River Rat

In case what 's missing from your life is a 2,500 word essay about a canoe event, here is my report on the 55th Annual Athol-Orange River Rat Race, which took place on April 14, 2018. 

Short version: Recommended unreservedly.

(Much) Longer version:

The Athol-Orange River Rat Race is a 5+ mile canoe race from the center of Athol, MA down the Millers River to the center of Orange, MA. If you go over the dam in Orange, you’ve gone too far, but at that point that’s the least of your worries. 

Athol is a small industrial town between Worcester and Greenfield. Orange is a slightly smaller town a few miles to the west. I know almost nothing about Athol except that when I was at Boston College, a writer for the student newspaper belittled Athol as sounding like it had been “named by a disgruntled person with a lisp.” This brought a sharp response from another student, from Athol, who informed the student body that the town was named after a Scottish Duke and pronounced Ath-all. So, okay. In Athol loyalty runs deep. Or at least it did in the early 90s. 

The River Rat Race began a half-century ago on a spring night when a couple of guys in Athol decided to race another couple of guys from Orange down the river. They’d been drinking. Since then the race has gotten bigger while the town’s gotten smaller. In 2016 they had upwards of 300 entries, which is a lot of boats for a small river.

These days the town builds a whole Spring weekend around the River Rat, with a carnival, a 5k road race and the recreational paddle on Saturday, and a pro-am canoe race on Sunday. The relatively bare-bones race website provides a list of the local sponsors and links to three places to stay, including the local Travel Inn. Despite this effort at promotion, if you’re not a local or part of the canoe culture it’s hard to find out too much about the event. Last year I happened upon the race’s Facebook page, bookmarked it, and then forgot about it until about a month ago, when people began updating the page with videos from the previous year’s festivities. 

These videos looked insane.

The race begins with a Grand-Prix style free-for-all on a narrow stretch of the river that bends in an S just before a bridge in Athol. A cannon goes off and all the boats start paddling at once, vying for a path under the bridge like shopping carts on a Black Friday Wal-Mart run. In the videos, boats capsize, other canoes paddle over the capsized boats, paddles flash in the water as capsized canoeists’ heads bob in the current, people on the bridge scream and cheer. Like, there’s a not-insignificant risk of serious injury, or even, theoretically, death. Maybe 25% of the canoeists look really serious about things. Another 50% look more casual but still competent, and the last quarter are there for a good time, with costumes and flags and decorations on their canoes. It’s April, and sometimes there’s still snow on the ground. 

Here’s one video, if you’re interested: https://youtu.be/XR4a9r7S8sM.


Like a lot of things you think about doing after you turn 35, participation in the 55th Annual River Rat Race sounded best in the days just after the conclusion of the 54th Annual River Rat Race, when the actual event was still safely a year away and could be romanticized without commitment. But as winter turned to late winter the Facebook page got more active and it was time to decide. Are we going to do this or not? 

First I asked my wife if she wanted to take the kids and make a weekend out of it. She did not. 

Then I asked my childhood pal Chris if he wanted to do it with me and he said something like “hmhmhmmm it doesn’t sound fun.” 

Then I tried to buy a canoe on Craigslist – because, like, who in this day and age owns a canoe? Kayak, sure. SUP, maybe. Canoe, no. Anyway, I couldn’t find one that fit the requirements of being frivolous but seaworthy.

Even after I sent in the $42 entry form I figured I wouldn’t have to actually do anything. The money would just be a donation to Athol, which, like a lot of Central Massachusetts towns, looked like it could use it.

Nonetheless, things started to fall into place. Chris had a clear schedule and no legitimate excuse. Our Scandinavian neighbors had a canoe we could borrow. My wife agreed to let me go if I promised to start using the right calendar designation in our Outlook – I’d been using “Home” calendar but was supposed to be using “Fromm Family” calendar. Most importantly, the weather looked good, with highs in the low 50s and a mild chance of rain.

We were in.

Saturday morning I got up at 6:30 to pack a bag and meet Chris in the parking lot of an Interstate 91-adjacent Barnes & Noble. The 5k road race was at 9:30 a.m. I had two paddles, two life jackets, a change of clothes and my bike. Our plan was to drive to Orange, lock up the bike near the finish line, then go up to the canoe start in Athol, unload the canoe and park the car there. That way, when the canoe was over, one of us could ride back to Athol from Orange, get the car and drive it down to the canoe. 

