When we visited Orange, MA last fall, Jerry Whaland, owner of Billy Goat Boats, encouraged us to join the River Rat Race, which happens the second Saturday in April every year. Then Jason Rushford, an Athol fireman and the race safety director, chimed in to say that we should do it.
The River Rat Race started as a bet between several patrons at a bar in Athol. This year was the 58th annual race. Run by the Athol and Orange Lions Clubs, it’s an annual event that brings large crowds to the area, including professional paddlers. The course is said to be 5.2 miles in length down the Millers River.
For two grannies who haven’t paddled for years, needless to say, this was an intimidating task. But we were encouraged, advised and helped by many people. And we were up for the challenge! We started by practicing on the pond behind Beth’s house in her canoe a couple of times. It certainly didn’t duplicate the environment of the river, with its fast-moving current and 200 other canoers all trying to win the race, but at least we got to practice paddling and warm up those muscles.
Our strategy was to “hang back” and let the more competitive paddlers go ahead of us. The goal was to NOT get dumped in the icy cold water. The sun was out that day but the air temperature was only about 54 degrees, and the water was much colder than that! We wanted to finish dry, not win the race!
A drawing was held the night before the race to determine each canoe’s starting place. There were 178 canoes entered this year. We were hoping for a high number, but knew we wanted to stay toward the back even if we got a low number. Luckily we ended up with #142, so that was a good start. At the drawing, we met a lot of very nice people who promised not to try to dump us over! It does happen accidentally when one canoe is trying to pass another one, so we wanted to avoid that. But when people discovered that we weren’t very experienced paddlers, the looks they gave made us feel that we might be in trouble! Then they would quickly try to assure us that we would be fine. Oh, great!
River Rat Race Day
Race day started with a pancake breakfast at the Masonic Lodge, a 5k, and a parade. Like we said, this race is a big deal. We decided to drive the granny-mobile in the parade, which was organized by the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce. Many people along the parade route seemed to have either seen our Facebook posts or the article in the Athol Times and wished us luck in the race as we drove by. That was fun!
After the parade, we went over to Athol-Orange Community TV. They had offered to let us change there. Marcia had brought a wet suit to wear for the race. She wasn’t taking any chances! We then drove to the finish line at Billy Goat Boats, where our photographer, Jasmine Nelson and her boyfriend picked us up and drove us to the Alan E. Rich Environmental Park, where the race begins. Billy Goat Boats loaned us one of their canoes, which we were so grateful to have! Pam Browning Balla, a paddler from Athol, brought the canoe to the park for us.
There were staging areas along the river where the paddlers put in, depending on the starting number they had drawn the night before. But for those who didn’t care to get into the fray, it was ok to stay on dry land until the canon went off. That’s what we chose to do.
Finally the canon sounded, and the frenzy began! Almost 200 canoes frantically paddling down the river, with hundreds of bystanders watching from the shores as well as the bridge just passed the starting line. Once most of them had gone by, we carefully pushed the canoe into the water and jumped in. There was a canoe right next to us, which unfortunately tipped over before they even got started. They almost took us with them when their canoe popped up and hit ours, but we held on!
Are We Still Going the Right Way?
It was a beautiful day. The sun was bright. The water seemed pretty calm at first, and not much of a breeze. That changed as we continued down the river. Some spots were a bit choppy and the wind tried to turn us around on several occasions, but we prevailed! We weren’t the last canoe at the beginning, but pretty close. One canoe in particular seemed a bit out of control and we kept trying to avoid it because it would get pretty close to us and then turn around. But eventually it went ahead of us, bobbing and weaving its way down the river.
We thought we were really doing well, until we realized that we could no longer see anyone ahead of us, and no one behind us! And that’s the way we finished – dead last! The good news is that we did the entire race in 1 hour and 35 minutes, which even the race officials said was really good time. They told us of times when they had to wait 3-4 hours for the last racers to come in. That made us feel much better.
It’s About Having Fun!
In the end, we had loads of fun, seeing and hearing all the people along the way cheering the paddlers on, and just enjoying a day of paddling on a beautiful river. Reaching the finish line felt like a great accomplishment.
It may sound trite, but if we can do it, anyone can!
We are so thankful for the many people who helped us participate in the race, and also for the many people who made the race happen. It really takes a village.
Stay tuned for the Rat Race show!