Before race began, crowd celebrated spring

  • The 55th annual River Rat Race began at the South Main Street Bridge in Athol on Saturday at 1 p.m. MIKE PHILLIPS

  • The weather was perfect as the 55th annual River Rat Race began at the South Main Street Bridge in Athol. A large crowd gathered along the riverbank to watch. Mike Phillips

For the Athol Daily News
Sunday, April 15, 2018

What better way to start a race on the river than to have a little fun on dry land?

On one of the warmest days so far this spring, Athol held its 55th annual River Rat Race. Town residents and visitors flocked to the downtown area, and indulged in a spring carnival, before making their way toward the Millers River for the kickoff of the popular canoe race.

With rides and more provided by Mark Fanelli’s Traveling Amusement Park, attendees satisfied their appetites with snow cones and an assortment of fried dough options, and treated themselves to rides like Pharoah’s Fury and The Round Up, the ride that “defies gravity.”

Carnival-goers appeared to enjoy the event even more this year. A particularly long snow season left many feeling chilly and isolated over the past few months, and a fair under the sun — right before a race on the water – could not have been a better antidote.

“It gets me in a good mood,” said Krystina Barber, who lives down the street from the carnival. “Right after winter, it’s nice to go outside.”

Barber showed up with Bernabe Leblanc, who’s been going to the River Rat Race since he was 7 years old. Both are high school seniors in Athol, and even though they will graduate soon and head into adulthood, the day’s events helped the students recapture a sense of childhood.

“It feels youthful,” Leblanc said.

As couples rode the Ferris wheel and parents helped their kids onto carousel horses, Ray Murphy came from Groton, not to win stuffed animals, but to collect signatures in support of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Beth Lindstrom.

“Beats standing out in front of Market Basket in the rain,” Murphy said.

While his mission at the carnival was to talk about politics, Murphy said he actually enjoys the River Rat Race for its nonpartisan atmosphere. He said at the race, people put aside their differences and throw their support behind the community as a whole.

The race kicks off

A healthy crowd made its way from downtown Athol to the Main Street Bridge as the time got closer to the 1 p.m. kickoff on Saturday. Some of the first people to greet attendees were volunteers like Kim McConnell from the Athol Lions Club, which organized this year’s race.

McConnell said she is always pleased to see the race’s popularity grow each year. People come from as far as New York, Connecticut and beyond to watch paddlers rush down the river. She said she even registered a couple of contestants from Quebec.

About a half an hour before the race started, contestants went out on the river to warm up. The crowd grew more excited, some spectators by the road hopping the steel railing and attempting to clear away brush for a better view, only to lose their grip on the steep slope and tumble onto the riverbank below.

Evan Brockelsby of Turners Falls said he has enjoyed watching the enthusiasm and chaos on display at the race for the past 41 years and has rarely missed one.

“Grandma had a house right on the river,” Brockelsby said.

This year, he brought his friend Steve Veator from Gloucester to show him what it’s like. Veator assembles boats, including the ones used on National Geographic Channel series “Wicked Tuna.” Immediately, he was drawn to the water, for a brief escape from the “city.”

“Being part of the small-town, hometown atmosphere — I like that sort of thing,” Veator said. “It shows (me) a different side of Mass. I’ve never seen before.”

Once the cannon went off, the canoes crammed into the passageway under the bridge, some jetting out while some of the more unlucky ones tipped over. A girl with pink rabbit ears and her partner went overboard from one vessel. The two paddlers struggled to get back inside.

When they finally made it back into the canoe, their success was met with booming applause from the spectators, who came together in support, as if the pair’s resilient comeback were the greatest victory in the competition, and they were back in the race.

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