By Howard Meyerson
MIO – There is little to compare with the spectacle at the start of the annual AuSable River Canoe Marathon. Thousands of cheering fans line the river’s banks in downtown Grayling. Their collective din reaches a crescendo when the start gun goes off as racers run to the river’s edge carrying their canoes, primed for the 120-mile paddling adventure that finishes well after sunrise in Oscoda.
Al Widing has been among the toned, young athletes for 40 years, so he’s the oldest paddler in pack. And when the 2013 AuSable River Canoe marathon begins July 27, the 88-year old Mio resident plans to be there again.
“I am looking forward to it. I’d just love to finish,” says Widing in typical, understated fashion, conveying little sense of having become a legend in competitive paddling circles.
Widing’s first AuSable marathon was in 1955, and he holds the record for being the oldest paddler to finish. His fastest race was in 1999 when at 74, along with Robert Bradford, of Lapeer, he set the senior division record finishing in 15 hours, 21 minutes and 22 seconds.
Two-time winner of the Texas Water Safari
Widing and Oscoda paddler, Bob Gillings, also won back-to-back first-place finishes in the 1964 and 1965 Texas Water Safari, a punishing 260-mile marathon billed as “The World’s Toughest Canoe Race.”
“He’s definitely a humble guy,” says Ryan Matthews, of Oscoda, the marathon statistician. “We call him ‘Amazing Al’, but he hasn’t embraced the nickname. He always said he is just an average guy who likes to paddle. But, there is no denying that what he does at this age is amazing.”
Just out for the challenge
Widing likes the challenge. The race requires extreme endurance, the ability to sit for hours paddling at a rapid pace, trying to edge out over 70 teams of top professional paddlers from around North America. The course winds downstream for 120 miles. The race goes on no matter what weather. Paddlers in the money keep a grueling pace of 60 to 75 paddle strokes per minute. They have to navigate in the dark and negotiate the river’s natural obstructions along with portaging around dams.
“The toughest part of the race is when I have quit because (my paddling partner) is hurt,”
Widing says while sitting in the comfort of his den in the home he built along the AuSable River. Widing lives there with his wife, Dorothy, his 12th grade sweetheart and mother of their six children.
Strangely, Widing doesn’t consider himself tough. He smiles and says: “‘Tough’ is meat you can’t chew. I do it because I like the challenge.”
But Hailey McMahon knows another Al Widing. She is the 21-year-old nursing student from Grayling who teamed up with him for the 2012 AuSable Canoe Marathon.
“Anyone who paddles with Al will tell you he is hard to train with. He pounds out every mile on six-hour training paddles,” McMahon explains. “He is an amazing guy and super nice. He has a hard exterior, but if you can get him to laugh, he melts.”
A lifelong vegetarian who grew up on a Holly farm and later became a carpenter, Widing remembers his first canoe. It was a beat-up wooden vessel that cost $25. He and his brother Roy entered the 1955 AuSable Marathon with it, a pair of homemade paddles, and a pocketful of hopes. But their aspirations were dampened just 14 miles downstream. “We didn’t finish,” Widing says softly. “We had put a good hole in the bottom. There was water all around our feet.”
“It’s always fun and funny racing with Al,” says Lynne Witte, of Mt. Clemens. Witte is president of the Michigan Canoe Racing Association (MCRA), an organization founded in 1956 and built by Widing and others. “He’s headstrong but not hard to get along with. I’ve paddled in the bow with him.
“Michigan has always been a huge canoe-racing state, and Al brought more than I could ever say to MCRA and the sport of professional paddling. None of us made any real money in canoe racing, but he’s won the Texas Safari and that was a big deal.”
This story appears in Michigan Country Lines Magazine
© 2013 Howard Meyerson
A lovely tribute to a legend on the river and a nice guy. Well-written. Thanks for bringing Al Widing to public attention. I remember introducing myself to Al at a dinner. I said to him, “Everyone’s been telling me I have to meet you.” He looked sincerely puzzled and asked, “Why?” I will not be at the race this year and one of the things I’ll really miss is seeing Al come out and having the crowd go crazy for him.
Margery: Hi is a special guy. No question. Surprisingly humble. Thanks for your comment.
Amazing Al is the kind of guy our kids should know about!! He is someone to emulate for sure! My 10-yr-old Texan grandson proudly wears a Marathon t-shirt from 2012 that says, “I held Iron Man Al Widing’s paddle & canoe at the finish line!”
Nora: That’s a great story. Thanks for sharing it.
Something like 15 years ago I went to shake Al’s hand befor he put his canoe in the water at La Classique in La Tuque, Québec. I congratulated him for his good shape (at 73! And he did not age one bit if I judge by the photos) and his determination. He had such a puzzled look on his face, he seemd not to understand why I was giving him any attention. He is truly humble and quite an example for elderlies who just don’t want to sit and wait for deaht. To me, he is the perfect example that life is to be live at it’s fullest, anytime, anyhow.
I hope we’ll still se him in Québec this fall!
Etienne: Thanks for the comment. That photo of him on the porch was shot this spring. The photo of him in the boat, last summer. I just spoke with him last week and he is still planning to paddle this year. I only hope that I can still be as fit and active at that age as Al..
Thanks for the interesting article. Al seems like quite a guy. I also enjoyed reading more about the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon.
Dave. He is a very nice guy as well. Thanks for stopping by. I like what you are doing with your blog. Keep it up.
Loved the article! Thanks for sharing such an inspirational story. The AuSable River – great history, great river!