Every year for the last 52 years, a little-publicized event brings athletes from all over New England and New York to engage in a frenetic, grueling battle for supremacy of the Millers River. Amateurs and professional paddlers alike crowd the bank of the river, haunched in their canoes in near-silence. Then, over the crisp spring air, comes the crack of a canon. Chaos ensues.
This year, due to the harsh winter, only 242 boats entered the river rat canoe race . . . 242! And that's a down year! This year was also the first time my friend Eric and I entered the race after previously serving as volunteer camera operators for the local access station, AOTV. We thought we knew what to expect having seen the race from every conceivable angle, but we were wrong. The roughly 5 mile course from Route 2A in Athol to Orange is something that needs to be experienced to truly understand. When the canon went off, 242 canoes featuring professionals, men, women, children, locals, visitors, and persons from all walks of life, dug in their paddles and went for it and Eric and I were right there with them.
The day before, squirming in uncomfortable metal folding chairs, we patiently waited in Athol Town Hall in a crowd of fellow competitors to hear our randomly-assigned starting position. An hour had already passed and the end of the list was approaching. At that point, we secretly hoped to be picked last. You see, the last boat picked gets a prize automatically (In this case, it would be $242), but we received number 210. Miserable. It meant that our place along the bank of the river would be so far back and around a bend that we wouldn't be able to even see the starting line. Oh well! It was our first time and we hadn't a prayer of winning anyway. For the professionals, placement at the start of the race is more of a minor inconvenience than anything. There were boats placed around us that made it into the top 45 (a.k.a. "The winner's circle"). Despite making a point of trying to work out over the winter, we were woefully inexperienced and our goal for race day was simply to not embarrass ourselves. In a race where many canoes flip over at the start, that goal was by no means setting a low bar.
As Eric and I made our way to a boat launch, we learned a little about the canoe we were using. To us it didn't look very special. It was an aluminum craft with duct tape holding the seats together, but to others it was a gem. Turns out, our canoe which we borrowed from Eric's parents' neighbor, was one of the lightest-weight aluminum canoes in history. Not by any means the fastest, lightest boat in the race (Canvas is way lighter), but it was impressive how many fellow racers coveted the boat. We were even asked if we were selling it. Indeed, over the last 15 years, the canoe raced with a variety of different paddlers and even placed first in the aluminum class (not overall) a couple of years. 2015 would not add to the legacy of the boat too much, but we were hell bent on trying.
We had to haul the shiny canoe quite a ways until we found our starting spot marked by a placard along the bank of the river. After we slipped into the water, Eric in the rear and I in the front, we settled next to a tree. Others followed in the minutes leading up to the start and soon we were elbow to elbow with fellow competitors. The proximity of the boats meant that there wasn't space to paddle, so when the canon went off, we resorted to pushing off of one another until there was enough room to plant an oar. Then, all 242 boats reach a bottle neck right at the start of the race as the river narrows at the Route 2A bridge, the most entertaining section of the race for onlookers. People flip over. Boats get turned around backwards. Swearing. Scraping. Shouting. We were turned around when a boat pushed us from behind. It was quite sudden and surprising, but we were able to right ourselves quickly. Then we were off!
After the bridge, boats became moving obstacles to pass between and go around. We did well and passed a great deal of boats right away, but we definitely had some tough collisions and scrapes. We weren't wet 'though, so all was fine. After a few minutes, everyone starts to spread out and the course gets a little easier to navigate. To meet our goal of not embarrassing ourselves, Eric and I decided that we wouldn't leave anything on the table. My arms still hurt a little as I type this a few days later, so I feel like I made good on my promise. We paddled hard and passed a great number of boats. There are some very neat features along the river including some trestle bridges and tight s-curves. Then the river widens out. You'd think it would be easier with fewer obstacles and turns, but you'd be wrong. It was windy and the wind blew right in our faces. It took effort to get the boat to stand still, let alone move forward. It was pain and something neither of us expected. At that point, we chased down a wooden canoe and tried mightily to pass it, but we could not. Despite that, as we crossed the finish line, we couldn't help but feel elated. We finished. We didn't get wet. We didn't embarrass ourselves.
When I look back on the race, it was harrowing and it was tough, but it was fun and it was an experience that Eric and I plan on repeating next year. For all the years we watched the race through the lens of cameras, being in the race was something that couldn't compare. A few days later, the results were posted: We were able to take 100th place. That meant that we passed 109 boats on the way to the finish line. Not bad for rat virgins!