Home-grown paddler now living
in Alaska sees many comparisons
between Marathon and Iditarod
By KEITH GAVE
Bryan Bearss remembers sitting on the lawn at his family’s home where the AuSable River meets the East Branch and watching the paddlers speed by as darkness descended on the water and they pushed their sleek carbon fiber boats ahead with the blades of their paddles at an average rate of 65 strokes a minute, nearly 4,000 strokes an hour. For hours. And hours.
He was a boy, and these were some of the most important people in his life.
“It was a family event. We’d just sit and watch, but it was always fun watching one of my teachers, Butch Stockton. . . to see how those guys just fly by. There was a lot of pride, pointing to him and saying, ‘Hey, that’s my teacher!’”
Stockton won the race four times from 1982-1986, and maybe he was an inspiration for Bearss winding up as a teacher as well. One thing is certain, though: They inspired him to compete in this race.
“It’s always been one of the things I wanted to do,” he said.
This is his year. He and race partner Mandee Mlcek, both 39, went to school together in Grayling and both wound up in Anchorage, Alaska. They will be racing in canoe No. 49 – a tribute to Alaska becoming the country’s 49th state.
Mlcek, an American Disabilities Act coordinator, moved to Anchorage three years ago. Bearss has been there for 13 years, lured north by his love of dog mushing. Besides teaching, he’s worked with some of the world’s best mushers and their dogs. He even competed in the Iditarod, a 1,000-mile run from Anchorage to Nome.
So he’s no stranger to lack of sleep and mental fatigue that every paddler battles in a race typically won in the 15th hour.
“And for some of us, 19 hours,” he said sardonically.
The greatest challenge will be dealing with the oppressive heat and humidity – especially for a team from Alaska.
“The heat is just unbearable,” Bearrs said, noting that he and Mlcek were training the other day when it was 91 degrees with humidity pushing 90 percent as well. “I don’t know as I’ve ever seen 91 degrees in Alaska – or above 30 percent humidity.”
The difference is staggering.
“When we were training in Alaska, we were paddling on a glacial river where the water was 36-37 degrees,” he said. “You worried about falling in and freezing to death. Here, we’re worried about heat stroke.”
The pair has been in Michigan for two weeks, and survived the Spike’s Challenge on Saturday. And Bearss acknowledged to experiencing the same joys of the competition in Grayling that he felt mushing dogs in Alaska. The camaraderie between the competitors is special, as is their extraordinary athleticism and will to get to the finish line against sometimes enormous odds.
He saw that last year as a feeder for the team of Ellen and Jon Thompson, of Grayling.
“They ripped a hole in their boat, and they just kept paddling,” Bearss said. “They paddled like that for two feeds before we could fix it. These paddlers, they go through all kinds of trials and tribulations during the race, and they don’t give up.”
Which always makes reaching the finish line in Oscoda, 120 miles and upwards of 70,000 paddle strokes from Grayling, so joyful.
“The looks of relief, accomplishment and exhaustion as they cross the finish line and pull up to shore, it’s just amazing,” Bearss said, hoping to experience that feeling himself sometime Sunday afternoon.
If he fails, it won’t be from lack of support from other paddlers. Because it would have cost them more than $3,000 to ship their boat from Anchorage to Grayling, they borrowed one from the Thompsons. Jason Thompson, the candidate for judge in Crawford County, and other friends and relatives will serve as feeders along the journey.
And through much of their training in the two weeks they’ve been back home in Grayling, Mlcek and Bearss have been guided by Lynne Witte, 62, of Mt. Clemens – another teacher and veteran of 35 Marathons who also happens to mush dogs. They’ve done some night runs together, scouting parts of the river they hadn’t paddles.
Thanks to Witte, Bearss said, “we’ve seen about 80 percent of the river from here to Oscoda.”
Bearss and Witte also like to commiserate about the parallels between mushing dogs long distances and marathon canoe races. The major difference, he noted, is that in sled-dog racing “the dogs are the show,” the athletes, and the mushers are essentially coaches who work with them.
“We’ve had lots of talks about that,” he said. “I remember a time in a big race when the guy in first place fell off the sled and the guy in second place stopped, picked him up and helped him get going again. People do that all the time, stop and help each other. Dog mushing is all about the dogs, staying safe and having fun. Later on down the trail, those two guys were going neck and neck again.
“But you never leave a musher behind. These paddlers are like that, too. They’re bending over backward to help each other out – and to help out the rookies like us, coaching us. It’s really a great big family.”
The goal for this new team of racers?
“Just to finish it, that’s the main thing – as it probably is for any rookie,” Bearss said.
Either way, it will be a milestone homecoming for a couple of kids from Grayling bent on making childhood dreams come true – 120 miles or so downstream.