Canoe ride offers a ‘George Plimpton moment’Written by Roger Holliday Claudia Fischer | | firstname.lastname@example.org
I still can’t get over my Plimpton Moment. George Plimpton, you may recall, made a highly successful career out of inserting himself into various sporting situations and then telling the world “what it was like out there.”
Well, my own Plimpton moment occurred on the final evening of our Up North summer, and it came about in a most unusual way.
Our son Casey and his 9-year-old son, Casey Jr., were driving the dirt roads towards our cabin when a deer suddenly sprang from the woods right in front of their car.
“It was the deer or the trees, and the trees won,” he said afterward. (Always a bit of a softy is our Casey!)
Anyway, it was hippity-hop to the body shop for some serious front end surgery. The only place to go in our neck of the Northwoods is Luzerne Bump and Paint, owned and operated by the Smutek family: Frank, 75, and his 40-something sons, Ted and Bill.
Besides running a profitable body shop — there are lots of deer and lots of trees in the Huron National Forest — the family is heavily into canoe racing, which is hardly surprising seeing the Au Sable River runs through their backyards.
The Big Daddy of the Michigan canoe racing season is the Au Sable Marathon. It’s the longest nonstop race on the continent, running for 120 miles between Grayling and Oscoda. The marathon begins in downtown Grayling at 9 p.m. and carries on throughout the night with winning teams paddling through the finish line some 14 hours later!
As summer residents, it was hard not to get caught up in the pre-race hoopla. With our new best friends, the Smuteks, competing once again, we went out to watch, photograph and cheer them on. First came the Spikes Challenge, a three-hour warm up race; and then, a week later, came the marathon on a misty morning. We watched at one of the six portages along the course.
Brother Bill wasn’t racing this year, but served as one of the feeders who leapfrogged the course throughout the night, providing food and water and dry clothes for the teams. Sister Amy, up from Lansing, raced in one of the 14 mixed teams.
All three Smutek boats, including 75-year-old Frank’s, finished the marathon in good shape, an amazing achievement in itself. Ted even had his best time ever of 15 hours and change.
While sharing some post-race photos and admiring Frank’s canoe that was in the shop for some TLC, Ted offered to take me out for a ride.
So, one evening in late August, I found myself perched in the very narrow bow of a racing canoe, while Ted explained the basics. Like proper paddle action. And ruddering. And switching sides smoothly whenever he says hup. That sort of thing.
The more he talked, the more nervous I became; and we were still on dry land!
The first thing you should know about racing canoes is that they bear no resemblance whatsoever to the big standard metal boats available from your local canoe livery.
No. A modern racing canoe is a tippy, flippy, hippy carbon fiber projectile that weighs 30 pounds soaking wet (paddles 8 ounces extra!) and is propelled along by the pros at 70 to 90 strokes a minute!
Every few seconds, Ted barked out orders from the rear, and I tried valiantly to keep my balance, my cool and to remember his instructions.
“Vertical strokes. From toes to hips. Switch sides at every hup. And above all, let’s try and keep the shiny side down!”
In the end, the 65-minute, seven-mile ride passed in a flurry of flying paddles and heavy breathing. We experienced the river in its many changeable moods and meanders from the swirls and the shallows to the wide bends and the tight chicanes to the snags and still waters of Mio Pond.
The good news is that we did manage to keep the shiny side down, averaged a quite respectable 55 strokes a minute, and Ted has promised to take me out again for an even longer run in October. George Plimpton, eat your heart out!