Of nearly 180 canoes in River Rat Race, Zaveral/MacDowell team claims victory

Eager fans line the Main Street bridge in Athol for the start of the annual River Rat Race on Saturday.

Eager fans line the Main Street bridge in Athol for the start of the annual River Rat Race on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

This year’s River Rat  Race saw nearly 180 canoes travel down a 5.2-mile stretch of the Millers River from Athol to Orange. Top: Spectators line the Main Street bridge for the start. Right: Ryan Zaveral and Shane MacDowell cross the finish line first.Below left: Canoers wait for the start. Below right: Thomas and Elliott Payne participate. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

This year’s River Rat Race saw nearly 180 canoes travel down a 5.2-mile stretch of the Millers River from Athol to Orange. Top: Spectators line the Main Street bridge for the start. Right: Ryan Zaveral and Shane MacDowell cross the finish line first.Below left: Canoers wait for the start. Below right: Thomas and Elliott Payne participate. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Canoeists make their way down the Millers River for the 59th running of the River Rat Race on Saturday.

Canoeists make their way down the Millers River for the 59th running of the River Rat Race on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Canoeists make their way down the Millers River for the 59th running of the River Rat Race on Saturday.

Canoeists make their way down the Millers River for the 59th running of the River Rat Race on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Canoe No. 3, paddled by Ryan Zaveral and Shane MacDowell, was the first to cross the finish line in the 59th running of the River Rat Race on Saturday.

Canoe No. 3, paddled by Ryan Zaveral and Shane MacDowell, was the first to cross the finish line in the 59th running of the River Rat Race on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Canoe No. 3, paddled by Ryan Zaveral and Shane MacDowell, was the first to cross the finish line in the 59th running of the River Rat Race on Saturday.

Canoe No. 3, paddled by Ryan Zaveral and Shane MacDowell, was the first to cross the finish line in the 59th running of the River Rat Race on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Firefighters and dive team members help canoeists get out of the water after crossing the finish line in the 59th running of the River Rat Race on Saturday.

Firefighters and dive team members help canoeists get out of the water after crossing the finish line in the 59th running of the River Rat Race on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Hayden Herk and Taylor Finch were among the competitors in the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday.

Hayden Herk and Taylor Finch were among the competitors in the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Spectators lining the Millers River and the Main Street bridge in Athol watch the start of the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday.

Spectators lining the Millers River and the Main Street bridge in Athol watch the start of the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Competitors prepare for the start of the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday.

Competitors prepare for the start of the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Competitors prepare for the start of the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday.

Competitors prepare for the start of the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Thomas and Elliot Payne participate in the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday.

Thomas and Elliot Payne participate in the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Nearly 180 canoes participated in the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday.

Nearly 180 canoes participated in the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Spectators by the finish line cheer for Brad Teeter and Michael Del Rio during the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday.

Spectators by the finish line cheer for Brad Teeter and Michael Del Rio during the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Brie and Mike Choate celebrate upon reaching the finish line in the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday.

Brie and Mike Choate celebrate upon reaching the finish line in the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Members of the dive team assist paddlers arriving at the finish line during the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday.

Members of the dive team assist paddlers arriving at the finish line during the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Jillian Valley and Michael Griffin are assisted out of their canoe on Saturday after completing the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange.

Jillian Valley and Michael Griffin are assisted out of their canoe on Saturday after completing the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Andrew Cummings and Nicholas Salvadore show off their pirate garb, complete with rats, for the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday.

Andrew Cummings and Nicholas Salvadore show off their pirate garb, complete with rats, for the 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/JAMIE MALCOLM-BROWN

Nearly 180 canoes participated in Saturday’s 59th running of the River Rat Race.

Nearly 180 canoes participated in Saturday’s 59th running of the River Rat Race. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Canoes approach the bridge in Athol at the start of the River Rat Race on Saturday.

Canoes approach the bridge in Athol at the start of the River Rat Race on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Canoes approach the bridge in Athol at the start of the River Rat Race on Saturday.

Canoes approach the bridge in Athol at the start of the River Rat Race on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Racers wait to find out their position at the drawing at Athol Town Hall on Friday night before the 59th running of the River Rat Race.

Racers wait to find out their position at the drawing at Athol Town Hall on Friday night before the 59th running of the River Rat Race. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

The safety teams help canoes and the paddlers exit the Millers River in Orange on Saturday after the 59th running of the River Rat Race.

The safety teams help canoes and the paddlers exit the Millers River in Orange on Saturday after the 59th running of the River Rat Race. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

The winning boats are checked for length at the finish in Orange on Saturday after the 59th running of the River Rat Race.

