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Torch passed in ‘First dam’ race

Smutek family photo - Ted, Brian, Frank, Amy and Bill
Five members of the Smutek family participated in the AuSable River Canoe Marathon in a single race. Their mother, Peg Smutek, helped organize the First Dam Canoe Race in Mio to promote the marathon and the Oscoda County community. Pictured (l-r) are Ted, Brian, Frank, Amy and Bill.

MIO – The “First Dam Canoe Race” has a new face at the helm. After 20 years of leading the Mio event, Peg Smutek has turned over the reins to Roscommon’s Danny Medina, a professional racer who is active within the AuSable River Canoe Marathon community.

Medina said he embraced responsibility for the event at a December meeting of the Michigan Canoe Racing Association (MCRA). His friend, Cecili Bugge, will be helping with the planning and coordination.

“This is important,” Medina said. “I appreciate what everyone has done before me to make this event special. I just want to do what I can to keep it moving forward.”

Medina brings some experience to the event. He has competed in at least a dozen “First Dam” races as well as the AuSable River Canoe Marathon, finishing sixth last year with Colin Hunter of Grayling.

Presented by the Oscoda County Canoe Racing Association and the Michigan Canoe Racing Association (MCRA), the First Dam Canoe Race has traditionally been held at the Oscoda County Park, located at 1110 Jay Smith Drive in Mio.

Peg said she and some other volunteers started the race 23 years ago. Former resident Linda Barnes, who used to write grants in Oscoda County came to her and asked about a race on the river.

“I thought it was a great idea. We all live here, and we need to take advantage of it. And it’s a great chance to promote Mio.”

The event was originally backed by the chamber and added under its insurance umbrella. That’s how she ended up volunteering to work with the chamber 16 or 17 years ago. She still works in the office 2-3 days a week.

Although the two-day event includes a number of community races, it has been highly successful in the past as a recruiting tool for canoers interested in undertaking the marathon challenge.

Danny Medina paddling in 2018
Danny Medina at the first dam race circa 2018.

It’s like a “staple” race Medina said.

“After the marathon is over people are interested in trying to race. And this is a great place for racers to get started,” he added.

Medina said the First Dam race was the start of his own marathon career. He’s participated in more than a dozen “First Dam” races.

Peg said she, Susan Avery and several other volunteers will continue to put on the traditional Saturday luncheon. Staying with the community theme of the race weekend, she said a potluck will be served at the Oscoda County Park Saturday.

Family Fare has agreed to donate chicken and UpNorthVoice.com is donating a large First Dam Race-themed chocolate cake. But since volunteers are the staple of the event, Medina said he knows the people in the paddle community will help as well. All food donations are welcome.

“Susan and I do mac and cheese and goulash,” Peg said. “We get together the day before with some of the paddlers wives and just cook. Everyone does a little. Linda Martin usually makes about three cakes with peanut butter frosting. That’s her way of helping. It takes a few people to make it happen.”

Smutek has been involved with “First Dam” race for decades. But the event is tied in with her family’s participation in the AuSable River Canoe Marathon, held the last weekend of July. She said her daughter, Amy Solak, is racing in the marathon this year with Jeff Defaeo of Massachusetts.

Along with her dad, Ted, and brothers Brian, Bill and Ted, everyone in the family participated in the marathon at one point or another.

“One year Frank and all four of my kids paddled in the marathon,” Peg said. “I had five family members in the race at the same time. It was something.”

Smutek’s home in Luzerne is a regular spot for AuSable River Canoe Marathon watchers and feeder teams as well.

I feel good about the transition. It’s just time. My husband, Frank, is turning 90 and I just think it’s time to back down a little bit.

Peg Smutek

“The day of the race we will have 100 people in my yard,” she said. “I set up a microwave and a coffee pot and the feeder teams set up there. They all know all they have to do is ask: ‘Can we feed at your house?’ And the answer is yes. We love having them there.”

But the “First Dam” race has always been near to Peg’s heart. Regardless, she’s proud to pass on the reins of the event to Medina.

“I feel good about the transition,” she said. “I like Danny and Cecili. I’m willing to help. It’s just time. My husband, Frank, is turning 90 and I just think it’s time to back down a little bit.”

“He’s a nice young man,” she said. “And he’s been part of this race as a competitor for a long time. We’ve been working together and been out doing a little bit of fundraising. I gave him a list of things to do such as what permits he needs to draw.

“I think he’ll do a great job.”

Race Information:

The First Dam Canoe Race begins Saturday, Aug. 26 with the C-2 race (Expert I and II) at the Oscoda County Park in Mio, located on Jay Smith Drive. Registration is 7:30-8:30 a.m. with a pre-race meeting to follow. The race begins at 9 a.m.

At 2 p.m., the free Junior, Fledgling and Old Timers races are scheduled. Those are followed by the Aluminum Canoe Fun ($5, non-racers)/ business races. Both are held at the public access across from the park. Spectators can watch from there or from the platform at the park.

The C-1 race is Sunday, Aug. 27 with registration from 7:30-8:30 a.m. with a pre-race meeting to follow. The race begins at 9 a.m.

MCRA Awards as soon as possible after races are completed and times compiled. For formal racing specifications visit miracing.com.

Mail completed pre-register entries and check or money order OCCRA, c/o Marcia Rimer, 8673 Fowler Road, Horton MI  49246. Entries must be postmarked by Aug. 15.

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