River Rat Race – Homemade boats on the Beaver River
Being the token kid and my mum being a divorcee at the time. My mum despite having the responsibilities of a young child would drag me around, typically tucked in the back seat in a sleeping bag filled with my favourite books and toys. We would have awesome adventures up north and with her crazy friends. She was a Ski Patroller and would rent a chalet in Tyrollean village in Collingwood.
One of the events that she participated in was the Beaver River Rat race. This was an annual event that would engage a variety of people in building boats, launching them on the cold and swollen beaver river and whomever made it to the end intact would win.
The photos are of Peter Lawson , my mum, Dick and John Winters (Winkie). Funny enough these photos were taken by my John (my awesome stepfather, whom is “dad” to me now) just prior to meeting my mother. It seems like she’s looking right into the camera as he took the photo.
Peter lawson’s recollection of the event (link @ top of page)
Beaver River Rat Race
What a marvelous event the Beaver River Rat Race was! Unfortunately, it went the way of the dodo a number of years ago. Not because of under-population (as with the bird) but rather the reverse—it became so popular that the organizers couldn’t handle the crowds and it was discontinued.
The race was run in April during the spring runoff on the Beaver River in Ontario, Canada. At that time of year there was still snow on the banks and the water ran cold and fast. There were two types of competitor—those who entered to win…and those who didn’t. The few steely-eyed, jutting-jawed individuals of the former category would leap into kayaks and canoes and thrash intrepidly down-river.
In my view they missed the essence of the event. As far as most of us were concerned it was not so much a race as a hilarious romp. We of this latter ilk were content to consume copious quantities of grog while—for the most part—allowing the river to take us. Harassing and attempting to sink competing vessels was considered to be de rigueur.
Few of the eclectic mix of craft in the non-competitive category could be deemed even remotely sea-worthy. These vessels were generally thrown together from scraps of just about anything by builders with vivid imaginations but minimum manual skill.
For the last race I participated in, I put together a simple, sixteen foot punt-like vessel with a four foot beam. It featured an enclosed section in bow and stern (for buoyancy and beer storage) along with a central bulkhead. She was designed to accommodate ten paddlers plus me perched at the stern to dispense ales and issue commands.
As I recall, the race was scheduled to begin at one in the afternoon. But by eleven in the morning all the vessels would be lined up along the banks of the river. This was a time for milling around with fellow participants, assessing the merits and shortcomings of competitive craft. Derisive comments would be bandied about regarding vessels which were unlikely to make it over the first weir.
It was also a time to quaff a few surreptitious beers from coffee mugs while police officers strolled among the fleet confiscating any visible stashes of grog. We old hands knew to conceal it in closed compartments.
As mentioned before, the race was scheduled to commence at one with the firing of a starters pistol. Invariably though, around twelve, some wag would let off a fire-cracker and off we’d all go.
A couple of boats along the bank from us was a friend, J.B. with his entry—a rather flimsy-looking three man craft. The report of the fire-cracker launched the fleet in a foaming flurry of paddles. J.B.’s boat managed to get about ten feet from shore before plunging to the bottom. Seemingly undeterred, J.B. thrashed to shore, ran along the bank and leapt aboard our vessel.
But instead of grabbing one of the extra paddles and assisting with the propulsion of the craft, he perched himself on the transom beside me and proceeded to issue commands to my crew.
At this point in the event—when everyone was ‘at sea’ so-to-speak, an eye cast around the fleet would reveal a certain activity in virtually every vessel. Tools would be involved—tools to unscrew panels—tools to chip at Styrofoam—tools to bring to light the hidden stashes of grog.
There are two weirs to pass over during the course. Having made it over the first one without undue difficulty, we ran into trouble a bit further along in some rapids off to the side of the main channel. Our veering off course in order to get into these rapids was possibly due to the conflicting orders being issued from the quarter-deck by two captains.
Dick about to desert ship
Anyway, as a result, we found ourselves being swept downriver beam-on to the current until a barely-submerged rock brought us to a juddering halt. Again, a string of conflicting orders served to confuse the crew even further, with the result that the vessel remained wedged against the rock like a horizontal see-saw.
Eventually however, the pressure of the water became too much for even my flawless workmanship and the valiant craft broke in two. Most of the crew—along with Captain J.B. (who isn’t even Italian)—abandoned ship at this point, scrambling ashore through the thigh-deep water. Meanwhile Jan, Dick, John and I chased down the forward section which remained afloat because of the bulkhead.
As the aft section came wallowing past, I grabbed it hope of rescuing the remains of the beer. But alas, the bottom had been torn out and the grog was gone.
John, me and Jan approach the finish line
With Jan bailing furiously, we made it to the last falls where, low in the water, we became wedged on the lip of the weir. Efforts to dislodge the craft with paddles proved unsuccessful until Dick decided to abandon ship by leaping up and grabbing the overhead bridge. With the loss of his weight, we plunged over the falls, leaving him dangling from the bridge.
Our vessel finally gave up the ghost a little shy of the finish line. The three of us swam across the line then scrambled ashore.