HUNTINGTON — One of the nation’s oldest whitewater canoe races, on the Westfield River at its peak, will return for its 67th race on Sunday, April 24. Over 350 expert and novice kayak and canoe paddlers will brave the class 3 rapids on the Westfield River. The Westfield River Watershed Association is the presenting sponsor of the race, including a series of race clinics to help newcomers to the sport perfect their boulder deflection skills.
The race will take place on two branches of the Westfield River, which has received National Park Service designation as “Wild & Scenic” due to its history and natural beauty. The US Army Corps of Engineers will raise the water level at Knightville Dam to add to the thrill of the event. Spectators are welcome along the edge of the river.
Competitors in the Expert class will start their races at the Knightville Dam in Huntington at 9.30am. Classic (amateur) races will begin at 11:00 a.m. from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation yard in downtown Huntington. Both races end before Woronoco Waterfall, just outside Westfield.
“We are so excited to be back in the water after a long cold spell,” said race chairman and 21-time winner Edward Hamel. “What started as a Hilltowns bar bet has grown into one of the top two whitewater races in the United States. I have run the race over 40 times and there is nothing quite like the excitement, with the great natural beauty of this river. We encourage paddlers who have never run a race to join the clinics to improve their skills and participate.
This year, the Westfield River Watershed Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the river and its tributaries, stepped up to sponsor the race and help with the post-COVID transition. Registration will be done online, race numbers will be randomly assigned among pre-registered runners and start times will be distributed prior to the race.
“The Watershed Association has been approached by race organizers to support the race this year. It was a natural fit for us since the race has always been the biggest celebration of the river in the Hilltowns,” said WRWA President Brian W. Conz. “The Watershed Association and the Wildwater Races originated in the 1950s, and both rely on the hard work and dedication of volunteers to promote river enjoyment. The races are part of both the history and the future of the watershed. We encourage everyone, paddlers and viewers, to get out in April and continue this wonderful tradition.
Advance registration is now open at getmeregistered.com/westfieldraces. Registration closes at 6 p.m. on April 21; no new registrations will be accepted on race day. Entry fees cover race clinics and a post-race paddler party, with food available for purchase, music and entertainment from 1-5 p.m. at Strathmore Park in Russell.
Competitors will be divided into several classes according to age, gender, number of paddlers (one or two) and type of boat (canoe or open kayak). Expert races run 12 or 5 miles, depending on the class. All classic runs are 8 miles. Entry fees are $30 per paddler until April 3, when they drop to $35 per paddler. Total fees for junior-senior tandem teams are $45 now, $50 after April 3.
Race clinics are scheduled for April 10, 16 and 23 at the MassDOT Yard on Route 112 in downtown Huntington. Participants are due to gather at 12:15 p.m. for a discussion on boating safety, with boats in the water at 1 p.m.
Running since ’53
In the winter of 1953, a group of friends sat around the bar at the Whippernon Club in Russell, feasting on stories of their canoeing prowess. Club owner Dick Waterhouse challenged swaggerers to prove their skills in a race on the Westfield River on the first Sunday in April. The prize would be a cold case of beer, courtesy of Waterhouse.
News of the challenge reached Al Hodges, owner of the Wildcat Springs restaurant, located on the west arm of the river in Chester, about 10 miles upstream from the Whippernon. Hodges added another case of beer, doubling the price. With this, the course of the race was set, starting at one bar and ending at the other.
The Hilltown racers were confident that the prize would be taken by one of them and shared with the others, but on race day half a dozen canoes with a dozen hardy paddlers from around the area gathered in cold water. A team from Southwick won and took home the prize, leaving locals to buy their own beer.
In these early races, a cable was stretched across the river and each team’s stern paddler clung to it until the starting signal was given. The race was a straightforward affair with a mass start. The winner was determined just as simply: the first boat to reach the finish line.
In the 1993 race program, John Tucker remembers racing that first race. He said it wasn’t very publicized and a lot of people didn’t know about it.
He recounted, “We were moving at a pretty good pace when we saw some guys fly-fishing in the middle of the river. We yelled at them to “watch out!” but they could not understand where the voices were coming from. We took them by surprise – they didn’t expect a canoe to surprise them like this! »
By 1960, the race course had exceeded the capacity of the river to accommodate a mass start, and the current time trial format had been adopted. Life jackets, which were shunned at first as unmanly, were demanded by state officials who patrolled the banks. The race had grown to the point that it was gaining notoriety in Boston.
In 1963, Jane Coffin became the first woman to participate in the race, when she entered with her husband Stewart. At that time, many considered it improper for a woman to participate in sporting events, especially with men. Today, women make up a significant portion of the field.
In the mid-1960s, under the leadership of Howard Mason, the race was moved to the east arm of the river to take advantage of a more predictable water level. The free-flowing West Branch depends on rain and snowmelt for its flow, while the East Branch can be artificially raised or lowered by controlling the Knightville Dam.
The breed came of age in the 1970s under Merritt Andrews, then Jeff Defeo and Jurgen Igel. Racing Classes were created to allow people of different skill levels, or with varying racing gear, to compete more equally. The Novice Race (now Classic Race) was introduced, turning the annual event into a two-day affair. Clinics were offered for the first time to introduce newcomers to the sport and promote canoe safety.
Other changes followed: The predominance of wood and canvas and aluminum canoes of the early days gave way to ABS, fiberglass and Kevlar. Garments that were barely distinguishable from normal work clothes were replaced with lycra and neoprene, while dull colors became a real rainbow. Ash beavertail paddles were replaced with spruce and cedar, Kevlar and graphite; straight-shaft paddles have largely given way to curved shafts.
Today, the race is very different from what it was when it started. The participants are a cross section of modern American demographics and technology has changed every facet of racing equipment, from watercraft, paddles and clothing, to timing and reporting of results.