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How The Duck Race Came About

Some of the individuals who helped start the annual Duck Race. Ty and Gay Nagl, Nicky Kane, and Barbara Pratt

Some of the individuals who helped start the annual Duck Race. Ty and Gay Nagl, Nicky Kane, and Barbara Pratt

By: Nancy Hause

Yellow is a springtime color. But in Estes Park, where March can mean two feet of snow by the front door, springtime yellow doesn’t come from tulips, daffodils or forsythia, but from thousands of yellow adoption forms for little rubber ducks that will compete in the  Rotary Club’s annual Duck Race.

Now that the forms have been distributed to the 66 local charities and organizations that will benefit from the race, the town is blanketed with local folks of all ages urging everyone they see to spend $20 to adopt a duck and get a good chance at all the prizes offered.

What is it that unites a small town in such a large effort? An effort that has put more than 6,500 ducks in Fall River, receives contributions from a great many local merchants, and for years has raised well over $100,000 per year to benefit the local groups. And what is it that makes upstanding local Rotarians, people you trust to manage your investment portfolio or treat your sore throat, blossom out in orange sweatshirts, duck motif necklaces and neckties, blue and yellow vests and even (shudder) yellow Crocs?

The Rotary Club Duck Race turns 21 this year; it has reached maturity. But its “flock,” the 35 members of the Rotary committee that puts on the race and the 80 or so more who help during race week, seem to put maturity behind them in favor of youthful fun and hard work. For the race in May, (this year it’s May 2,) the committee, headed in 2009 by Big Duck Chuck Coffey, begins meeting in September.

As race day gets closer, Duck Central, the computer-using race center, opens in April. This year it’s April 9 at 5 p.m. in lower Stanley Village. Run by computer experts Don Widrig and Sandy and Lee Lasson, Duck Central is a sophisticated set up that would do credit to any business. Rotarian George Williford wrote the first computer program years ago and Widrig rewrote it for maximum efficiency in 2003.

But unlike the large “flock” organizing the race now, the first Duck Race committee in 1989 only had four members: Estes Park businessmen Steve Nagl, Mike McDonald, Nick Kane and Stan Pratt. The four were brainstorming ways to help extend the business season in Estes and also benefit the community, which did not have any organized way to distribute charitable funds.

Nagl had seen a duck race in Oregon and since Estes Park had a river handy, the four decided that might be an idea. The first race was a test involving 15 ducks, with only nine finishing. Seven hundred and fifty ducks ran the real race that year, there were 57 prizes and the race raised $15,000.

The race grew at an amazing pace and outgrew its tiny organizing committee. In 1994 the Rotary Club took it over. Each year saw steady increases in number of ducks, number of prizes and the amount given to local charities and organizations.

There were often problems-usually caused by Mother Nature who either provided a river choked with ice or low from small snow melt. High, fast running river flow could be a danger to bystanders. Ducks got snagged on rocks or kidnapped by souvenir hunters. The fastest river run was slightly over 35 minutes, the slowest over three hours.

But over the years Rotarians built up a security force to police the river’s edges, enlisted the Estes Park Fire Department Dive Team to keep things moving, worked on better ways to post results, created Quiltin’ T. Canvasback (a Rotarian or family member in a fuzzy duck suit, shown above) and learned how to handle the huge crowds that attend.

Also over the years there have been bands, puppets, face painting and duck souvenir stands at the finish line. Ideas to help finance the race from wine tasting to “Waddle Offs” have come and gone. The main prizes, often vacation trips, this year electronic equipment, got bigger and better, with other prizes multiplying to a total of 800 in 2008. And still, 95% of the money raised goes to the charities and organizations.

So back to the original question-why do they do it and why does the town get so involved? Probably because the Duck Race combines so many good things: a festive day, the best kind of competition, and a chance to work hard together for a good outcome. And those upright Rotarians get to be kids again-the latest gadget is a slingshot that shoots a little padded duck at the unsuspecting. Who wouldn’t enjoy that!

© 2014 Estes Park News, Inc

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