After six decades, River Rat Race paddles on

Competitors in the 55th annual River Rat Race line up at the starting position along the Millers River in Athol on Saturday, April, 14, 2018.

Competitors in the 55th annual River Rat Race line up at the starting position along the Millers River in Athol on Saturday, April, 14, 2018. FILE PHOTO

River Rat Race competitors make their way toward the finish line on the Millers River last April.

River Rat Race competitors make their way toward the finish line on the Millers River last April. FILE PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 04-08-2024 5:00 PM

Modified: 04-09-2024 2:54 PM


ATHOL – The first Athol to Orange River Rat Race in 1963 may have been a more informal event, but it marked the beginning of an annual tradition that generations of North Quabbin residents have come to cherish.

This year’s race takes place this Saturday, April 13, at 1 p.m. As race adviser Jim McIntosh explained it, “It all started as a barroom bet at the Silver Front Café in Athol, Massachusetts. There were just 12 guys that paddled in the original race. They started in Athol and they paddled down to what is now the Riverfront Landing just before the bridge and dam in Orange.”

Asked about the prize for the winners of that first race, McIntosh said with a chuckle, “It was a race for bragging rights, and I think there was beer involved. Exactly how much beer, I don’t know, but that’s what started it.”

As people heard about that original contest, more wanted to become involved.

“In 1964 – March 21 of 1964 – they held was now officially called the Athol to Orange River Rat Race,” McIntosh continued. “Quite a few more people got involved with it and they had quite a few more canoes. I believe there was like 100 canoes in that race. And the very first winner of the race – that 1964 race – was a gentleman named Sonny Soucie, and his partner was Art Forand. They were Athol guys.”

In honor of the winners, he said, it was decided to institute the annual Soucie-Forand Award, which is presented to the team that passes the most canoes over the length of the race, and is still given out to this day.

According to McIntosh, the winners of the River Rat Race can move on to compete for regional and national honors.

“It’s kind of like NASCAR,” he said. “It’s a sanctioned race for canoe enthusiasts and they get points and they can move on to all the other races.”

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McIntosh added that the type and design of the canoes entered into the River Rat Race differ from those used in most other races, as is the format. He said what are called “pro racing” canoes are generally used in other sanctioned races.

“That canoe is 18-feet, six inches long and only, I believe, 27 and a quarter inches wide at its center point, and it is only three inches in depth out of the water,” he said. “The River Rat canoe, which was established by the (race) committee, is a maximum of 18-feet long and 31 and a quarter inches wide, and is four inches deep out of the water, and it’s higher in the front than in the back.”

McIntosh said that, at its peak, the race has attracted more than 400 teams in one year. Last year, he said, there were 185 canoes entered.

River Rat history

The race committee, said McIntosh, was in charge of organizing the annual competition until 1990, when it was taken over by the Athol Lions Club.

“Past (club) President David Flint got wind that the committee was going to disband and stop the race. He approached the chairperson at the time, Ted Crumb; he met with Ted Crumb at one of the local establishments,” McIntosh laughed. “He sat on the bar stool and, before David even opened his mouth, Ted Crumb said ‘no.’ David sat there and the two of them had a few and Ted finally said, ‘Okay, I guess we’ll let you take over the race.’”

Flint, according to McIntosh, promised Crumb that the Lions would not change the rules of the race, maintain the same canoe configuration, and continue what is called the “LeMans start.” The canoes assemble at the start of the race after their positions are chosen at a drawing the night before the race.

“You could be a serious paddler and you could be positioned right next to someone who is in a canoe for the first time,” he said. “A licensed firer literally fires a cannon at 1 o’clock and they all take off at the same time.”

Flint served as race chair until his death in 2021. He was succeeded by Jeannette McIntosh, Jim McIntosh’s wife, who oversaw the race in 2022 and 2023. She passed away in August of last year following a brief illness.

This year, there are three co-chairs – Sharon Hatstat, Joanne Rich and Kevin McIntosh. Jim McIntosh said he chose to serve as an advisor to the committee because of the 30 years he has been involved with the event.

Online registration for the River Rat Race (www.riverratrace.com/register) is open until 6 p.m. Thursday, April 11. Anyone interested in in-person registration can stop in at Else Where, 1485 Main Street, Athol, until 5 p.m. on April 11.

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