Chris pulled in at 7:45 a.m. in a tool-filled white van with plywood over the back windows. It looked like the van of a man who could both remodel your kitchen and abduct your neighbor. Not coincidentally, our Scandinavian neighbors’ canoe was strapped to the roof. 

We went to Athol first because we were running short on time – it was an hour+ from the Barnes & Noble parking lot to the city center and we didn’t really know where the 5k started. Also we hadn’t registered for it. Luckily, Athol was a small place. We parked across from a stately town-hall and wandered around looking for where to sign up. Athol is built in a sort of gully, with hills and mountains rising up along the side. It feels a lot closer to Boston than the Berkshires. People look rougher and drop their Rs. There were a lot of vape shops and a lot of hairdressers, a lot of empty storefronts with “coming soon” signs in the windows. But also some mom-and-pop diners, Victorian houses on the hills, something stubborn and gritty in the smoke-stacks exclaiming on the horizon. Tool-Town, that's what they called Athol back in the day, on account of the factories that had once anchored it to prosperity. All these Central Mass towns have names like that, ghost-names. Worcester is Wormtown. Holyoke was Paper City. Anyway, the sun was shining and everyone was in a good mood.

We got registered for the 5k. They gave us a little badge on a lanyard that says “Double Duty,” as in both the run and the canoe. It’s supposed to get us some free stuff but we never figured out what. We went outside and followed a crowd of runners up a little rise to the start. I asked someone who looked local how hard the run was and she said “One hill.” That was a lie, as I learned shortly. There was more than one hill. There was one very steep hill and probably four other less steep hills that were still hills. Chris wore cargo shorts and came in 23rd out of 300 because he's weird like that. I lost him after the first 100 meters.

We met up at the finish and after I caught my breath we walked through Athol looking for the offices of the Daily Recorder, the newspaper that handled logistics for the canoe. The Daily Recorder is on the back side of a modest building on a side street near the center of town. The front side appeared to be a food pantry, or maybe a travel agency. In any event, it was closed. All the doors were locked except one on which hung a sheet of yellow lined paper with the words “River Rat” scribbled on it. I went in. 

Two older men and one older woman were behind a counter passing out t-shirts.

“First-timers,” I said. “What do you recommend as far as strategy?”

They laughed and one of the older guys said “Stay out of the river!” Except because we were in Athol it sounded like “Stay outta tha riva!”

The other guy said, "I went in the riva one yea! Neva been the same!"

They were having a grand time.

Chris and I had discussed this possibility, the possibility of capsizing, on the way up. I did not want to capsize. It was a relatively warm day but it’s still mid-April. It snowed recently and will in fact snow again within 48 hours. Going into the water, and having hundreds of canoe paddles sweep down like scythes towards your head, seemed dangerous. 

But we’re not going to capsize, we reassured each other. Only dorks would capsize. We’re not frequent canoeists but we have a basic sense of how canoes work, how to balance and alternate sides, how to steer and correct. We did the Josh Billings every year and even though that’s a lake and you’re in a kayak usually it’s a bigger event than this. If we can solo kayak-race with 500 other boats we can manage to canoe as a pair in this – I check the registration board – paltry pack of 213.

“I’ve never capsized in my life,” Chris said. 

“Don’t jinx it,” I said.

We got our registration materials and drove over to where the canoes load into the river. The river was maybe fifty feet wide at this point, with a current moving at a good clip down the middle of it. The water was high and copper-colored, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers opening an upriver dam the week before race day. 

They’d held a blind drawing at the town hall the night before, at which everyone got a pole position for the start. Your number corresponded to a marked spot on the far bank where the canoes lined up. Boats 1-25 lined up up front, 25-50 after that, and so on. We were number 86, meaning that we were in the front half of the pack. 

Because the number drawing was blind, your pole position bore no relationship to your ability level. Some very recreational boats were way up towards the front while the second-best finisher from 2017 was way at the back at number 211.

This would prove problematic.

Back at the load-in point, Chris and I debated about who should sit in the front and who should get the better paddle. We watched as sleek boats, each one thinner and more polished than the next, lined up on the boat ramp like a car show. Some people wore wetsuits. Some had GoPros mounted to their helmets. Helmets?

