If you do not live in Grayling, Michigan, or have just never attended the Ausable River Canoe Marathon, then you probably will not understand the rush and excitement that comes over those of us who have been there. I think I can speak for the majority of us who have been there, whether it has been just once or 20+ times like myself and many others, the excitement is real.
The Ausable River Canoe Marathon is the longest, non-stop, canoe race in North America and is considered one of, if not the toughest spectator sport in the world. If you wish to be a spectator, and plan on watching the entire race, you had better prepare for approximately 20 hours of spectating. Yes, that's right, 20 hours, just for the prerace festivities and the race itself. The actual race will last about 14 hours for the fastest team and 18 hours for the last teams, and keep in mind that this is non-stop. No they do not paddle the entire time, but that is only because at 6 locations throughout the night the racers must get out of their canoes and carry them up and over a dam, then down the other side and back into the river.
These racers are not your everyday, average canoer. These paddlers are amazing. They are well trained, physically fit athletes. Many of these men and women canoe year round and participate in canoe races around the country and often in other countries. They must be mentally tough as well for it is not everyday that a person jumps into a canoe, after running with it 4 city blocks, then heads out for what is sure to be at least 14 hours of rigorous paddling. Paddling that begins in the small Northern Michigan town of Grayling.
Grayling is a town with a city population of approximately 2000 as of the year 2000.
As the last full weekend of July approaches each year, the cities population begins to grow. By midweek, prior to the weekend of the race, Graylings population has at least doubled, with spectators and racers coming from all around the country and several other countries. Time trials draw hundreds of spectators on Thursday, to see just where their favorite team will place for starting position. Other spectators will drop by the time trials just because they have never seen them before, they probably do not have a favorite team, they have just become wrapped up in the excitement of it all.
As Thursday and Friday pass, the excitement in Grayling begins to soar. It is Saturday, race day, and town is bustling. The city park is packed with arts and crafts vendors from around the state. The 150 yard long, crescent shaped, grassy hill in front of The Old Ausable Canoe Livery, or Rays as many of us long time locals remember it, has viewing spots being claimed as early as 9:00am with spectators placing blankets and chairs in their favorites spot to watch the start of the race 12 hours later. Around
6:00pm a huge croud has gathered on, and around the grassy hill in front of the canoe livery. Spectators are wandering the several city blocks surrounding the starting area of the marathon. People from all over are visiting with and taking pictures of the canoes and their teams as they begin to line up in their starting positions. The buzz of the crouds enthusiasm can be heard from several blocks away as the local emcee works the croud.
Asking the croud who is from certain colleges like Michigan State and U of M is always good for a roar. The macarena or ymca song and dance performed by hundreds, possibly even a couple thousand people can put a smile on the "Grinches" face in July. Race team introductions is a thrill for all, as each two man team makes their way down the boardwalk, along the river in front of the canoe livery, and greets the cheering croud. After the introduction of the teams they make their way back to their canoes and prepare for what will be a very demanding journey.
All of a sudden their is a huge canon blast signalling the start of the Ausable River Canoe Marathon, and the croud erupts with cheers, clapping, screaming, whistling, and any other type of encouraging noise you can imagine. My hair actually tingles every year when that croud starts to rumble and gets louder as the canoers are first seen making their entrance around the corner of the canoe livery, carrying their canoes at a full run and jumping into the river to begin what is sure to be one of the toughest nights of their lives.
Yes, I said toughest "nights" of their lives. The racers begin paddling at the canoe livery but I guess I should not say the race begins at the canoe livery. It actually begins about 4 blocks from the river. The canoes and their paddlers are lined up throughout a few of the cities streets, according to their positioning in Thursdays time trials, waiting to hear the 9:00 pm canon blast that signifies the start of the race. The 2 man paddling teams run with their canoes, trying not to trip over one of the other 200 paddlers, hoping to make safely into the river and out of the congestion of 100 canoes without capsizing or breaking something. Once they clear that first 100 yards of river the congestion eases up a bit and each team can start to get into a rhythm, preparing for the 120 mile, 14+ hour, all night journey that lies ahead. And for the spectators, well many will call it a night, but the diehards, like myself at one point in time, will follow the racers throughout the night.
As a spectator of over 30 Ausable River Canoe Marathons, I can honestly say it is one of the toughest spectator sports in the world. I have followed it all night on several ocassions and I know first hand that when you have followed these canoe racers all night Saturday and into the early afternoon Sunday, scurrying from stop to stop, portage to portage, hollering and cheering at each location, you are dead tired at the end of it all. The night is filled with highs and lows. Between stops, fighting sleep and driving tension just to make it to the next stop. Catching a few minutes of sleep at a portage before the racers approach. Then the adrenaline comes rushing through your body again as canoes are spotted approaching a bridge or dam. A distant light on the water with that tell tale swagger to the beat of the paddlers cadence is spotted and the croud begins to cheer. Have you ever seen a couple thousand people, standing on the side of a river and dam, at 3:00 in the morning, just to watch as two guys in a canoe approach, get out of their canoe and carry over the dam just to get back in the river and paddle away, being chased to the next spot.
If you have not, then I must recommend that you go to the Ausable River Canoe Marathon and follow it at least to the Mio Dam. No that is not the end, but it will give you a pretty good idea of what it is like to be one of the toughest spectators in the world. I can honestly say there was a time when I was one of those tough spectators.
Good luck to all the paddlers have a safe journey.
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