Reprinted with permission of Michigan Natural Resources Magazine, July – August 1997. For additional information visit the Department of Natural Resources web site at http://www.michigan.gov/dnr
I was born in Michigan in July of 1946 in time to celebrate: the end of World War II, the beginning of the baby boom, and plans for the first ever AuSable River canoe race.
In early 1947, as I was struggling to walk, some folks met in a cafe in Mio to discuss ideas to promote their favorite river, the AuSable. Grayling people held title to the AuSable’s wild swirling beginnings, including the stretch from Burton’s Landing to Wakeley Bridge known for its trout fishing as The Holy Waters. Oscoda people loved its wide, meandering bends leadingdown to its mouth at the jetty, where the AuSable empties its iron-tinted, sun-warmed water into the cold blue of Lake Huron. Both these towns and all towns in between would benefit from a race down the river, a non-stop canoe marathon. It would celebrate the AuSable as well as the strength, endurance, and determination of the local men. It would start in Grayling and finish hours later in downtown Oscoda. One hundred and twenty river miles.
How many hours this would take, nobody knew for sure. No one had ever paddled the whole length of the river and timed it. Stories conflict about who actually made that first run fifty years ago to see whether or not it could be done in under 24 hours, but once it was determined, the race was a go.
My earliest childhood memories are of bumping along in the back seat of our Chevrolet in the middle of the night, cozy and giggling under layers of blankets with my Oscoda friend, Cathy Rose. Dad’s voice faded in and out as he excitedly hollered back the latest news on who was ahead in the canoe race. We were race followers. We’d watch the canoers take off, spot them at a few places downstream, then head home to sleep for a few hours. In the early hours of the next day, Dad would pack us up again with pillows, comic books, flashlights, and snacks, and we’d travel up river to strategic points along with growing crowds to wait for a glimpse of the leading canoes. By this time in those early years, roughly two thirds of the teams would have dropped out, having underestimated the challenge and the river.
As dawn broke, we’d be nudged out of our nest to see one of the last portages, maybe at Cooke or Foote Dam. Surviving canoers numbly leapt out of their canoes, grabbed them and ran over the top of the dam, then half-slid down the other side of the hill back to the river. Anxious friends, wives, and girlfriends handed off thermoses of hot coffee and sandwiches wrapped in wax paper to the exhausted men. This, too, took skill. Hesitate a moment too long and you could break your canoer’s rhythm, costing precious seconds; move too quickly and the chicken sandwich you’d lovingly prepared might miss your canoer’s hand and fall into the sand or the river.
With the day warming up, the teams paddled their way down the final stretch of the river and we kids waded in the shallows, clapping wildly whenever a canoe came in sight. By this time, friends, relatives, and a huge crowd of spectators lined both sides of the river, chanting competing slogans back and forth. My favorite–We’re from Oscoda, O-S-C-O-D-A–so much fun for a kid just learning to spell. Although we were technically “tourists” from Detroit, our family cabin on Lake Huron entitled us, at least in our minds, to consider ourselves Oscodans too.
Dad shot miles of Super 8 movie film and chatted with Mort Neff from Michigan Outdoors. As often as possible, he aimed his camera at the Bissonette brothers, Frank Jr., known as Bud, and Hugh. They were local Oscoda boys whom Dad knew a little, and thus, our favorite team. “We were tougher ‘n nails,” Frank, Jr. says today, and old black and white photos confirm this, showing them as thin, taut, and muscular. They were the young sons of Frank Bissonette, Sr., a woodsman, who worked both of them hard at his lumber yard. Before that first race in the summer of 1947, neither one of the brothers had ever set foot in a canoe, but they had an advantage over many of the participants–they knew the river.
Hugh raced with Gene LaVack that first year and came in 5th. Frank raced with Bob Fullerton, but they had to pull out after getting their borrowed canoe snagged. That next spring, Frank, Sr. purchased a canoe for his sons so they could race together, and the boys made a promise to each other: “If we’re gonna get into it, we’re gonna win.” After all, there was three hundred dollars prize money apiece that year, not bad for 1948.
