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HUP all night: Traverse City sisters paddle for redemption with support from community


In the world of professional canoe racing, it means hurry up and paddle.

It’s what racers chant to each other as they synchronize each stroke of the paddle.

With blistered hands and aching legs, every movement gets them closer to the finish.

Thousands of fanatics tuned in all night to see nearly 100 teams of two cover 120 miles of water during 14 to 19 hours of nonstop paddling in the 74th Au Sable Canoe Marathon this weekend.

The marathon kicked-off Saturday night in Grayling with low water levels and record-breaking participation, posing extra challenges for the 96 teams.

Most of people who sign up for the ultra-endurance event don’t look for first place. They do it to finish the longest canoe competitions in North America and overcome the goals they set for themselves.

This year, two sisters were racing for redemption with a core team of support behind them.


Katie and Kristi Treston are life-long athletes. They grew up in southeast Michigan playing sports but enjoyed spending time up north with family and friends — getting active in the pristine forests and water bodies around Grayling.

Now, they live up north full-time. They both work at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City.

They watched paddlers throw themselves into the water all their lives, imagining themselves doing the same, and all the while wondering: Where were the girls?

This race began in 1947. The first woman to finish it, Marilyn Wagner, did so in 1968. But even now, the Trestons said the sport is mostly male-dominated. Out of 96 teams this year, just seven were comprised of only women.

Together, Katie and Kristi Treston committed to completing the marathon and it was their biggest fan who gave them what they needed to start training.

In 2014, their mother surprised them with a racing canoe for Christmas. What came next was more than year of rigorous training. It all paid off in 2015 when they finished the marathon for the first time.

“Nothing beats the feeling of crossing that finish line,” Katie said.

They completed the journey down the Au Sable together four more times after that, until 2020, when the marathon was cancelled because of the pandemic. The return in 2021 wasn’t much better. Despite the first-place team setting a new record for the fastest overall completion time, the Treston sisters didn’t cross the finish line.

In endurance canoe racing, strength comes from both ends of the boat. Kristi had been at the bow, battling a stomach virus which slowed her down. When they stopped about halfway through, she had to go to the hospital.

“I honestly didn't know if I would be able to get back in a boat mentally after last year,” Kristi said. “I had no energy, nothing inside. This year is a lot different. I’m just happy to be back out there.”

Even though 2021 was the first time the sisters didn’t finish the marathon, they still paddled more than eight hours straight — making it more than halfway to the finish line in Oscoda.

This year would be different, they repeated to themselves. They had already nailed down a strong time at the sprints competition which determined their position at the starting line.

When race day came, their nerves were high but excitement was off the charts.

“This is it," Katie said while getting their boat out of storage just before the start of the race. "I’m just ready to get in the water; we have a long night and day ahead of us."

It would be a long night for everyone, and not just the racers. Marathon spokesman Phil Weiler called the Au Sable Marathon “the most difficult spectator sport,” thanks to its length and intensity.

“You hurry up and go and wait, hurry up and go and wait. It’s just is so hard,” he said.

At the starting line was the rest of the Trestons’ team — the spectators that not only watch them all night long but also help them cross the finish line. They’re called the feeders.

Both sisters said finishing the race would be impossible without them.

At 9 p.m. sharp, the starting gun sounded through downtown Grayling and paddlers took off running down the street to the banks of the Au Sable.


At the starting line was Katie’s husband, Nick Torney, Kristi’s fiancé, Sloan Kowalewsky, family friend Reagan Bowers, and “Mama Jan,” the Trestons' mother who had already screamed herself hoarse after her daughters took off down the river.

For the next 15 hours, this team would follow them all the way to Lake Huron.

They made frequent stops to meet the team and resupply them with water, energy drinks, snacks and medicine. It’s all a carefully calculated process that requires preparation.

“I love the adrenaline of being a feeder because you’re right there with them,” Bowers said. “The girls time it out and plan what they want and when they need it ahead of time, it’s our job to make sure they get it.”

They need to take two cars to fit everything – extra paddles, repair tools, change of clothes along with coolers of drinks and snacks for themselves and the two racers they're supporting.

It’s all carefully labeled and almost everything has one or two backups.

“They make their own goodie bags for what they like,” Kowalewsky said. “So, Kristi likes her snacks in a cup so she can pop the lid and eat whatever snacks she has. They have hoses for their water bottles that are custom made to be long enough to sip while they paddle.”

The feeder team must be at the next station before the racers. Missing a feed even by a few seconds means lost energy and time.

Kowalewsky drove out of Grayling in his truck, Jan followed behind in her Jeep. The first stop was off a dirt road on a scenic trail along the Au Sable, not too far from the starting line. It’s called Guide’s Rest and it also houses a memorial to Jim Wakeley, one of the original paddlers.

