The World’s Most Grueling Canoe Race

Chasing bragging rights in a 120-mile canoe marathon


Michiganites take their canoe racing very seriously, even erecting a canoers monument in the town of Oscoda on Lake Huron.

Mounted on a stone base that resembles a military memorial, 2 crossed paddles salute the men and women who helped promote the sport in their home state.

The inscription reads: “…remember these departed members and their dedication to the sport of canoe racing.”

Oscoda is the end point for the AuSable Canoe Marathon, a grueling 120-mile, C-2 race (2-person canoe) that starts at dusk in Grayling, Michigan and runs all night until around noon the next day when the lead paddlers clear the finish line.

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Promising a $6,000 cash prize in addition to a bonus sweetener for breaking records, the event draws amateurs from all walks of life, armed with a paddle and a canoe, in pursuit of bragging rights.

“Most are every day guys and they range from lawyers, to brick layers, to pig farmers,” says Phil Weiler, spokesperson and race committee board member.

This July, AuSable is celebrating its 75th anniversary with over 100 canoe entries. In the past, teams from Australia, Germany, and Belize have also taken part in the local water fest.

Home to thousands of miles of rivers and fresh water shorelines, the mid-Western state is a natural destination for recreational paddling and canoe tournaments.

The summer calendar of the Michigan Canoe Racing Association is filled with weekly races that kick off in early April with the Klondike Challenge and end in September with the Tahquamenon Wilderness Canoe Race.

Most are 2 to 3-mile challenges, but the AuSable is in a league of its own.

“It’s the granddaddy of them all and what everyone wants to do well in,” says Jeff Kolka, a 9-time AuSable champion.

The 65-year-old grew up in the area and is employed by the local school system. He picked up the sport from his father, Jack, a successful racer who earned the Iron Paddler Award in 1972.

Both father and son were inducted into the AuSable Hall of Fame. Jeff won his first race in 1996 and has since recorded 20 top five finishes. His best time ever was a little over 14 hours.

His most memorable race was in 2005 when he and his partner, Serge Corbin, battled an epic sprint to the finish that saw the most dramatic moments in AuSable history.

After 120 miles and some 50,000 strokes, mostly overnight, Jeff and Serge edged out their rivals by a single second, finishing in a time of 14:56:11 (14 hours, 56 minutes, 11 seconds).

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AuSable has its roots in 1947 when a group of men from Oscoda started challenging each other in a river canoe race to Lake Huron.

With time, it grew to an annual event that today is held on the last weekend of every July and brings in thousands of spectators.

The race starts with competitors taking their podium positions on the streets of Grayling ¼ mile from the river. The spots are determined by earlier time-trial sprints.

In Le Mans style, at the sound of the gun at 9 pm, they scramble to the water carrying their canoes and start paddling non-stop.

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The river meanders through the Michigan wilderness and participants must take caution to avoid stumps and logs, especially as they fight darkness and fatigue.

Nighttime river conditions average 55 degrees but can drop to the 30s with high dew points and fog in certain sections. During the day, the thermometer hovers around 80, though winds can pose wave problems in the larger ponds.

In the early years the canoes were made of wood and weighed 100-150 lbs. Today, they are 35-40 lbs and fabricated out of carbon fiber.

Optimal canoe weight is also preferred since the AuSable river courses through 6 hydro dams where paddlers must exit the water and portage their vessels for a distance of up to 800 feet.

For the past half dozen years, Consumers Energy, the utility that owns the hydro dams, has been the main sponsor of the paddling chase.

Billed also as the ‘World’s Toughest Spectator Race', on-site fans are urged to bring rain gear, flashlights, food, and insect repellant if they want to follow the paddlers from different points along the shore.

AuSable isn’t the only canoe race that rose to regional prominence. Various locales across North America have held similar events for decades, though each employed different canoe design specifications.

With Weiler's help, those specs were standardized in 1992 and soon after, Michigan’s ‘AuSable’ joined New York’s ‘General Clinton Canoe Regatta’ and Quebec’s ‘La Classique’ to form the Triple Crown of canoe racing.

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Held on Memorial Day Weekend, General Clinton, a 70-mile C-1 day chase on the Susquehanna River, is the first of the Triple Crown legs.

La Classique, which is even older than AuSable (1934) and staged on the St. Maurice River in Shawinigan, Canada, closes out the season on Labor Day Weekend.

47-year-old Steve Lajoie is an electrician by trade and the Triple Crown’s greatest paddler. Born and raised in Shawinigan, he started paddling at age 14 and has won each leg a dozen times for a grand total of 36 titles.

Similar to Jeff, Steve also came into the sport as a teenager watching and learning from his father. “I like to be on the water and happen to be good at it,” he notes.

Despite his upbringing in Shawinigan, his favorite competition is the AuSable, which he says offers greater excitement. “It’s a well-organized marathon with lots of buzz and interesting stories.”

Adds Jeff, "the Triple Crown races all have their own characteristics, but the AuSable is unique.” 

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While some of today’s competitors use GPS to track their route at night, Jeff always relied on his knowledge of the river when he competed. 

"You train by getting out on the river and paddling," he explains. He used to paddle 2 hours every night after work and then race on weekends.

Before his son was born, Steve paddled 6 days a week and also ran, biked, and cross country skied in winter. “I’m not a sprinter, but more of an endurance athlete.”

Neither Jeff nor Steve fit the traditional mold of elite sportsmen who follow an exercise regimen, or nutritional diet.

More than anything, they are life-long, rugged outdoorsmen with a love for nature and a passion for paddling. And that’s what makes for an AuSable champion.



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