“Of course I’ve heard of a canoe marathon!” said no one, ever.
This is my life. I am deep in the underworld of canoe racing. Few people have heard of it, fewer have done what I do each July – wade into the AuSable River in the dead of the night to drop food and drink into a canoe splitting through the water in a chase for the finish some 120 miles away.
The setup is this: The 2-man canoes enter the water at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night. They paddle all night nonstop into Sunday afternoon for 15-16 hours from Grayling to Oscoda, Michigan.
“Feeders” do this: We meet them every two hours along the way and do a “feed.” This means handing them a jug with a long tube that they can drink from while they paddle, along with a container of food (fruit, energy gel, sandwich) that they tuck inside their canoe. We are also sure to include a stash of all-important pain pills.
These feeds take place in the river, thigh to waist (in crisis, neck-) deep, in the middle of the night. This includes a lot of reaching down to make sure the thing wrapping around your leg is a weed and not a snake. There’s also mass confusion. There are, after all, dozens of other feeders standing in the river, in the dark, wondering which team is theirs, this black boat or that black boat in a stream of 70-plus boats in the black night.
Added joys include wet, slick clay river banks, dropoffs and crowds cheering so loud you can’t hear your boat call for you or you for them.
So here’s the exact scene: Me, standing in a river in shorts, old tenny shoes, freezing, heart pounding, holding a plastic grocery bag from Tom’s.
Yes, Tom’s. They are racing in $4,000 canoes but their secret to success lies in the cradle of a free plastic grocery bag from Tom’s. Their precious fruit, Hammer gel and Advil swings above the unforgiving course of the river, a hair-width of plastic away from instant loss should I lose my footing or the seam of the bag give way.
In my other hand is the drinker. Again, the advances in canoe technology pale in the face of an 89-cent plastic 1.5 Liter water bottle from Walgreen’s and a couple pennies worth of 1/4 inch tubing from Ace.
While the men have perfected their rafts, time stands still in the feeder arena.
But with our goods in hand, we stand and wait. Early in the night, we are in the river plenty early, worried we’ll miss our team. The count begins.
They were 15th at last sight, but that doesn’t mean they won’t show up in 30th position or, worse, 10th, taking us by surprise. The entire thing is a gamble. Anything can happen. And all they ask is that we be ready for it, their shining moment or their sloshing comeback.
This means we have a good one-second gap as the boat whisks by to ask one question and one alone, the war cry of feeders everywhere: “What do you need?”
There’s no room for niceties or cheering, we are finely tuned machines of plastic bags and drinkers. Ask and ye shall receive.
Behold the call of “Chocolate milk!” or “Pills, more pills!” We shall deliver. Never mind that they ask for these things at 3 a.m. when there is not a store in sight, or, if there is, a closed one. This brings the kinship of a group of feeders to light.
For the parking area at each feed spot is a bartering arena, Jell-O and Tylenol passing hands in an urgency matched only by the Olympics. For if there’s one thing that every feeder wants as much as seeing their team make it to the finish, it’s for their friends to do the same.
Well our boys placed 13th this year out of 72 boats, 15 of which did not make it. But the best story of all that will become lore for years to come was this: The paddler who said he didn’t want any food.
No food? But his feeder didn’t hesitate, she simply plucked the food from his boat and sent him on his way. Only to watch him turn, pause, and holler, “Where is my @#$%ing food????”
Us feeders secretly take these stories back to shore with us and revel in the glory of our men losing their minds, right before us, by their own doing.
“They’re maniacs,” we say. “Fools,” we agree. “Nuts,” we conclude. In the end, we pride ourselves on being the sane ones as we trudge down a dirt road in the middle of the night in soggy underwear.