The annual marathon is one of the oldest in the United States and is the longest, non-stop, canoe-only race in North America. It’s one of the three marathon canoe races that make up the Triple Crown of Canoe Racing.

This first stop at Guide’s Rest is mainly to ensure the women got a good start and didn’t get hurt at the starting line but Torney knows they’ll already need a water bottle changed.

The sun sets over the pine trees. The feeder team waits in the darkness, chatting among themselves and the other teams listening to the water for a sign of movement.

Then, in the distance, a chant.


The leading paddlers pass by. Some of them, the feeder team recognizes. They cheer for every boat that goes by. Later on they spot a yellow-tinged light on the tip of a canoe, as the sisters shout their number “24” from upstream.

The boats never actually stop during the feed. Any time the racers stop paddling could be wasted time.

Torney and Jan have to wade out into the water with the bottles. They have only a split second to change them as the canoe speeds by.

In one quick motion, the Treston sisters toss out the empty bottles. Torney catches them. If they’re left behind, the team could be fined.

Jan has only a second to ask how they’re feeling before she replaces the bottles. A quick thank you and a minute later they’re almost out of site.

Jan and Torney emerge from the cold water with wet legs. They’ll need to do this a few more times before they start to use the various dams along the Au Sable River as feeding stations.

“One down, 10 to go,” Torney says.

This goes on all night long: drive quickly to the next station, gather up what the women need, wait about an hour and quickly help them as they pass by.

At the next stop, Jan fell down a trail cutting her arm on a tree branch. The first aid kit comes in handy in moments like this.

They need to trudge through the muddy banks to get to the other side of the river where the current is fastest.

As the canoe passes by later on, Kowalewsky gets grazed across his back by another boat. Jan said if it hit him head-on it could’ve been serious.

“Anything can happen out here,” Jan said. “A boat could hit something, someone starts vomiting. It all can happen so fast.”

By the time the paddlers and feeder teams reach the Mio Dam, temperatures drop to below 60 degrees. The women hold their place in the mid-thirties among the pack, exactly where they want to be.

In order to cross the dam, paddlers need to exit their canoes for the first time in hours and run down a rocky path to the bottom of the dam.

As racers jog, they flip their boats emptying out any trash, water and urine.

“You can’t go to the bathroom if you can’t stop paddling,” Torney said.

At about 5 a.m., the feeders can change into dry clothes after wading through the river. The rest of the stops will be at the five dams between Alcona and the finish line. Which means they can swap supplies as the Trestons place their canoe back in the water.

The feeder team has gone all night. None of them seem tired.

Bowers and Torney have helped feed the girls for years. Bowers started when she was only 11. (She's now 17.) Kowalewsky is a state police trooper and often works nights. He said he usually gets a second wind around 6 a.m.

And each time the canoe passes by, Jan, still hoarse from the starting line, cheers even louder.

“We love this water so much. My family would be so proud of them,” Jan said. “I’m so proud of them.”


The final stretch between Foote Dam and the Finish line in Oscoda is the hardest section of the race.

The sun rises and bumps the temperature to the mid-80s, food doesn’t sit well, exhaustion sets in and every stroke of the paddle feels like fire in the arms.

Kristi and Katie start to fall back slipping, from a place somewhere in the 30s to the 40s.

The feeder team is unfazed by it. Their only concern is that the sisters finish this year.

When the feeders reach the finish line, the celebration has already started. Different teams exchange hugs and congratulations as they watch the leaders collapse on the shore after crossing the line.

A team from Quebec took first place this year. The race sees participation from all over the world.

The feeder team gathers on the bridge overlooking the finish line. When Katie and Kristi finally round the corner and come into view, they erupt in tears and applause.

They cross the finish in 41st place but they said the number didn’t matter. They got their redemption.

For Kristi the celebration is two-fold: She graduated with her master's degree as a family nurse practitioner the same weekend.

“I want this to show you can do anything you put your mind to,” Kristi said. “It’s insane to think I have done this. It’s what encouraged me to go back to school. I never thought I was capable but I still succeeded.”

Many other families approach the sisters. The Treston family has known some of them for years — a big extended family with the shared experience of supporting a team.

“What I love about this family ... is the energy and passion they put towards things that they love doing,” Torney said. “They could’ve picked anything and this is what they choose. I just love watching them complete these amazing goals.”

And Bowers, 17, said she sees herself in the Trestons, like they did in the racers from years ago.

"They're beasts of women," she said. "I look at them as sisters, as family. I want to be in their place one day."

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.