Dennis Carey marks 40 years participating in River Rat Race

Dennis Carey (in front) paddles in the River Rat Race with Dale Persons, his teammate for many years. Carey will participate in this year’s race, his 40th to date.

Dennis Carey (in front) paddles in the River Rat Race with Dale Persons, his teammate for many years. Carey will participate in this year’s race, his 40th to date. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO


For the Athol Daily News

Published: 04-10-2024 5:00 PM

ATHOL – It might be a stretch to claim that Dennis Carey, 56, of Orange, could paddle the 5.2-mile River Rat Race with his eyes closed – but it wouldn’t be much of one.

This year’s race, which takes place on April 13, will mark the 40th River Rat competition for Carey, who first put paddle to water in 1982.

“I started when I was in seventh grade,” said Carey, who grew up in Athol. “That would have been 1982. I pretty much haven’t missed since, except for the year I had double pneumonia. And, of course, they canceled the race a couple of years for COVID.

“Nick Lyesiuk was putting in a new floor at parents’ house. He’s a longtime canoer. So, he got talking about it with my father and my father ended up getting me a boat to use and me and my buddy (Mark Renienus) went into it – into the unknown. We had a blast and I’ve been hooked ever since. One-hundred percent hooked. It was a lot of fun. I think we started in the 200s and ended up placing 75th.”

Carey won the race in 2006, along with teammate Dale Persons. The two men have been paddling together for over 30 years, said Carey, and will team up again this year.

“We used to race against each other a lot out in New York,” said Carey. “He’s from New York. We became good friends and started talking one day and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ So, we’ve been in the same boat ever since.”

Carey said he and Persons enter similar competitions throughout the northeast, including the General Clinton Canoe Regatta, a 70-mile race along the Susquehanna River. It starts near the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and finishes in the small town of Bainbridge, New York. The first General Clinton, like the first River Rat, was run in 1963. Carey and Persons have won the amateur division of the New York race twice and finished as high as 14th in the pro class. It takes approximately nine hours to complete the race, according to Carey.

Carey said the competition and people are two factors that keep him interested in the sport.

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“We’re like a big family. Everybody knows everybody,” he said. “Like, when we go out to New York we have places to stay, and when they come here, we open our houses to all of them. It’s like a big family.”

Carey said he trains just about every day once the ice breaks, usually for two hours a day. During the winter months he does a lot of cardio training.

“I do the treadmill,” he said. “I’ve got a paddling machine that I use – an indoor paddling machine. It sort of simulates being in the boat.”

The Athol canoeist says there has been a slow change in the materials used to build canoes. He added that cedar is the wood of choice for the canoes used in the Athol-to-Orange contest.

“Definitely, everything got lighter,” said Carey. “We use carbon fiber now. But for the Rat race, the Rat Race is a special boat because it’s only 18 feet long. So a lot of them are just made out of wood strips, which is light and fast. To run in just one race, it’s a cheaper boat compared to the carbon fiber in the other racers we use.”

Like many competitors, Carey has his good luck superstition.

“I like to register on a certain day,” he said. “Even today, everybody was asking me, ‘Why haven’t you signed up yet.’ But I’ve got a certain day I use.”

Even after 40 years, Carey said, “I’ll be doing it as long as I can do it. Like I said, everybody in my family thinks I’m crazy. But they’ll be there to cheer me on.”

Greg Vine can be reached at