River Rat Race only nine weeks away

  • Members of the Athol Lions Club's River Rat Race Committee held a planning meeting at "River Rat Central" at the Athol Daily News recently. Left to right — Kathy Chaisson, John Baldasaro, Tom Lozier, new member Bradly Arnot, and race director Dave Flint. Deborrah Porter PHOTO

  • After the finish of the 2016 race, volunteers from the Northfield Dive/Resuce Team and local firefighters helped contestants out of the river at the end of the race. File photo

Staff Writer
Published: 2/12/2018 12:29:02 PM

ATHOL — As he did last year, Athol Lions Club River Rat Race Director Dave Flint is predicting the weather will be 65 degrees and sunny on race day — only nine weeks away, on April 14, for the 55th running of the annual event.

Flint’s prediction came close in 2017, but he believes that over-zealous weather forecasters’ reports of fickle New England weather kept the paddlers at bay.

“Everyone was worried about the weather, but it turned out to be a good day,” he said.

Just 211 canoes were entered by the Friday night post-positions drawing for the 2017 Athol to Orange race (with a few teams scrambling to sign up in the final hours before the 1 p.m. cannon start next day).

“I wish the weathermen had kept their mouths shut,” said Flint. “We’re hoping to get the numbers up again this year.”

Flint said that despite the recent ice jam that occurred at the South Main Street bridge, which prompted the temporary evacuation of 26 households at Morton Meadows, a recent check of the river revealed an open channel of water from the South Main Street bridge all the way to the Daniel Shays Highway bridge.

“It’s all clear until you get closer to Orange near the dam,” he said. “But I’m sure the whole river will be open in time for the race.”

Flint said he does have some concern about the number of trees and branches in the water this year. Before race day, a crew of volunteers will check out the river and remove the dead tree limbs and other debris to assure safe passage for the paddlers.

Annual “To Do” list

Flint said he has checked many items off the Rat Race “To Do” list that he keeps with him at all times. He has secured the Athol Town Hall for the post-positions drawing on Friday night, April 13. The Lions Club has obtained the liability insurance certificate required by the towns from Lions Clubs International. His permit application has been approved by the Orange Selectmen and his request to hold the annual event this year was approved Tuesday night by the Athol Selectmen.

“So it’s a ‘go,’” said Flint.

Local singer Julie Bouchard will lend her vocals to deliver “The Star Spangled Banner” once again at the riverside starting area, followed by the traditional blast of Pete Strong’s cannon, again under the hand of Matthew Flint, to signal the start of the race.

Girardi Distributors, premiere sponsor of the race since its inception, has printed up race posters that are sprouting up all over the area and will provide official race T-shirts and trophies.

High stakes

Joe West, owner of Original Tire at 443 South Athol Road, has supported the River Rat Race efforts in one way or another throughout the last 20 years. He has again volunteered to install the starting marker stakes along the river bank, used by the canoeists to line up their boats, starting with the pole position No. 1 nearest the starting line at the South Main Street bridge.

About a week before the race, West dons knee-high rubber boots and drags a wagon along the edge of the river filled with the metal 4- to 6-foot fence stakes and pounds them into the ground. He stores the stakes, owned by the Lions Club, at his business during the year.

“I don’t put them in too early, because I don’t want the kids tearing them up,” he said.

He said years ago, while he was working with the previous owner of Original Tire and long-time Athol Lion Rob Morton who passed away in December of 2015, that they had to first do a lot of “bushwacking” along the river to get to the water.

“We still have to do a little of that now and then,” he said.

One year he installed 291 stakes. He said the job takes about an hour to an hour and a half — if the water level is not too high.

“It’s not too terrible,” he said.

West said he has never himself paddled in the race. Most years the event falls on the same weekend as one of his tire trade shows. This year, however, he may be in town to at least watch it, and said, “One of these years ...” he may enter the fray.

Business as usual

Flint has also met with Jordan Prickett, the new general manager of the Athol Daily News, which was sold to Newspapers of New England Inc. on Jan. 2. He said Prickett assured him that it will be business as usual, and the Lions have permission to use the business office for the Thursday, April 12, night registration.

Registration hours are extended to 8 p.m. the night before the post-position drawing. He said Prickett will also allow application intake during business hours in the newspaper’s front office. Use of the building was also granted to hand out numbers and T-shirts on the morning of the race to those paddlers who were unable to make it to the drawing the night before.

New sponsors

Flint said thanks to the efforts of Lions Club members Tom and Joanne Rich, a few new race sponsors have joined. Sponsors include: 98.3 FM Bear Country, Dugas Music Service, Traverse Street Inn, Trailhead, Mount Tully Kennels, Athol Automotive Supply (NAPA), Dales Auto Body, Athol Orange Rotary, Dennis’ Citgo, VFW Post 650, Hurlburt Building Contractors, Original Tire, Herricks Tavern, Baxter Chiropractors, Ames Trophy, Fred Thompson, King Phillip Motel & Restaurant, Birch Hill Canoe Club, Brookside Auto Parts, Athol Firefighters Association, River Rat Women, Gleason’s Motor, Piragis Boats and Motors, Kessler Investments, Lyesiuk Flooring, Flint Auto Repair and Options Direct.

The Art Forand/Sonny Soucie Award, is sponsored annually by Chris and Betty Soucie. Dan and Kim Smith sponsor the James Canning Award.

Applications available

The 2018 race application is available online from riverratrace.com. The application can be printed and mailed or dropped off at the Daily News at 225 Exchange St. Applications are also available from the newspaper’s business office.

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