Five days a week, the boys worked all day loading pulp wood or cutting right-of-ways for Consumers Power, then at night, they practiced. Weekends, they’d “run the ponds,” the flooded waters above each of the six dams. Sometimes they’d mark certain trees with an axe during the day, so that, using flashlights later at night, they could navigate around the deadheads. In the darkness, they learned to “listen their way” through rapid water, without paddling.
That summer, they won. “It was a piece of cake,” says Bud, because they’d trained so hard. “We had at least a ten minute lead on everybody else.” (According to research done by John Cook, marathon historian, the Bissonettes won the 1948 race by 13 minutes and the 1949 race by 28 minutes.) Hugh gets a kick out of reporting that he weighed 165 pounds in Grayling going into that race and 148 pounds when they finished in Oscoda. Bud remembers somebody pointing out a huge, barrel-chested guy to their dad before the race began. “There’s your competitor,” Frank, Sr. warned his sons. “He looked like he could eat nails,” says Bud. But a few hours later, the burly guy was out of his canoe and into an ambulance, on his way to the local hospital. Size was no substitute for training and knowledge of the river.
Hugh tells me a story about the 1948 race: “We get up by Merkel’s farm [and come around the bend] and here’s old man Merkel’s bull standing right in the water about to his knees. We had about 15 feet either side of him to go by. His butt was facing the shallow side and we didn’t want to go on that side of him. I said to Bud, ‘What if the damn thing gets excited and kicks the boat and knocks a hole in it?’ So we went on the face side of him. We sat perfectly still and didn’t paddle and all he did was look at us. Perhaps he wouldn’t have hurt anybody, but when you’re young kids and your canoe is fire red…” My brother recently transferred Dad’s old movies from those early race years, so now we can again watch the Bissonette brothers stroking hard around Horseshoe Bend in their fire red canoe with its silver lettering.
The race has changed a lot since those days. And not just because there are no bulls wandering out into the course. Fifty years ago the entrants were mostly local men, but today’s spectators watch men and women marathoners from Texas, New York, Minnesota, Canada, even England. The first races had in excess of a fifty percent drop-out rate; today’s rate is somewhere around ten percent. Back then, the fastest teams paddled somewhere around 40-50 strokes a minute (mainly limited by the design of the canoes). Today’s winners average up to 70 strokes a minute. In 1947, Allen Carr and Delbert Case of Grayling took first place in 21 hours and three minutes. Jeff Kolka and Serge Corbin’s winning time last summer was a little over 14 hours.
This finish time difference still puzzles some people. Hugh Bissonette says: “People ask us why it took us so long and I say, ‘Well, you take a Model A right now and I’ll take a new Ford and we’ll have a race and see who wins.'” Today’s racing canoes, sleek and light, weigh 20 or 30 pounds; the Bissonettes’ Old Town weighed about a hundred pounds. Both brothers say they’d love to see the top winners of the past few races run the race with an Old Town and check the times against theirs. But there’s no bitterness to this challenge. They cherish the memories of the two races they won in a row and still enjoy following the race. They’re both in good health and fish the AuSable together every day in summer. Hugh says it hasn’t really changed much in all those years. “I could take you up the river,” he says, “and show you stumps on a curve that’ve been there since I was ten years old.”
Last year’s winner, Jeff Kolka, has known the river all his life, too. A Grayling native, his father, Jack, raced in the 1950s. Kolka had taken quite a few second place wins before he teamed up with Serge Corbin, a French Canadian from Quebec considered by many to be the premier paddler in North American marathon canoe racing. I repeated the Bissonettes’ challenge to Kolka. “A lot of [the difference in time] is equipment,” he acknowledged, noting that his team’s prototype paddles from last year weighed just seven ounces. “But training is different today, too, and the design of the modern canoes has even altered the muscles that are used.” Increased competition may also have made the race faster. “But I’d never take anything away from those guys,” Kolka says, and I can hear the admiration in his voice. “They accomplished one heck of a goal.”
Part of Kolka’s determination to win last year had to do with getting tired of taking second place to competitors not from the area. “I was gettin’ beat on my river!” he laments, laughing. Having always referred to the AuSable as my river, I know exactly what he means.
We wish to express our appreciation to Margery Guest and MNR Magazine for granting us permission to post her article on our website.