True Grit

Lynne Witte and her partner, in canoe No. 54, race to the finish line in a previous AuSable River Canoe Marathon. // Photo courtesy of Lynne Witte

Lynne Witte of Cheboygan is as much at home paddling all night in the stern of a tandem canoe in the AuSable River Canoe Marathon as she is standing on the rear of a dogsled, racing through the snow with her team of 10 Alaskan huskies.

When she’s not challenging herself in grueling long-distance races, the retired second-grade teacher is training for them all year long. As her 68th birthday approaches, she’s hailed as the only woman to complete both the renowned AuSable River Canoe Marathon and Canada’s 300-mile Yukon Quest dogsled race.

“It’s a way of life for me,” says Witte, who’s preparing for her 42nd AuSable marathon — and hoping to break her own record 39 finishes. “It never occurs to me to stop,” she says. “It’s still exciting and I still love it. As long as I’m healthy, why not?”

Now in its 74th year, northern Michigan’s all-night canoe marathon is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. July 30 in Grayling. It begins with a mad dash to the river by dozens of canoe-toting, two-person teams. Depending on their paddling prowess, the 120-mile race will end the next day — typically some 14 to 18 hours later — in Oscoda, under the bridge near where the AuSable empties into Lake Huron.

Along the sometimes foggy, windy, dark, and buggy way, paddlers will exit their canoes to portage six dams, running or hobbling on stiff, cramped legs. Back in their narrow racing boats, some — foiled by hidden river rocks or logs, or the vagaries of Mother Nature — may tip and lose valuable minutes in the water.

That’s happened just a few times to Witte, who has started every AuSable River Canoe Marathon and racked up a boatload of records since her first race in 1980, more than four decades ago. Her marathon feats include the most consecutive starts, 41; most partners, 34 (some men, some women); and most top-10 finishes by a female paddler.

From 1995 to 2012, Witte also held the record for the most consecutive finishes, at 18 — considered an amazing accomplishment by paddlers, according to Ryan Matthews, the marathon’s historian and statistician.

Witte’s best finish was fourth place in 1988, when she and her partner, Jim Myers, set a mixed division record — 15:05:26 — that lasted 29 years, until 2017.

“Lynne’s endurance is exceptional,” Matthews says of the 5-foot-2, 130-pound athlete who saw her first AuSable marathon as a teenager and went on to become a female trailblazer, role model, and fan favorite. “Between canoe racing and dogsledding, she seems to always be pushing herself,” he says, praising her dedication, passion, and grit.

As if the canoe marathon wasn’t enough, Witte became interested in sled-dog racing 22 years ago while teaching in Mount Clemens, where she also coached middle school cross country and track.

After working as a volunteer in Alaska’s famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, she acquired the first of her many dogs and soon got hooked on mushing competitions. Finding the world of dogsled racing a perfect cold-weather complement to canoe racing, she became more involved after retiring from teaching in 2016, her age notwithstanding.

This winter, in addition to her own 11 dogs, Witte cared for another 14 dogs on 300 acres near Cheboygan. The laborious task of feeding and running 25 young huskies, she says, is a great way to keep in shape for the AuSable canoe marathon.

“It’s way better training than lifting weights in an old pair of sneakers,” Witte says, citing her current heavy boots and twice-daily routine of lugging loaded buckets of dog food. “I count that as my portage practice,” she says of racing up and down hills on frequent dog training runs.

In addition to entering about 14 canoe races per year, Witte competes in four dogsled races, and even wins some of them. In the Upper Peninsula, the events include the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race, Marquette’s Midnight Run, and Calumet’s CopperDog 150. She’s also raced the 120-mile segment of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon along Lake Superior in Duluth, Minn., five times.

Her most ambitious race was Canada’s Yukon Quest 300, which runs from Whitehorse to Pelly Crossing, in 2017. For a rookie musher, Witte says, it was “a gorgeous yet terrifying experience” at 50 degrees below zero along the Yukon River.

“Actually, I thought I was going to die out there a couple times. It made the AuSable marathon seem easy.”

For a seasoned marathoner like Lynne Witte, canoeing through a tornado warning with intense rain, roiling water, and scary lightning, or being lost on the water in a blinding fog that felt “as if someone had opened a bottle of thick, white baby powder,” she says, are all in a long day’s paddle.

“If you can marathon canoe race,” Witte says, “you can do anything.”


AuSable River Canoe Marathon

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