Chris and I started making nervous jokes.

Some guy near us said “You going to Dugans after the race?”

“We don’t know who that is,” Chris said. 

“We’re not from here,” I said.

“Dugans!” the guy said.

We shrugged.

“Hey,” the guy said. “Can I borrow some duct tape?”

Chris went to the back of his truck and got some duct tape.

The guy thanked us.

“I’ll give this back to you at Dugans,” he said.

“Or you can just leave it on the van,” Chris said.

Eventually, it was time to get in the boat.

We carried our canoe down to the river’s edge. Chris got in the front with the better paddle. I pushed the nose out into the current and climbed in the back. We eased into the middle of the river and made our way across to the far bank, where the canoes were stacked up like shingles. I grabbed a root sticking out from the dirt to hold us in place. The canoeists around us strategized – who was going full-bore at the gun, who was cutting out wide, who was holding back to see the pack shake out. In the near distance we heard someone singing the National Anthem, then silence. The canoeists around us fell quiet. Things got tense.

“I love you, man,” I said to Chris. “Just in case I don’t get another chance to tell you.”

He started to laugh and then a cannon went off and the riverbank exploded.

We hung close to the shore for the first fifty yards, alternating sides, passing people, taking a fairly straight curve under the bridge. Families waved flags and yelled at us as we slid under them. Canoes banged our sides and paddles clipped ours. Fast boats went by us like barracuda, their paddlers synced up military-style, baseball hats and mirrored shades, everything aggressive and controlled.

We were not like that. Still, we were sort of killing it for two guys in a borrowed boat who’d never canoed together before and who hadn’t canoed separately in probably five years. We were passing people, steering around wrecks, charting a course. A canoe near us t-boned a slower boat that had listed sideways. A boat under the bridge floated upside down as its paddlers scrambled for the shore. Another boat floated sideways along the far bank. We cleared the bridge and the river opened up a little.

Then our nose brushed against the nose of another canoe on our right, just as a fast boat came from behind us and tried to split through the gap. I couldn’t get my paddle into the water because the fast boat was pushing against our stern. Chris couldn’t get his paddle into the water because the slower boat was in the way. We each leaned slightly to the left.

Tipping in a canoe feels funny. It happens in slow motion and then all at one. The left side of our boat came up, the right side dipped. There was a moment when I thought we could get it back, shift our weight and re-settle. I feel like I saw Chris glance back at me and smile. For a second, I was parallel with the river, poised on the edge, and correction was still possible. Then we went over and the water rushed up at me.

We were in the river. It was cold. A cold slap. An electrical cold, if that makes sense. A whole body cold.

I came up out of the river feeling like holy shit did that just happen? Is this real? I heard a passing canoeist say “You guys okay?” and I said yeah before I knew if that was the right answer. The boat was drifting on my right, down river, sideways in the water. For a second I thought maybe we could right it and climb back in, but the water was deep and I couldn’t feel the bottom. Chris was holding onto the bow. I realized, it seems like slowly but it probably wasn't, that we had to swim. Like, actually swim, holding the canoe, or we'd just float on down the river. We kicked our legs and tried to push the boat towards shore as canoes flew around us. I know they were there even though I don’t remember seeing any of them. It was like being in a stampede.

A race marshal in a red wet-suit swam out from the shore and helped us pull our boat to the edge. By then it was completely underwater. Somehow we’d managed to hold on to our paddles. My shoes were soaked. My pants were soaked. Everything was soaked. 

“I’m freezing,” said Chris.

The crowd along the shore looked at us with a mix of sympathy and ridicule. We were what they’d come to see. I waved to them and they cheered. We dumped the boat out and the race marshal said “You guys want to keep going?”

We nodded. The crowd cheered louder. The marshal held the boat steady for Chris to climb in, then me. 

“Good luck,” he said.

“You want to come with us?” I asked.

He smiled and pushed us back out into the current. We yelled to the crowd and they yelled back.

Around mile three, we passed a huge house party on the shore. A guy threw a Bud Light tallboy thirty yards in the air to the canoe behind us. It landed like a mortar. The guy on the shore yelled “Dugans!” 

We came in 90th. They cancelled the pro-am race on Sunday because temps dropped into the thirties and the forecast called for sleet. Never got the duct tape back, but I'm sure it found its way to Dugans. Seemed like everyone did.