The winning boats are checked for length at the finish in Orange on Saturday after the 59th running of the River Rat Race. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

The River Rat Race mascot at the drawing at Athol Town Hall on Friday night before the race.

The River Rat Race mascot at the drawing at Athol Town Hall on Friday night before the race. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Racers wait to find out their position at the drawing at Athol Town Hall on Friday night before the 59th running of the River Rat Race.

Racers wait to find out their position at the drawing at Athol Town Hall on Friday night before the 59th running of the River Rat Race. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By GREG VINE

For the Recorder

Published: 04-13-2024 6:56 PM

Modified: 04-14-2024 4:09 PM


Despite fickle weather conditions, canoeists and spectators alike enthusiastically awaited the start of Saturday’s 59th running of the River Rat Race from Athol to Orange.

From about 11 a.m. until just before boats were put in the water — around 12:30 p.m. — a steady stream of canoe teams made their way to the check-in area at Alan E. Rich Environmental Park in Athol. Meanwhile, spectators began lining up along both sides of the Main Street bridge and either bank of the Millers River in hopes of getting the best view of the race’s start.

While skies were generally cloudy, the sun tried several times to break through. At other times, strong winds buffeted canoeists and spectators alike, and a passing shower several minutes before the start of the race had folks wondering if this year’s event would be a wet one. Although the clouds remained, the winds ultimately died down and the rain abated just in time for the start, with the crowd erupting into cheers once paddles hit the water.

After the starting cannon was fired and the nearly 180 canoes made their way beneath Athol’s Main Street bridge on their way to Orange, spectators jumped in their vehicles and headed to the neighboring town to see the finish. Ryan Zaveral and Shane MacDowell crossed the finish line first, just as they had in 2023 following their second-place finish in 2022.

A number of paddlers who showed up Saturday were running their first River Rat Race. Among them were Steven Landry of Pepperell and Billy Ghio of Ashburnham. Landry and Ghio both said their families had been very encouraging regarding their first River Rat Race foray.

“We’ve been to a couple to watch,” said Landry, as he and Ghio were loosening the ropes and bungee cords that secured their canoe to the top of the SUV. This really is only our second time in a canoe. We’ve always heard about the River Rat, and we used to go once in a while when I was a kid.”

Other first-timers included Rich Belanger and Jacob Logan, both of Gardner, who were decked out in costumes reminiscent of fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby from the movie “Talladega Nights.” Belanger said he and his teammate were competing in a borrowed canoe.

“We just wanted to try something new,” he said. “It’s always good to try something new.”

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“It looked like it would be fun,” added Logan.

Asked if he and Logan had done anything to prepare for the 5.2-mile race, Belanger replied, “No. We’re just a couple of in-shape guys.”

Mike and Brie Choate made the two and a half hour trip from Pike, New Hampshire, to Athol to compete in their first River Rat Race. The two were paddling the “Pink Pack Raft,” said Brie. The two are related to Todd Bowdridge, a firefighter/EMT with the Athol Fire Department.

“We’ve been canoeing off and on all our lives,” she said.

In addition to taking part in the race, the couple were in Athol to visit with family.

“We even got to ride in a fire truck in the parade this morning,” said Mike.

One competitor who is very familiar with the River Rat Race is Becky Coffin of Templeton, who was running her 28th race. She was teamed up with Jay Franklin, also of Templeton, who was paddling his ninth Athol-to-Orange race.

“My brother did it,” said Coffin, “and he taught me some tricks.”

Her main reason for being a regular, she explained, is because “it’s a good time and it’s good for the community.”

Rich Murcell staked out a spot on the Main Street bridge to cheer on his son-in-law, Bill Cody, who was in one of the canoes.

“But I’ve been here every year since I was little,” he said. “We’ll watch the start and then scoot over to Orange to catch the finish.”

Murcell had taken part in another annual competition earlier in the day.

“My daughter (Ciji Cody) and I both ran the Big Cheese 5K this morning,” he said. “I was really impressed with how many teens and pre-teens took part in that race. It was good to see.”

Bruce Gow and his son Bruce Jr. of Ashburnham didn’t have any friends or family participating in Saturday’s race, but the senior Gow said he has watched the contest for many years. He brought his son to see the race when he was just an infant.

Among those manning the entrance to the check-in area at Rich Park was Rich Riddell, who said he has been volunteering for 13 years.

“It’s always kind of fun and it’s always different,” he said. “I like it. I help out here [at the parking lot], and help out with other things as well, like hanging the banner across Main Street in Orange. I’m sure I’ll be back next year. (Former Race Director) Dave Flint is the one that talked me into volunteering, and I guess I’ll do it as long as I can.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.