How the Beaver River Rat Race went from quaint to crazy
by Colin Field
Photos by Willy Wateton
“It was wicked. We were scared … I can’t believe there weren’t more people drowned.”
The party was simply too big. There’s no way it could have continued. Traffic backed up from Heathcote to Orangeville. Tombstones were knocked over, property urinated on and liquor bottles strewn about. People fornicated in public. 30-40,000 people descended on Clarksburg, Thornbury and Heathcote, blowing off steam in a spring fever tradition that had grown well beyond the tiny towns where it began. People were going to get hurt. Worse than that, the Beaver River Rat Race was going to get people killed.
That’s not to say people who remember it don’t look back fondly. Most of them do. They laugh and joke as they remember the days before it was out of control. They laugh at the thought of doing something so dangerous without ever signing a waiver. But none of them seem surprised that it came to an end in 1981. It was inevitable.
There’s something comforting talking to the guys who remember the early days of the Rat Race. It was a different time then. A time when you cut across other people’s property and they waved at you as you did so. And these guys are all reluctant to talk. Reluctant to claim they did anything special. They’re humble about it. They drop names easily, not meaning to bolster their own worth, but just as a matter of fact. Being part of a small community for so many years means you know everyone; you know who lost their son to a car accident, who recently passed away and where his children live. You know whose son raced which boat and how the guy who got first place was actually cheating.
The main character of the Rat Race story is the Beaver River herself. Her headwaters begin above Eugenia and the entire watershed of the Beaver Valley flows into her before she dumps out into Georgian Bay. She meanders through farmland, orchard, marsh and forest. In the summer, the stretch from Heathcote to Thornbury is too shallow to canoe. But in spring, the meltwater overflows her banks and as the water crashes over the dam at Slabtown and Haines Dam in Clarksburg, its power is mesmerizing. People have floated down her on various vessels throughout time, from the Odawa Aboriginal peoples to the whitewater paddlers of today. But it was in the late fifties that the tradition of the Rat Race began.
“In public school we had a teacher that used to let us go down to the river,” remembers Greg Black, one of the original Rat Racers. “We had a big steel bar and we used to chop off big pieces of ice and try to float down the river on them. I think I grew up at a good time. The teacher used to let us sit on the register in the back of the room to dry off if you fell in. Somebody would always be there drying out.”
Along with Merle Hodgkinson, Black and some other town boys starting building their own boats to paddle the river. Hodgkinson’s dad Bruce drove the boys up to Heathcote with their boats.
“Our parents usually didn’t know about it until we came home soaking wet. We were smart enough that we used to walk the river. We knew where the places were that we could get in trouble.”
Merle Hodgkinson drew up posters which he posted at Brownies Smoke Shop. And according to some, the Rat Race began officially in 1957. The names of the kids who ran it then are like a history lesson of the area: Dave Pottage, Bob Holmes, Ike Kennedy, Clive Prentice, Denton Lougheed, Bill Cowper and Gord and Ted McAteer.
“When we ran it as kids, we would pick the day on the Wednesday and we’d run the river on the Sunday,” says Black.
Each year the event grew and in 1964, seeing its potential as a fundraiser, the Rotary got involved. The Beaver Valley Athletic Association followed a couple of years later. The local boys who started it all were only concerned they’d have to pay an entrance fee. But they didn’t.
“The entrants were free entertainment,” says Brian McAteer (Gord and Ted’s youngest brother) a guy who raced 10 times. “So it was quite a good strategy for fundraising. We were excellent entertainment.”
The Golden Beaver was introduced, a trophy for top three finishers and another for the silliest boat. The race drew more entries and more homemade boats each year.
In 1971, with the race scheduled for April 11, temperatures skyrocketed, climbing from 7 degrees on April 6 to an unseasonable 17 degrees on race day. Snow melted at a rapid pace meaning the waters were high. Brian McAteer, a 15-year-old boy at the time and racing for the second time in his life, took second place that year. But he counts himself lucky.
“They should have cancelled it,” he remembers. “It was wicked. We were scared. If we ever upset, and a lot of years we did upset, usually it was no big deal, but not that year. We were scared. And thank god we didn’t upset. I can’t believe there weren’t more people drowned. I can’t believe it.”
“That one log up near the gravel pit there. We used to call it O’Neil’s corner. It was cruel. You had to know it was there and start paddling before you came around the corner to set up your escape. The whole current just went right into a bank and then went right under a big log. There was no escaping if you were underneath it. It was a brutal piece of water.”
“I’m sure there’s lots of sorry-ass white haired men sitting around here with post traumatic stress disorder from the experience of getting sucked under that year.”
And not everyone survived; Kerry Hodge, a 22-year-old Georgian College student from Barrie, lost his life at O’Neil’s corner that year.
From then on the race was held two weeks later, so the water wouldn’t be as wild. Rotarians and members of the BVAA spent up to four weeks in advance of the race clearing logjams.
