Loss of a legend: AuSable River Canoe Marathon icon ‘Amazing’ Al Widing Sr. passes away at the age of 92
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
A true competitor, and a definite crowd favorite, he will truly be missed." – Holly Reynolds
Al Widing Sr. of Mio, an AuSable River Canoe Marathon icon, the record holder for both most starts in AuSable Marathon history and oldest finisher, and perhaps the event’s most popular paddler of all time, passed away last week. He was 92 years old.
“He set an example for all of us,” said Steve Southard of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee. “The folks that took the time to know him, so quiet, so modest, so good with kids, so good with people in general. What a love for the Marathon, what a love for the river.”
Widing was beloved by Marathon fans. He is known for his unprecedented Marathon longevity; Widing is the current record holder for most total AuSable River Canoe Marathon starts with 41, oldest paddler to start the Marathon (age 89), and oldest paddler to finish the race (age 87), according to AuSable Marathon records.
“I was always impressed with Al’s quiet strength and humility,” said Marcia Koppa, a Marathon volunteer. “He was a competitor, no doubt about that. One with a big heart. He could walk out of his canoe at the end of the race and give one the impression that he was ready to paddle back upstream.”
Widing’s last AuSable River Canoe Marathon was in 2014; he raced with his son, Al Widing Jr. Widing Sr. was 89 years old at the time. His most recent AuSable Marathon finish was in 2012 (with Hailey McMahon); he was 87.
It was normal for Widing to get the loudest cheers at pre-race paddler introductions and at a variety of viewing locations throughout the AuSable Marathon.
Holly Reynolds, who’s raced in the Marathon several times, shared this story from 2011, when Widing was with Rick Joy:
“Gloria (Wesley) and I raced women’s for the first time together in 2011, and through the night tried to keep close tabs on all the competition. After every bridge we’d quietly paddle and count in our heads until the cheer for the next competitor to gauge our progress,” Reynolds said. “After going under the bridge at McMasters, I remember counting, after a minute or so you could hear a loud cheer, and another few minutes another fainter cheer, etc. After several minutes, the loudest cheer yet came; it seemed almost deafening. Gloria and I just laughed, and said in unison, Al!”
“A true competitor, and a definite crowd favorite, he will truly be missed,” Reynolds said.
Widing’s best finish placement during his 41 Marathons was second, a feat he accomplished in three consecutive years: 1964 (with Pat Widing), 1965 (with Stan Hall), and 1966 (with LeRoy Widing). He was 39, 40, and 41 years old, respectively, during those three races, according to AuSable Marathon records.
Widing owns the record for best finish time for the race for Professional Division male paddlers at 16 different ages: 65 and 66, 72 through 78, 80 through 84, and 86 and 87.
“As a student of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon history, it was an honor to have personally known this Marathon legend and have always considered both Al and Al Jr. as friends,” said John Cook and Janice Cook. “In addition to being one of America’s greatest senior athletes, Al became the leading ‘Ambassador of the Marathon.’ Al was far more than a great paddler with over 300 canoe races to his credit.”
The Cooks noted Widing’s military service for the United States during World War II.
“He fought in (World War II) as a sailor aboard (the) USS Aaron Ward and almost lost his life in the greatest sea battle of the war,” the Cooks said.
Southard said before he learned about Widing’s experiences in the war he often wondered how Widing could be so calm during all of those Marathons.
“Paddling in the Marathon was dramatic and traumatic for some paddlers. (Al) just went out and did his thing year after year after year. I wondered for a long time if there was an event, something, for which put the Marathon in perspective for Al,” Southard said.
“Eventually I found out,” Southard said, referring to Widing’s service on the USS Aaron Ward during World War II, and the damage that the Aaron Ward sustained in an attack by the Japanese.
“(Al) wasn’t just a great Marathoner. He paid a great price for his country,” Southard said.
The Cooks knew Widing Sr. as a family man.
