blame. The race was canceled due to organizational difficulties and keeping the health and safety in mind for the dozens of racing teams and thousands of spectators who come out every year for the race.
That said, it’s not the first time that the race has been scrubbed for a season in its illustrious history. The first time that the race was canceled, according to Race Historian Ryan Matthews, was in 1969. That cancellation was attributed to funding issues and disagreements within the organization. It was actually Matthews’ Facebook post, a single word, “sigh,” that reminded me what I was missing, what he was missing, and what thousands of others were missing.
But since the Summer of Love, the race has been ongoing, thundering through 120 miles of the AuSable River, all night, for 50 years, bringing the competitive spirit to the many racing teams that have participated, and pride to the thousands of organizers and volunteered who have sacrificed their time and put in great effort to make sure that it is a safe and well organized race.
Having covered hundreds, if not thousands, of community events in my journalism career over more than a decade, I can say that the Marathon has been one of the most well oiled machines, as far as organization, that I have encountered in covering an event (those actually organizing the event may disagree with me, haha).
I think it comes down to the volunteers who put in their time to keep the event going year after year. The race is spectacular to watch, but watching the organizers actually pull it off year after year from the perspective of a news reporter is something to behold.
The race is a literal marathon for the teams involved, but for the hundreds of volunteers – from the people getting the race started in Grayling, to the feeder crews following their teams through the darkness, and the people recording split times at the various hydro dams – they are also running a marathon themselves. They end the race in Oscoda tired and vowing that they will skip next year, maybe, but I’d bet you dollars to doughnuts that two weeks after the event they’re already itching to get the bug spray back on and help out all night again, because it’s so much fun.
I couldn’t say for sure why the marathon is such a huge draw and why the volunteers are so dedicated. It’s no secret that the sport of canoeing has a special place in the community of Oscoda. The river is a draw for tourists and locals alike. Getting out on the river in a canoe or kayak, even a tube, is an escape from reality for a few hours.
There are few places in the world where you can go and not see something that was touched or modified by mankind. Paddling though the bends of the river, one can see glimpses of places where mankind cannot easily get, and be thrust back into nature. I think a lot of the volunteers and racers hold the river in reverence and to be in concert with it, working a marathon, is a way to be close to something they love a lot.
For others it could be a chance to become part of local legend. After all Oscoda is the birthplace of Paul Bunyan, one of America’s greatest folklore stories. What better way to join the annals of local folklore but actually compete in an insane 120-mile all night canoe race, battling the elements, and risking a lot to be able to say you’ve done something superhuman?
In 50 years there will probably be statues on Furtaw Field of marathon paddlers next to Paul Bunyan. If they ever do cast a racing team in bronze they need to go ahead and cast the organizers, volunteers and spectators in metal too, because their efforts for years and years are up there with folklore and legend if you ask me.
It’s a shame they couldn’t add to the race’s history with a great race this year, but history has been added to the marathon, nonetheless, and I’ll bet that racers, organizers and spectators will come together in 2021 to make the Marathon one of the best in history.