1976 was the year that Paul “the Rimmer” Rimstead, an infamous journalist from Toronto, entered the race. Perhaps best known for running for mayor of Toronto as a publicity stunt in 1972 (he got fourth), Rimstead made a commercial for Carling O’Keefe beer with Rat Race footage and, if you believe everything Wikipedia tells you, it was named one of the world’s best commercials. The Rat Race would never be the same.
“Rimstead came up one year and was in it,” says Black. “After that it just got so successful it died.”
“Once that beer commercial came out, boom: half of Toronto was up here,” agrees McAteer.
In 1976 there were 100 entries. In 1977 there were 225 entries and 10,000 spectators. In 1978 there were even more entries and 20,000 spectators. By 1979 the Rotary and the BVAA realized they had “the tiger by the tail,” says an article in the Valley Courier.
As the size of the event increased so did the amount of drunken competitors and spectators.
“These guys had gallon jugs tied to their belts with two feet of string,” McAteer remembers. “Someone asked, ‘what the hell are those for?’ He says, ‘we fill them up with beer and tie them to our belts. As we drink the beer, they become our life preservers.’ The more they drink the drunker they are and the more flotation they need. Some of these guys were just a mess. The boats were full of booze.”
“There were fractures and abrasions,” remembers Dr. Ian Irvine, who helped in the medical tent and dealt with emergencies during the race, “but mostly lots of hypothermia. Just people being drunk and falling in the river.”
For many, boat building began in basements in the middle of winter. A few were dedicated to winning the race the old fashioned way, by finishing in the top three. Others forewent the rules of boat building and tried to win a Golden Beaver by building the most original entry. And original they were. You name it, and it floated down the river. From oil drums, to inner tubes, to pieces of Styrofoam lashed together. There was a brass bed, a dragon that puffed smoke, a Volkswagen that spent a summer spinning in a whirlpool in Slabtown, and even an airplane – yes, a mock jumbo jet called Idi Amin’s Airways, a cartoon-like contraption complete with portals the riders could paddle from floated over as many dams as it could.
These crafts obviously weren’t fast enough to beat the guys paddling from Heathcote to Clarksburg in just over an hour. Technically, to compete, the rules stated you needed a “river boat.” It needed one square end with a minimum of two square feet and two to six paddlers. While McAteer isn’t bitter about his many second and third place Golden Beavers, he doesn’t hesitate to point out that some winners were cheating.
“I think in the late sixties, they started to cheat. I think only one year was the winner eliminated for cheating. There never was an authentic winner from 1969 through to the finish. What they would do was build a boat that was faster and streamlined in the water, then they’d put an appendage on top of the boat that represented the two square feet. It had nothing to do with the end of the boat. So it was basically a kayak. Not a river boat.”
Others who were less concerned about winning but still wanted to compete in the event also got creative when it came to securing a boat.
“The last few years I just scrounged boats,” says Black. “Once you got out of school you didn’t have time to be building boats. I think a lot of people on the shore learned they had to lock up their boats in the spring. They weren’t exactly river boats, but they were for the day.”
1981 marked the end of the race. It was inevitable.
“I’ll never forget the last year,” says McAteer. “The last start. It was nuts. Someone was letting off rotten gas, there were flares, you couldn’t see. I nearly lost my left arm. I tried to push off some guy’s boat and his paddle came down, I saw it just in time. It was just wild.”
With over 400 boats registered, the once-tiny community event had reached well beyond its means. Competitors from throughout Ontario, plus the US and Manitoba were in attendance. It was costing an estimated $120,000 a year just to police the event. And while local businesses did profit from the influx of spectators and competitors alike, the headache such chaos caused didn’t really seem worth it.
“I was the guy that actually had to make the decision to stop it,” says Ian Irvine. “I was the president of the Rotary Club. It was a hell of a job. The crowd control was almost impossible. The neighbourhoods were very upset at the destruction and the drunkenness. I was the one that had to make the public announcement. But the club itself, it was 100 percent behind quitting. We decided that the safety factors and the behaviour factors, well, we didn’t need that kind of publicity.”
The final nail in the coffin for the Rat Race story came on April 25, 1982. The evening before, a wake was held for the Rat Race at the Beaver Valley Arena. A few die-hard Rat Racers couldn’t let it go at that, and a dozen boats lined up in Heathcote on the Sunday. The police warned participants not to go and with no sponsors for the event to clean up the logjams, the river was a dangerous place for those who didn’t know it. While trying to free his plywood boat from one of these logjams, 26-year-old Bruce Lokash of Toronto, slipped in the water and drowned.
These days, boats aren’t shaped in basements throughout winter. The Rotary doesn’t spend a week after the event cleaning up the remnants of the race. And villages like Heathcote and Clarksburg rarely get any Toronto press. The Rat Race was simply an expression of the times. It couldn’t have happened during any other era.
But the river never stops. She still overflows each spring. She’s still creating new logjams every year and her dangerous curves are continually changing. And her power is still mesmerizing.
It’s still possible to paddle from Heathcote to Clarksburg in the spring. And people continue to do so. There are no parade-type boats, no crowds egging on acts of drunken bravery and no traffic jams. Those that respect the power of the river and act responsibly still successfully navigate the river safely. And they know it’s one of the greatest whitewater experiences in the area.