Lightning or shine, she just keeps paddling

Jul 23, 2015

The Au Sable Canoe Marathon is both grueling and addictive.  Canoe teams paddle 120 miles from Grayling to Oscoda on Lake Huron. That's close to halfway across Northern Michigan. They paddle 14 to 19 hours through the night and into the next day. The goal for many is simply to finish, and they attack that goal with a stubbornness that sometimes borders on dangerous. 

The marathon is this weekend beginning at 9pm on July 25th.


Map of the Au Sable Canoe Marathon route.
Credit Au Sable Canoe Marathon Race Association

At 61 years old, Lynne Witte is a veteran paddler. This year will be her 36th consecutive Au Sable Canoe marathon. She's at the Harry Curley Canoe Race as part of her training regiment for the marathon. But no matter how much she prepares, she never quite knows what to expect at the marathon. 


Lynne Witte (bottom) waits for the start of the Harry Curley Canoe Race at Au Sable River's Cooke Dam.
Credit Morgan Springer

Just last year, Lynne and her canoe partner, Darin Lile, were 16 hours into the marathon when they got the tornado warning. 

"The one girl in the back was a rookie, " says Lynne. "And she was like, 'what are we going to do?' And I just said, 'paddle.'" And they did. Heads down, hoping to outpace the tornado.

Then the lightning came.

"You ever have that feeling like oh I can touch that lightning? Cause that’s what it felt like," Lynne says. "It would just drop like fireworks dropping out of the sky. And they’d just drop right next to you. So I looked around like, 'oh I’m not the tallest. I’m ok.'"

Lynne and Darin didn’t stop paddling. As they closed in on the finish line, Lynne says they heard music playing and people cheering.

"We could hear the canoes in front of us finishing. But at that point the water was-- I described it as like a pot of boiling water," she laughs.

When they got to the finish line, it was dead. No timers, no spectators, no music, totally quiet except for the storm. Lynne says it was surreal.

When asked if she was scared, Lynne said, "I can’t call it scared. Certainly my eyes were a lot wider open like. And I didn’t want to-- I don’t think any of us wanted to say anything at that point cause all together we would have been like, 'yeah this is scary.'"

Lynne says she's tempted death a few times, but she's not afraid of dying. Even when remembering the lightning cracking next to her canoe, she says about dying, "It’s ok. And I was in the canoe, right? So, wouldn’t that be a good place?”

Paddlers take off across Cooke Pond on the Au Sable river.
Credit Morgan Springer

It's hard for Lynne to give herself credit for her achievements. She holds record, she's a veteran paddler and yet she resists credit "probably because I don’t think of it as anything that any other person couldn’t do."

That thinking, that anyone can do it? You do have to work hard to succeed. Lynne says, "Some people they think you just hop in the canoe and you go."

Really it’s not that simple. Sure it’s a river; it goes one way, but there are dams to portage, ponds to get lost in, logs to hit and hours and hours of training beforehand to put in. On top of all that the weather could do anything and your mind could just decide to shut down. It kind of makes the marathon sound awful. 


Lynne Witte (right) portages Cooke Dam on the Au Sable River with other paddlers.
Credit Morgan Springer

"I was only going to do it one time," Lynne says. "Well then after that you know the next time you’re going to do it a little better and a little better. Then there was always a different reason. And it’s not necessarily to win I wouldn’t say but just to see what I can do compared to what I did the last time." 

Lynne says she’s pushed herself beyond the tipping point a number of times. Sometimes she does ask herself, why am I still doing this? But through it all, it has never occurred to her not to do it. 

Her favorite part of the race is at night.

"It’s usually just a clear, pretty night, "Lynne says. "And even if it isn’t a full moon or anything, it feels fast. It feels fun. You get to Mio faster than you’d ever think."

And at that point at Mio, they may still be less than halfway to the finish, but the motto’s the same. Just paddle.