“Al married Dorothy, the love of his life, who he had known since second grade. He loved his family,” the Cooks said. “Janice and I would like to extend our heartfelt sympathy to Al’s six children and their spouses, 18 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren, his two sisters, and the 21 different individuals that were his Marathon partners during those 41 trips between Grayling and Oscoda.”
Sean Casey, who paddled with Widing in the AuSable Marathon twice (2007 and 2008), the General Clinton Canoe Regatta once, and La Classique once, said: “You can’t have known Al and not known Dot. They were perfect for each other.”
“Al overcame many setbacks in his life, starting with the death of his father, Florin Harold Howard, before Al’s sixth birthday. Each difficulty he faced in life and his ability to keep moving forward were the trademark qualities that made Al one of the elite canoe paddlers in the history of the sport,” the Cooks said.
“He survived some pretty crazy injuries, including a broken back,” Casey said. “He was pretty much fearless.”
In addition to being one of the most recognizable paddlers in the history of the Marathon, Widing also worked behind the scenes for the sport of canoe racing.
“Al was one of three gentlemen credited with starting the Michigan Canoe Racing Association and served as its second president. Al was president of the MCRA when the Canoers’ Memorial Monument was built on the high banks of the AuSable River. The crossed paddles on the top of the monument were designed, built, donated, and maintained by Al,” the Cooks said.
According to obituaries, Widing Sr. was born on Feb. 12, 1925 and he passed away on Jan. 11, 2018.
“Al was just one month short of reaching his 93rd birthday. We are thankful that every person in our extended family had an opportunity to meet ‘Amazing Al,’” the Cooks said. “It is unlikely that some of Al’s Marathon records will ever be matched.”
Widing raced with people of many different ages and experience levels during his more than 40 years of competing.
“I paddled the AuSable Marathon three times with Al: 1999, 2005, and 2006. We still hold the seniors record to this day that we set in 1999. I believe Al was 74 and I was 57 at that time. Al said that was his fastest time for the Marathon and he did it at age 74. We were known as Amazing Al and Grandpa Bob,” said AuSable Marathon competitor Bob Bradford.
“Al and Dot were like the mom and dad to me of paddling. Al was always there to train with me anytime I needed a partner. I was privileged to race (La) Classique two times with Al and many Michigan races. My favorite quote of Al: ‘Remember when that cut was open?’ Or we would say ‘that is where Al would paddle,’ through the shallow water. He was determined to always paddle his course,” said Lynne Witte, a paddler who’s been in the AuSable River Canoe Marathon 38 times. “Very sweet, vibrant individual to always be remembered.”
Casey also said Widing was known for sticking to his own paths. Casey paddled with Widing during his first attempt at racing in the La Classique – a three-day/three-stage race on Quebec’s St. Maurice River conducted during Labor Day weekend – and it “was an eye opener,” he said. The paddling teams started in a group, and then split, with some canoes going left and others going right. Widing offered a different plan.
“He wanted to go right down the middle, so we did,” Casey said. “We did pretty good that day. No portages. High teens, early 20s for most of the first day.”
Casey said Widing had a knee injury when he paddled with him during one of the Marathons and had a difficult time with the running start and the portages.
“We basically had to walk (during the start) the second year I raced the Marathon with him. We were one of the last teams in the water. Once we hit the water I think we passed 30-some teams before Burton’s. It was ridiculous,” Casey said.
Casey said Widing was a quiet mentor, and taught him a lot.
“He wasn’t much for coaching like talking, it was just hours of paddling,” Casey said. “He helped me to get a lot more efficient, how to drop the stroke rate and still keep a good speed. He helped me go with my gut sometimes. You don’t always have to follow the team in front of you.”
“He was somebody I could look up to. He was humble, an all-around good guy. I never really met anyone like him before. He was one of a kind,” Casey said.
“He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t want to be the stuff of legends, but it’s probably going to happen anyway. He deserves to be remembered,” Casey said.