The ‘Super Bowl’ of canoe racing: 54th Athol-Orange River Rat Race coming April 8

  • After the finish, firefighters and volunteers from Northfield Dive/Resuce Team help canoers out of the river in Orange at the end of last year’s River Rat Race. Recorder file photo

  • The River Rat Race got off to a little bit of a late start last year because two canoes turned over before the start and had to be fished out of the river. Recorder file photo

  • Ben Schlimmer and Trevor LeFever, in green, pull for the finish line in last year’s Athol-Orange River Rat Race. They were far ahead of the competition. Recorder file photo

  • A Pharaoh’s head ornament, part of a swinging ship ride, waits in the snow last year off Freedom Street. The Egyptian ship and other carnival rides and apparatus labeled Fanelli Amusements were in town for Athol’s River Rat Race. Recorder file photo

  • Steve Talbot launched his canoe on the Millers River last year at the race. Recorder file photo

  • Participants in the Big Cheese 5K walked toward the start line on School Street in Athol last year’s annual River Rat Race began. Recorder file photo

  • Dan Manjourea is a past Big Cheese 5K winner in his division. Submitted photo

Recorder Staff
Published: 3/24/2017 11:52:59 AM

By DOMENIC POLI

Recorder Staff

Twenty-seven years ago, members of the North Quabbin chapter of the Lions Club had a vision of how to keep alive what started as a friendly competition, and has now turned into a popular regional race that draws thousands of people each year.

Longtime Lion David Flint saw the annual River Rat Race paddling off into the sunset and wanted to save it. He convinced Lions’ international organization to throw its support behind the event and asked then-Athol Fire Chief Tom Lozier, a childhood friend, to assist with public safety.

“The other key was to get to Ted Crumb,” he said of one of the race’s longtime pillars. “Now, I didn’t know Ted Crumb — I knew who he was. His sister and my mother were good friends. I knew who he was, he knew who I was, but we had never met.

“I went to see Ted,” he said. “Now, Ted liked to drink. Ted was known to be at the … Travis Street Inn most every morning, late morning.”

Flint said he saw a stool next to Crumb and sat down. Crumb kept looking at him out of the corner of his eye and eventually turned around to confront Flint.

“‘I know why you’re here, and the answer’s ‘No,’” Flint recalled in his best impression of Crumb’s well-known gravelly voice, adding that he told Crumb he hadn’t uttered a word. “He said, ‘I know why you’re here. You want me to help to keep that damn canoe race going.’”

Flint said he bought several shots for Crumb, who ended up agreeing to help on a few conditions. Flint and the other newbies to the race had to promise to require all canoes to be 18 feet or smaller, and to continue using cannon fire to start the race.

Flint, the race chairman, and other organizers have kept their word, and the 54th Athol-Orange River Rat Race weekend is scheduled to begins at 1 p.m. on April 8, as part of the usual weekend of festivities.

The race accommodates all aluminum, canvas and recreational canoes under 18 feet in length. The entry for two-person teams is $42.

Mark Wright, the executive director of the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce, said the River Rat Race is now part of Athol’s identity.

“It’s an excellent event,” he said.

The weekend parade starts at 9 a.m. on April 8. “We certainly enjoy it a great deal.”

He said the race typically draws 20,000 people to and around Athol in early April, bringing with them an economic impact of roughly $1 million that benefits area restaurants, stores, gas stations and lodging facilities.

Bill Ryan, team leader for the Northfield Dive Team, said the squad has helped with public safety at the event for about roughly 25 years. He said between 25 and 30 volunteer team members will be on hand in inflatable boats placed strategically at known problem points along the 5.2-mile race.

“We take it seriously, but we still enjoy the whole show and all that,” he said. “It’s rewarding.”

Wright and Flint said the race has its origins in a drunken bar bet.

According to local historian Kathryn Chaisson, local fishermen Ed Gleba and Burl Pepperdine bought a $300 canoe from Piragis Boats in 1962, and that spring they paddled to Hachey’s Landing in Orange to fish in a deep spot of the Millers River filled with brush. They repeated the adventure the next year.

In 1964, the two were having a beer at the Silver Front Cafe in Athol when Gleba suggested going to town in a canoe.

Ken Young, sitting nearby, overhead Gleba and Pepperdine and said he would like to join with friend Cliff Parcher.

Then, Billy Gillis said he would go with Bill Blaser, and Ted Crumb said he was interested in going with Merritt Cleveland. Young suggested making the trip a bit interesting — with each person contributing $2 to a kitty that the fastest canoe would win.

The first “official” River Rat Race, billed as the “First River Rat Spectacular,” was held on March 21, 1964. The race was won by Sonny Soucie and Art Forand. There is now a Sonny Soucie-Art Forand Memorial Award for the team that passes the most canoes.

Flint tells a story of Forand losing his false teeth in the water near Hog Island during the second annual race.

“So after the race was over, all the guys went back there and they were all trying to find his teeth, diving down in the water. Back in the ’60s, that water was filthy. You knew what kind of dye they were using at the paper mills (because it went downstream),” he said. “Art Forand couldn’t work for the next week — he was sick from ingesting all that water.”

Jim McIntosh said he and his wife, Jeannette, have been involved since Flint took over. McIntosh said the River Rat Race has come to epitomize the essence of what the Lions are.

“Not a dime goes into the pocket of the organizers,” he said. “I’m still proud that we saved it from extinction and we kept the tradition alive to the best that we could — and it’s still a tremendous asset to the community.”

Flint said the walls of Crumb’s apartment were littered with posters and newspaper clippings pertaining to the race.

“That was his life,” Flint said. “The canoers consider that the Super Bowl of racing. It’s like the Daytona 500 — they have their big reason at the beginning of the scene, rather than at the end.”

And the beloved event has, since 2010, been coupled with a road race aptly named the Big Cheese 5K.

Heather Brissette and high school friend Susan Black Allen, both from Athol High School’s Class of 1988, and avid runners, wanted to start a 5K in the area and thought having it on River Rat Race weekend would offer people a fun alternative to the paddling event.

The idea of trying to coordinate another event on that day, with all that’s going on in the community, the organizers of the race wondered, would no one be interested or would everyone in the world be interested?

“It could have gone either way,” she Brissette. “There are two crowds, the ones that do everything ... and the ones who leave town for the weekend to avoid the crowds.

“(The 5K) provides another event that is so much more accessible to the rest of the community. It takes a special kind of crazy to get in a canoe in the beginning of April. It’s a great event, but it’s not for everybody,” she continued. “It added a whole new dimension to what that weekend is about, and we’re really proud of that.”

Brissette said the 5K had nearly 200 participants the first year and almost 600 in 2016. She said the race is certified with USA Track & Field.

More information can found at: riverratrace.com and bigcheese5k.com


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