AuSable River Canoe Marathon paddler travels to Australia and takes top spot in race
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
AuSable River Canoe Marathon paddler Nicole “Nickie” Owens and many others continue to train on the river year-round even when temperatures drop below the frigid mark.
But when Owens got the chance to paddle in a warmer climate, she jumped at the opportunity.
Owens took part in the 50th anniversary Massive Murray Paddle in Australia, which was held Nov. 19 through Nov. 23.
Unlike the 120-mile AuSable River Canoe Marathon, when paddlers paddle from start to finish, the race went 404 kilometers over five days.
“Each night, you have an opportunity to rest, but your muscles get sore and you get stiff, and then you got to get into the boat and do it all over again,” Owens said.
During the first two days, she said it was hot with temperatures at 85 to 90 degrees. The third day, Owens described as perfect.
On the fourth day of the race, paddlers faced 40-degree weather and high winds and waves.
“It was some of most challenging paddling that I’ve ever seen,” Owens said. “There were waves coming back on the water that were just crazy. The winds were coming back up at about 60 mph and there were thunderstorms. Later on in the day, after we finished, paddlers faced hail, so it was just a crazy, crazy day. I was really glad we were done by then.”
The weather improved for the final day of the race.
“It was windy, but it was much nicer,” she said.
Owens was prompted to take part in the race after learning about its challenge from Judi and Rod Clark, who paddled in the 2017 AuSable River Canoe Marathon. The couple is from Echuca, Victoria Australia.
“I thought my God, that sounds amazing,” Owens said.
In 2018, Frank Kingma and James Miller, also from Australia, paddled in the AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
Owens planned and prepared to take part in the race Down Under this year.
“It sounded like a pretty good challenge,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to go to Australia, and that was the perfect opportunity to do so.”
Owens was a quick study regarding the races and the Murray River, which is 2,000 kilometers long and serves as border between Victoria and New South Wales. The watershed is a critical natural resource to those who live along the river.
“They use it for farming and irrigation and all kinds of stuff,” she said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know that many people would be able to survive in that area without the river because they’re in a drought.”
Historical records about the river and aboriginals date back 4,000 years. The race was started to celebrate the heritage of the river and the people who live along its banks.
“That was what brought this whole race into play was something to bring aboriginal folks together with people who were living in that area together and kind of solidify a truce,” Owens said.
Owens padded with Rod Clark in the race. They completed the Massive Murray Paddle in 33 hours 31 minutes. They finished the race in eighth place, but were the first canoe to complete the race.
There were 162 entries, which included some relay teams, 85 full-distance boats, which included kayaks, canoes, and surf skis all lumped one class.
Owens was elated with taking a top finishing spot in the race.
“It was awesome,” she said. “I totally did not expect that to happen. I went over with the expectation of doing my best, and we ended up doing really good. I was pretty darned excited.”
Points where spectators can view the paddlers and contestants could restock with food and drink were similar to the AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
“Feed stops were similar, but that was about where the similarities ended,” Owens said.
She said the Murray River is not like any local river.
“The river is three times as long as this, it’s very wide and slow,” she said. “It doesn’t compare to anything we have here.”
She said she enjoyed taking in the scenery with different trees and birds. Owens noted that a 10-year-old boy took part in the race with his father in a two-person kayak. She also met extended members of several families while in Australia for two and a half weeks.
“They were just the nicest people,” Owens said. “Paddling is very much a family event there.”
It took Owens 21 hours to fly to Australia, taking off from Traverse City and layover stops in Chicago, Los Angeles before landing in Melbourne.
She said she would like to go back to compete in the race, but also contemplated padding in other races in different countries.
“I would love to do it again,” Owens said. “I enjoyed the traveling. It was definitely a challenge to go on a river that didn’t behave like any other river I paddled on.”
Owens credited friends that helped her train this fall in some pretty unfriendly conditions to stay race ready, including Don Brooks, Rod Elliott and Bill Mahaffey.
Owens was born and raised in Grayling and started paddling at the age of 8 in the wake of her late father, Dan Rice.
During her high school years, she attempted three AuSable River Canoe Marathons with her dad, all of which ended with did not finish (DNF) results.
“Every time we went, something happened whether it was illness, injury or we put an 18-inch hole in the boat,” she said.
Owens graduated from Grayling High School l996. She took a 22-year hiatus from the sport to start a family and a career. She is married to Jamey Owens. The couple has two sons, Andy, age 9, and Ben, age 13.
Owens is an RN at Munson Healthcare Otsego Memorial Hospital. She has served as a firefighter and EMT for Frederic Township Fire Department and EMS Service for 22 years.
Five years ago, Owens started competing in smaller races on the Michigan Canoe Racing Association race circuit, including the Spike’s Challenge held just before the AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
For the last three years, Owens has competed in the AuSable River Canoe Marathon with Rod Elliot, who is from Pinckney, but had lived Grayling the last 10 years. They have completed all three races with a best finish of 54th.
Owens said she enjoys the serenity of being on one Crawford County’s crown jewels any chance she can get.
“I just like being on the river,” she said. “It’s just nice to get out there and make a boat move and see nature and there is something special about the AuSable especially.”
During the winter months, Owens travels around with a pair of race canoes strapped on her truck.
“I go year-round, as the long as the river is not frozen,” Owens said.
She puts in at Canoe Camp, paddles upstream to I-75, and then and goes back downstream to Townline Road, if it’s open. Owens said it is not too bad on the river if you are dressed properly, acclimated to the weather conditions and focused on training.
The training during winter months last an hour and a half up to two hours.
“It’s too cold to be out there much longer than that,” she said.