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River Rats celebrate 5 decades; 658 canoeists participate in venerable competition.

Byline: James F. Russell

ATHOL - The town's biggest annual event went down the river with a splash. Amid screams and cheers shouted from along the riverbanks and overhead bridges by well-wishers, 329 pairs of canoeists competed in the 50th annual Athol-Orange River Rat Race Saturday.

The traditional cannon shot was blasted at 1 p.m. by Pete Strong, heralding the start along the Millers River off South Main Street.

The 85-year-old tobacco-chewing Athol resident has been the starter since 1978.

Holding his 18-month old daughter Gwen, Todd Bowdridge and his wife, Jennifer, were among the thousands in downtown Athol.

"It's, like, the biggest thing that happens in town," she said.

Athol Lions Club member Keith Kent said the race is the charitable organization's largest and "our most public fundraiser by far." The entry fee is $42 per boat. He praised Lions president David Flint for the extraordinary amount of time he volunteers each year putting on the race.

There is also a parade, the 5K Big Cheese road race, a pancake breakfast and fireworks.

"I can't swim," said Tisha Hazen, while sitting in her canoe just before the race began. She is 18 and a senior at Athol High School.

"This is only my third time in a canoe," she added. "To be honest, I'm scared."

"I am supposed to be her lifeguard right now," said her paddling partner, Shelby Bronnes, 17, who is also a senior.

Jack Murphy, 16, lives in Suncroft, County Kildare, Ireland. He competed with Rory McCrossan, 13, whose family the Irishman is visiting.

Mr. Murphy said he is paddling for the fun and excitement, then spoke in his native slang: "It would be a bitta craic," he said - roughly translated as a good time.

Hermann Botzoy, 76, and his companion of the same age, Judy Hildebrandt, trekked down from Swansea, N.H. to compete in the popular race.

"You can call us married, we act that way," Ms. Hildebrandt said.

Jayce Lajoie, 10, of Gardner was competing in his second race, paired with his grandfather, Gerry Lajoie, 62, of Royalston.

"It's crazy," the youngster said. "Everybody is splashing in your boat. I got my finger jammed last year. Someone hit me with their paddle - no time to cry."

First place and the $1,000 top prize went to Adam Gelinas and Shane MacDowell. Mike and Ben Schlimmer won the second-place $500 prize. Third place and the $300 prize went to John Berry and Brent Lyesiuk. There was a total of $6,000 in prize money for the top 40 finishers.

An award and trophy was presented to Athol Lions Club president David Flint for more than two decades of service organizing the River Rat Race. The Lions Club began sponsoring the race in 1991.

While 658 were competing in the main event for the $1,000 first prize, there was a re-enactment in the morning of the first race.

That took place on March 21, 1964 - and each of the 12 pairs in the dozen competing canoes got a free case of Budweiser Light beer from Girardi Distributors of Athol.

"It was a barroom argument about who could get down the river the fastest," said David J. Bachelder, about the first River Rat Race 50 years ago. He competed in the re-enactment with David "Spaghetti" Maroni, 65.

Brothers Charles and John Batutis, 74 and 66 years old, who competed in the first race, paddled in their original canoe.

Their sister Maryanne Dodge, 68, videotaped the beginning of the race.

"This was a nice, wonderful thing they put together," she said. "I hope my brother (Charles) makes it - he's 74," she added.

Athol Police Chief Timothy Anderson was among a bevy of officers directing traffic and assisting with pedestrians crossing streets.

He said that things were going smoothly.

Today there is a professional race with prize money totaling $2,000, including $500 for the first place female and male competitors.

The race starts at 10 a.m. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m.

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) Competitors begin the 50th annual Athol-Orange River Rat Race in earnest Saturday. (2) Seasoned veterans and novices took to the waters Saturday to test their canoeing skills - and to entertain the enthusiastic fans and well-wishers gathered along the banks and overhead bridges of the Millers River. Here, two canoes get turned around in the chaotic start of the race. Both eventually made their way downstream. Go to telegram.com to view a slideshow of the action.

PHOTOG: JOHN FERRARONE PHOTOS
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 14, 2013
Words:752
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