Orange’s Nick Lyesiuk ready to tackle grueling canoe marathon in Michigan


Staff Writer
Published: 7/21/2021 6:25:06 PM
Modified: 7/21/2021 10:50:03 PM

Orange’s Nick Lyesiuk knows all about the challenges of the Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon. 

The race — which takes place annually in Grayling, Michigan — is 120 miles with no stops, thus its distinction as the toughest canoe race in North America. It typically takes 12-19 hours to compete, with racers competing throughout the night to finish. 

For Lyesiuk, that’s no new challenge. This Saturday will mark the 10th time the soon-to-be 78-year-old is competing in the race, having completed it all nine times prior. 

“You get an Iron Man award for finishing 10 races,” Lyesiuk said. “It gives me a little extra motivation to finish this one.” 

Lyesiuk will be one of the oldest participants in the race, which he last completed in 2019 with Pittsfield’s Gary Aprea as his partner. He and Aprea were the oldest team to compete in that race, with Lyesiuk 75 and Aprea 76 at the time. 

He completed his first AuSable race in 1999.

“We were like celebrities going down the river,” Lyesiuk said. “We were the only two over 70 doing it. Everyone was calling our name.” 

Lyesiuk feels ready to complete the demanding AuSable course, which requires racers to portage the six dams, battle the darkness, the river’s obstructions, weather conditions and the sheer exhaustion of paddling non-stop for the full 120 miles. 

As he’s gotten older, his training has changed slightly, but he’s still in great shape and ready to conquer the course for the 10th time. This week, he did a race that took a little less than four hours to complete for one final preparation before the big event.

“I don’t train as much as I used to,” Lyesiuk said. “I ski in the winter time when I can’t get out on the water, cross country ski. I hit the weights, do a little jogging, some bike riding and just try to stay as healthy as possible.” 

This year, Lyesiuk is racing with Peter Heed of Keene, N.H., another canoe race veteran who’s competed in the AuSable 15 times. Lyesiuk and Heed are experienced racing partners, having done numerous races together through the years, including the AuSable.

What keeps bringing them back to Michigan for a grueling race? 

“It’s the challenge,” Lyesiuk began. “It’s quite a challenging race and it’s the challenge in it that keeps bringing me back. There are times you want to pull out. The last two hours or so, you’re around a beach area with people swimming, tubing and kayaking. They’re all encouraging you and you’re just telling yourself, ‘one more mile,’ but that last mile feels like 20 miles. But you’ve come so far, you have to keep going.” 

With so much experience, Lyesiuk knows just about all the tricks of the race, though no two races are the same. The water level, moon and weather are all different for every race.

When he first started the AuSable, he had to use a compass to make his way around the course. This proved to be difficult at night, with the moon not providing much light to see the obstacles ahead. Now, as technology has progressed, the racers no longer have to navigate their way around the course on their own, instead using a GPS device to assure they’re heading in the right direction.

“It can get really foggy in the morning,” Lyesiuk said. “You have canoes going in opposite directions, and before GPS, you could have some collisions. Now with GPS, you don’t really have to worry about that. Everyone has a different program they used to follow to do the race but now people have been feeding info online about different obstacles and such on the course. It’s extremely helpful and makes it much safer but it does take the mystique out of the race.”

The AuSable isn’t the only canoe race Lyesiuk competes in. He started off with small races and as time went on, started racing in longer and longer races. 

His love for canoe racing was evident early on, as he’s traveled around the country to compete in different events. 

“Living in the Athol-Orange area, you go to the (River) Rat Race,” Lyesiuk said. “It introduces you to the sport. You do one-hour races, five or 10 miles, then you start hearing about races here and there and the next thing you know, you’re racing in Hawaii and Canada or racing from one island to another. It’s fantastic.”

While the AuSable is one of the most difficult races Lyesiuk competes in, he feels the “Canadian Killers” pose a tougher test. Those are three days long, equivalent mileage to the AuSable but more challenging based on the typical river conditions. 

With tons of racing experience, Lyesiuk is ready to conquer the AuSable and earn his Iron Man award on Saturday. 

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