By Kurt J. Kolka

GRAYLING — Some 180 athletes are preparing themselves this week for a grueling 14-19 hours of paddling non-stop down the AuSable River to receive a piece of the purse.

Among them is Doug Gillin, 60, Adrian, entering his ninth AuSable River Canoe Marathon. In Canoe No. 36, he is paddling with his good friend, Michael Garon, 61, Washington Township.Their hope is to take the Senior Division in this year’s race, which begins at 9 p.m. on Saturday.

Doug’s history with the race began back in 2000.

“I was working for this guy, Kimball Wright, who just getting into canoe racing, and he asked me, ‘Ya want to try canoe racing?’ I was like ‘What?’” explains Doug.

So, Kimball showed him what racing was about and they became paddling partners. 

“We entered the Amateur Division of the Marathon in 2000. And we won that division. I look back at it now and I’m like ‘What happened?’”

It was when he joined with paddling companion Michael Garon in 2003, Doug became more serious about racing. That year they raced the Triple Crown, which includes the AuSable River Marathon. He says they also entered every race they could in Michigan. It was a busy summer.

Doug spent years canoe racing after that. He has had numerous partners paddle with him. Some years he paddles in the Marathon, but other years he takes it off. His best time over the years was in 2013 when paddled with veteran paddler Tom Trudgeon. That year they won the Senior Division, coming in 13th overall, with a time of 15 hours and 28 minutes. It was Tom’s 13th Marathon race!

While he enjoys the physical benefits canoeing gives to his body, Doug insists the best part about canoe racing is actually being out in God’s creation. 

“I love being out on the water, seeing the wildlife. During the Marathon, it’s seeing the stars at night. It’s amazing.”

But Doug concedes being in the Marathon takes a lot of preparation. He estimates he needs to spend between 120 and 160 hours on the water training just to be able to stay in the middle of the pack of the 90 teams paddling during the Marathon.

“It is evident to me God has gifted me with physical abilities and mental capacity and bent to do something stupid like this. You know, we make our plans but God guides our steps. And it’s like ‘Here I am again. I don’t know how I got here here but ….” says Doug, who made Jesus the head of his life at age 10.

Doug says one of the things he struggles with is the time he must put in to be part of these races. It takes him away from his family and church often in the summers.

“But this is part of who I am. And I have come to understand I have had influences on some of the other racers [with my faith]. My hope is that I do this in a God-honoring way.“

Canoeing is also a spiritual experience for Doug. He spends much of his time on the water talking to God, even while racing.

Doug is hoping this year he and Mike will be able to win the Senior Division by a time of around 15 1/2 hours once again.

“Of course, you never know how that will go. But still that’s what we’re trying for.”

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Kurt J. Kolka grew up in the small community of Grayling, Mich., near the forested AuSable River. After majoring in English at college, he began a career in writing and newspapers spanning more than two decades. In his spare time he creates a Christian comic strip, The Cardinal, which has a 28-year history of publication. He has also authored a book, “Bullying is No Laughing Matter” (Front Edge Publications, Ann Arbor, Mich., 2014) and is working on his first novel. Kurt and his wife Diane have been married for more than 25 years and have one daughter, Rebekah, and an overprotective dog, Alli. Of life, Kurt says, “Life is never dull with God at the steering wheel, but, man, does He have a lead foot!” More about Kurt and his musings may be found at www.betweenthepines.org.

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