Ski to Sea's canoe chairman set to take on Michigan river

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 25, 2013 

SKI2SeaLogjam

Ski to Sea canoe leg chairman Thom Prichard, front, and racers David Scherrer and Susan Bennerstrom check out conditions on the Nooksack River Wednesday, May 9, 2012, for people practicing for the annual race.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

In the dead of night, with the sun far removed from its high-setting place in the sky, Thom Prichard will be navigating a 120-mile course on the Au Sable River in Michigan.

Only the moon and a small flashlight on the top of his canoe will light the path down the dark river, keeping him from running aground.

"Doing it at night, there are so many obstacles in the river," Prichard said in a phone interview. "There are different things, hidden channels you can go down; (it's) a real serpentine-like river you can run yourself on the bank of if you are not careful."

Prichard and his canoeing partner, Chris Cook, will take to the 66th Annual Au Sable River International Canoe Marathon starting at 9 p.m. Saturday, July 27. The 14- to 19-hour endeavor starts in the streets of Grayling, Mich., with the competitors racing canoes in hand a quarter mile to the river entrance. From there, the tandem will race the 120-mile length of the Au Sable River to the mouth of Lake Huron in Oscotta, Mich.

The race itself is a hybrid between a straight-up endurance race and a high-intensity sprint, Prichard said. You have to be able to negotiate between the two, creating a balance of longevity and speed.

"There is a lot of pain involved," he said of doing a race such as the Au Sable. "But the pain is secondary to keeping this thing moving."

At 62 years old, Prichard continues to test the limitations of his body, the Au Sable being just the next event worthy of his time.

While 120 miles in canoe might seem long to most, Prichard and Veronica Wisniewski competed in the Yukon River Quest in 2007 that spanned 460 miles over several days. It took 50 hours, to be exact, but the race itself has an entirely different character than the Au Sable.

"The difference there is that the (Yukon) is a pure endurance race," he said. "The (Au Sable), you are pushing as fast and hard all the way through. This is very highly intense, and that one is just you have to paddle hard but steady."

The grueling nature of these races is only limited by how much a person is willing to put the body through, Prichard said, explaining the relationship between competing in extremely difficult competitions and maintaining a healthy body.

"It is amazing when you want to do something, what your body will allow you to do," he said. "You build up to what your body is capable of doing, and a lot of people don't get to that point of getting past that pain and discomfort."

It's funny to think, then, that a serendipitous whim in early 80s is what first tore Prichard away from cross-country skiing to canoeing.

As a fixture in the Ski to Sea community for nearly 30 years, Prichard first got in a canoe when his Ski to Sea team didn't have a paddler for the canoeing section. Young and open to just about anything, Prichard ripped off the skis and grabbed a paddle.

"That first year was just horrible," he said. "We got lost once. ... Of all the channels we could take, we took the wrong one."

Prichard, excited by the prospect of learning something new, dug deeper and deeper into the sport, investing years of his life so that he could finally stay upright, he said.

As it turns out, staying upright, especially in the Au Sable, isn't entirely up to him, though.

He and his partner, Cook, will have to work in tandem to negotiate the dark path. They have dealt with worse, though, once braving gusting waves threatening to flip their canoe in the Indian Arm Provincial Park in British Columbia.

The 2 1/2-foot waves running parallel to the boat forced the tandem to be perfectly synchronized, with Prichard in the bow seat propelling the canoe forward, and Cook holding it steady.

"You have to hit both of them at the same time or you are going to flip," Prichard said. "There is not a time for talking. You have to know what each other is doing, knowing he is going to be there."

There has always been a sense of trust between the two, with words no longer being necessary for communication, Prichard said.

And if all else fails, at least they have that flashlight to point them in the right direction. Unless there is fog, Prichard joked.

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