Memoir – The Lows and Highs of Raft Races

These are the collected memories of my spent and misspent youth. Names have been changed as some of the people involved now live respectable lives and I would hate to sully their reputations. At times I will take liberties as in who did what, or maybe combine a couple of stories together that really didn’t happen together. I am seeking to entertain, not write a documentary. Hope you enjoy.

The Raft Races

The town of Oswego used to have a celebration in June each year called “Oswego Days”. These types of celebrations are common in rural towns, everyone getting together for a week over the summer, usually involving a parade, a carnival/fair, and other events. Oswego’s celebration had all these things, and it had the raft race.

The Fox River runs through Oswego on  it’s way down to the Illinois. For several miles upriver from Oswego, and all the way to Yorkville, the river is a shallow, slow moving lazy kind of a river that just invites you to jump in on a hot summer day. Only back then, you were a bit hesitant since it always smelled a bit funny and seemed to have more dead fish than live ones in it. That’s probably not a fair appraisal, really, but that’s how I remember it. The raft race ran from a park a mile or so upstream from town and ended at the bridge crossing the river. There were many classes, divided up by age. The race would start everybody out together, then mark whoever made it across the finish line and figure out who won what. It was fun for the kids, and a beer-fueled cruise for the adult entrants. We ran the race several times.

1977: Our Rookie Year.

It was probably Cisco’s idea to do the race. I don’t remember. He and Hymie built a raft without me knowing about it. This was probably sound decision. I was heavier that either of them, and I was (and still am) useless with a tool in my hand. In the end I don’t know if they felt guilty about leaving me out, or if I just weaseled my way into project, but the end result was that we were all in the race. We built a wooden raft and lashed it to a pair of large inner tubes. Only the raft wasn’t big enough for all three of us. So, my friends let me use another inner tube and tied a rope from it onto the back of the raft. We were high drag on shallow water. It was a long day, but we still took first place. Lucky for us we were the only entry our age.

1978: Triumph of Design.

We spent a little more time on the design phase the second year. We were still relying on tractor inner tubes for our primary floatation. Through a big of experimentation, we learned that you could tie an inflated inner tube across the center and it would form a mini-canoe, with the front and back higher than the center. We measured this width, then built a long ladder frame to that width, long enough for three big inner tubes and three intrepid Vikings. I mention Vikings, because we had another idea. We wanted to make a bigger image at the end of the race. One of the adult entries the previous year was a huge barge with a mini cannon on it. At the end of the race they would shoot it off with the boom echoing up and down the river valley. The other thing they had was a big sail. This let them not paddle, yet still make good time. We couldn’t do the cannon, well, not that would get us in trouble, but we could do the sail. We put up a mast and fastened it to a cross bar. Then we got a white sheet put a huge skull and crossbones on it. We rigged up a system to raise and lower the sail and put it all together. The first time we raised the sail the whole thing caught a little breeze and tipped over. It was top heavy, really top heavy. So we added a couple of small outriggers made out of car tire inner tubes. We put it up again, then heard the awful cracking sound as the wind caught the sail and stressed the mast. Then we put in cross bracing, and ran lines from the tops of the mast to the ends of the raft and the out riggers. By now, it was time to get to the race. We lined up for the start with our sail down. We were a bit worried about breaking the whole ship, so we decided to put the sail up once we rounded the bend towards the finish line. The gun sounded and we all took off. The ship was pretty good, with the canoe’d inner tubes being much more efficient in the water. We rowed and rowed, and got out front by quite a bit in the first three or four hundred yards. Then we learned something about draft. Draft is how much water you have to work with, or depth. It had been a fairly dry spring that year, but not drought-like. The water was there, but there just wasn’t much of it in some spots. In fact, we spent about half of the next two hours picking up or dragging our beautiful ship down the river. That is hard work, even when you are in the prime of your youth.  By the time we rounded the bend we were exhausted, wet, and getting a bit cranky with each other. The bend marked a slower part of the river, also one that was deeper. We got in and started rowing again. We were still in front, but not by much as other had taken paths with more water. We pushed and pushed until we got a strong lead. Then, just before the bridge, we brought the oars in and put  up our magnificent sail. A huge cheer rose up from the crowd lining the bridge. The Skulled sail billowed in the breeze and glistened in the sunlight. It also brought us to a dead stop. The breeze that day was blowing up the river, not down the river. We rowed and rowed, water splashing everywhere, boards creaking against the wind and our efforts. Finally, Hymie just cut the rope and dropped the sail. We pushed across the finish line barely ahead of the competition.

1979: Hi Tech and Hi Tides

The third year we planned even more than the second year. That doesn’t mean we were better, it just means we spent more time talking about it as we went garbage picking or sat at the firepits. We wanted something new, something with performance. We wanted to smoke all the competition with our brilliant raft and our brute force. We were short on force, so we needed to concentrate on the raft.

Hauling the raft across the shallow spots the previous year taught us an important lesson about how much wood weighs and how much wet wood weighs. We needed something lighter, but that floats and floats enough to carry the three of us. We hit upon the idea of Styrofoam.  The giant home improvement stores did not exist back then, but there was still a decent amount of home construction going on where we lived. You can fill in the blanks. We managed to get a hold of several 4” thick sheets of Styrofoam. I had the bright idea to use spray foam sealer between the sheets to seal them up and to glue them together. Seemed like a good idea at the time. We sprayed some on and stuck the sheets together. An hour later we took a look and realized that the spray didn’t stick them together, but melted them down. We had eaten away at the Styrofoam wherever the spray touched. I was banned from having ideas at this point. Hymie and Cisco used strips of wood to build down the center and long bolts the hold the sheets together. Then they set about carving the front end. I will bet that to this day, 30+ years later, they are still digging Styrofoam shavings out of Cisco’s parents garage. It was a petro-chemical byproduct snowfall after hours of cutting and filing. We painted it up, red and blue, and were ready.

This raft was ¼ the weight and rode much higher in the water. What we didn’t count on was the difficulty in getting on the raft and staying on. We didn’t put seats on. Hmmm, quite an oversight in retrospect. The other things we didn’t count on was high water. That spring was wet, and the river was running much faster and deeper. When you are standing chest deep in water, it is hard to lift yourself up onto a platform, more so when the other two monkeys are trying to do the same thing, all while holding onto your paddle. The gun sounded and we weren’t even on the raft. We struggled and swore while the rest of the competitors thrashed their way down the river. Finally Cisco, the lightest of us, got on and Hymie and I just started pushing. We managed to get to a more shallow spot and we all got on the raft. Then the next issue reared its head. The raft was too wide to get a paddle in the water when you were sitting at the center. Maybe half of the paddle would get in and be useful. The brilliant raft was anything but. So we went with brute force. We paddled and paddled, slapping the water like meth-headed beavers, weaving this way and that way as we could barely steer the craft. When was shallow enough, we jumped off and ran with our craft – this proved to be the most efficient way to pilot this particular raft. Through frenzied paddling and water jogging we managed to pass much of the pack. Then the bend and the deeper water. We paddled furiously, frenetically, and fanatically until we cross the finish line, a bit behind the first place raft.

We competed in a couple of more races in the next few years, each time scrounging parts from old rafts and building something at the last minute. These were more leisurely efforts, not like our highly competitive ones in the past. We still talk fondly of our rafts, the times building them and of the races.