If you build it, will it float?

By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher

Are you ready for 50,000 spectators to line the Rock River to watch a race? Ladies and Gentlemen, start your mental paddles! Remember the Rock River Raft Race from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s? That race is reported to have 50,000 spectators in 1988. The contest is back as the Rock River Anything That Floats Race (RRATFR). Get ready to race your paddleboard, canoe, kayak or homemade raft.

Yes, you. You could be a winning aqua-engineer, or at least a very fast paddler. Join in if you just want to have fun. We even have volunteer opportunities, complete with free t-shirts. Those on land have been known to have as much fun as those on the water.

For a paltry sum ($15 for kayakers, canoeists, paddleboarders, and $100 for rafts), you or a “crew” can be contestants in this benefit race for the Rockford Fourth of July and Holiday Lighting Committee, the Rock River Trail Initiative, and the Ski Broncs. Start visualizing your winning performance on Sunday, August 21, from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Our rain date is the following week (8/28/2016). The course is 1.65 miles long (officially known as a “Frank Mile;” ask famous kayaker and photographer Nels Akerlund for the technical explanation).

Boat launching will be at the old Coast Guard Station and craft will be staged at the mouth of the Spring Creek; the creek’s effluence has created shallows perfect to assemble the racers and test the “floatability” of aqua-engineers’ creative efforts. The starting line is the north side of the Auburn Street Bridge, and the finish line is the northern-most dock at the Prairie Street Brewhouse. Watercraft will be taken out at the Prairie Street Brewhouse boat ramp, which might be very entertaining as well.

Spectators may enjoy the race from the Auburn Street Bridge, the Whitman Street Bridge, and along the Rockford Park District’s Sinnissippi Bike Path to the Prairie Street Brewhouse. Get out those picnic baskets and blankets, table coolers, lawn chairs and binoculars. Feeling peppy? Walk along, run along, skateboard along, in-line skate along, or bike along the bike path and keep up with the racers! Stop for treats. Organized by Cathy McDermott of downtown’s famous Friday City Market, various local vendors and sponsors will be presenting their services and products at the parking lots adjacent to the Symbol structure, the Nicholas Conservatory and on the grounds of the Prairie Street Brewhouse. Watch these pages for more specifics about the treats that will be available.

How, you may ask, will the Rock River Anything That Floats Race be organized?

Answer: This is a four division race featuring kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and rafts.

The first division is a kayak contest beginning at 9 a.m., with doubles boats, followed by single boats at 9:30.

The second division is a canoe race beginning at 10:30 a.m., with doubles boats, followed by single boats at 11 a.m.

The third division is paddleboards beginning at noon.

The fourth division may be “The Funnest,” consisting of home-made rafts with no internal or external propulsion engines of any kind besides human power. Wooohooo!

How many of your smiling memories can go back to the last Rock River Raft Race in 1998? Do you know the story about how it started?

Graham Spencers’ Jay Graham said Debbie Best and Jan Thorpe, who were members of WROK/ZOK staff at the time and on the original Raft Race organizing committee confirmed the story the idea was hatched in a bar…  In 1976, John R. W. Walin, a WROK/ZOK disc jockey, spent an evening in the Sweden House bar with a British gentleman who was visiting Rockford [who was doing business with Sundstrand]. Many cocktails later, they had dreamt up the idea of a US vs. The British raft race as a fun promo for the radio station. Walin took the idea to the Noltes, who owned the radio stations. They said, ‘go for it.’ And the Rock River Raft Race was born. Remember, 1976 was our Bicentennial year, thus the Brit vs. US theme. In fact, for the first couple years, there were only two ‘teams:’ the British vs. the Americans. Going into the third year, the stations realized the concept was getting stale and the staff decided to open it up to ‘the public’ and host a variety of divisions. That’s when it was expanded into the ‘Anything That Floats’ idea. A few years later WROK/ZOK decided to make the 4th of July fireworks the benefactor of race proceeds as a nod toward the original idea of the ‘Brits vs the Americans.’  And, the rest, as they say, is legend.”

By popular demand with the need to create a new nostalgia and more fun, a committee was formed to discuss and recreate the event. Those committee members are: Chris Manuel, Rockford Brewing Company; Tyler Smith, Rockford Park District Board of Commissioners; Jay Graham, Graham Spencer; Frank Schier, Rock River Times/Rock River Trail Initiative; Cathy McDermott, City Market; Mike Paterson, Mid-West Family Broadcasting; Amy McIntyre, Rockford Park District; Ted O’Donnell, Rockford Fourth of July and Holiday Lighting Committee; Gary Anderson, GWAnderson Architects/River District Association; Josh Albrecht and Andrea Mandalay, Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau; Reed Sjostrom, Rockford Brewing Company; Nels Akerlund, Nels Akerlund Photography and Video LLC; Cat Akerman, Prairie Street Brewhouse; Geoff Oman, Fehr Graham Engineering & Environmental; Steve Lucas, Rock River Enterprises and Barge; and Sheriff Gary Caruana, Winnebago County.

Safety will be provided by Rockford Fire Department, Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department, the Ski Broncs and various volunteers.

Vendor inquiries are being accepted by Cathy McDermott at cathy.mcdermott@rrdp.org.

Sponsorship inquiries are being accepted by Mike Paterson at mpaterson@rmgmwf.com.

For all paddlers and rafters, a Captains’ Meeting will be held Monday, August 15 at 6 p.m. at the Prairie Street Brewhouse. Chris Manuel will brief the raft captains, and Nels Akerlund will brief the kayakers, canoeists and paddleboarders. Entry inquiries are being accepted by Chris Manuel: chris@rockfordbrewingco.com. Deadline for registration is August 15.

Rock River Raft Race photos courtesy of Jan Thorpe

Upcoming Rock River Trail events

Mark your calendar for 10,000 free bur and swamp oak trees coming your way for the sixth year in a row April 13-16. The Rock River Trail Initiative (RRTI) will distribute these gifts from Chad Pregracke’s Living Lands and Waters’ Million Trees Project. For contributions like these, Pregracke won the title “CNN Hero of the Year 2014.” The distribution through the 11 counties of the Rock River will begin April 13 in the Quad Cities up to above the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin on April 15. Distribution in Winnebago County will be on Saturday, April 16, with the main location being the Rockford Park District Trolley Station at the Riverveiw Ice House at 11 a.m. Volunteers needed. Please e-mail contact@rockrivertimes.com.

Also mark your calendar for the Rock River Sweep on Saturday, Sept. 10. Help the RRTI and RockRiverSweep.org clean up our backyard river. Join in with the Keep Northern Illinois Clean and Beautiful, Rockford Park District, Ski Broncs, Illinois Paddling Association, Rockford Brewing Company, Tad’s On The Rock, and many more sponsoring organizations. Last year, more than $3,000 in prizes were awarded for everything from the most garbage, to the weirdest cleanup costume, the dirtiest cleaner upper, and the weirdest or biggest piece of garbage. This year more than $5,000 in prizes have been pledged. Might be more.

More sponsors and volunteers needed. Kayakers and canoeists are really needed for the area south of Rockford to Bryon. Please e-mail contact@rockrivertimes.com with any donations, questions, or to volunteer.

Share this story