Donna Buckley, left, and teammate Truda Gilbert are interviewed after their historic finish of the 1973 AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
Donna Buckley, left, and teammate Truda Gilbert are interviewed after their historic finish of the 1973 AuSable River Canoe Marathon.

In the obscure sport of marathon canoe racing, the 120-mile AuSable Canoe Marathon has stood out since its start in 1947 as one of the most difficult and longest canoe races in North America. This ultraendurance race attracts paddlers from all over the U.S. and Canada and starts on the last Saturday in July in the rural northern Michigan town of Grayling.

Unlike most races which start in the morning, this race starts at 9 p.m., thus requiring paddlers competing as two-person teams to navigate nearly half the race in the dark and rely on support crews to provide them with food and drink every few hours. Those who are able complete the race do so in the afternoon the next day in Oscoda, Michigan, half way across the state.

Paddlers do not stop to sleep, drink or eat. They consume most of their calories in liquid form through hoses that allow them to continue paddling. The only time they leave their canoes is when they portage around six dams, which they do by running with their 35-pound carbon graphite canoe on their shoulders.

Barriers to women fall
While the AuSable Canoe Marathon has been around since 1947, it was not until 1969 that women could enter, and then only in a shorter amateur race since discontinued. The Crawford County Avalanche, the newspaper in Grayling, reported on this development: "The World's Championship Canoe Marathon has, after 20 years, finally relaxed the rules to allow women contestants (in only the amateur division). While the professional race, (which runs) 16 hours or longer over the two days is felt to eliminate women automatically, the amateur race being only six hours on Saturday and four hours on Sunday is expected to draw at least one or two mixed (gender) teams."

Three mixed teams ended up entering in the amateur division in 1969, with two finishing. Thus began the era of women's participation in long-distance canoe racing. Five years later, in 1973, the all-woman team of Donna Buckley, 31, and Truda Gilbert, 19, tried to enter the professional division of the full 120-mile race. The application stated that only men were allowed to enter, however. At that time, few women were competing in endurance sports. In fact, women had only been officially allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon the year before. It would not be until the 1984 Summer Olympics that women runners were permitted in an event longer than 1,500 meters.

Buckley and Gilbert's desire to compete forced a meeting of the Michigan Canoe Race Association, which ultimately voted to allow them to compete as professionals - a decision rendered in June, just one month before the race. Buckley and Gilbert both said they knew they were breaking ground by entering the race and were aware of their place in history. They were adamant though that their decision to enter had nothing to do with being a part of the women's movement. They entered because they loved to paddle and wanted to take on another competitive challenge. Their goal was simply to finish, not to achieve a particular place or even to beat other paddlers.

Read the entirety of Karen Febey's account of the first female duo to complete the AuSable Canoe Marathon in the June 2013 issue of Silent Sports. To order a copy of the issue or subscribe to the monthly magazine, call 888/706-4045.