Here's the scene: 1,200 bright yellow rubber ducks dove over the Mill Pond Dam Saturday, June 14 and came straight at Ernie Stretton in a rush.
The former school superintendent did not flinch. Held back from falling in by a fellow volunteer with a firm grip on his jacket, Stretton swung his net again and again as the wiley ducks dodged among the rocks and foam. Swish, swish went the net.
"Missed me, missed me, made you swing, made you swing," the ducks seemed to say.
Ernie Stretton tries to catch ducks on the Chubb River. (Photo — Naj Wikoff)
But Stretton had a glint in his eye that past would be truants knew all to well, down came the net with a last second flick to the right and Stretton had his duck. "Hah! Got you!" he exclaimed.
Over the roar of the water, the crowd cheered, and once again the Rotary Club's annual Dam Duck Race had a winner. Other ducks were quickly netted, some tossed from the far bank, and others passed up by Stretton to line up on the Lisa G's back deck railing so their numbers could be written down and announced.
It was a wild and damp race. While it was sunny in Keene, Wilmington, and Saranac Lake, in Lake Placid it poured with the center of the storm seemingly tied to race headquarters. Even an incorrect listing of the time of the event as being 10 a.m. in the local papers did not keep a sizeable crowd from turning out. Why you might ask? Surely the amazing spread of food put out by Lisa G mattered. Perhaps it's the yellow tide of bright yellow ducks wearing sunglasses with their Hollywood "I'm cool" look about them spread over Chubb Pond slowly inching their way to the dam, or it's that sudden shift from serenity to the plunge, or perhaps its all the duck jokes, or the many good deeds that the money raised is put to by the Rotary. Whatever, no doubt a combination of all the above, people came in droves and had a good time.
"I came up with the idea for a duck race 11 years ago while standing right here," said Debbie McLean, festooned with all manner of duck necklaces. "We were looking for a fundraiser, and I had this idea of having a duck race. I bought 12 ducks, went out on Mirror Lake threw them in, and they went nowhere. Later we were having dinner at Lisa G's, and as I walked up I saw the dam, went to my car, threw three ducks out, watched them go over the dam, and thought Dam Duck Race."
"And then your next thought was, 'How do I get my ducks back?'" I said.
"I didn't care, but I had an idea," she said. "We started with 200 ducks, had no idea on how to organize a duck race, and now we are up to 1,200 ducks and this is now Rotary's biggest fundraiser. We raise about $13,000 dollars. All the money goes back into the community building parks, the new bike racks, and lots of other good things. This year, I think we are going to lose some ducks because the water is the highest it's ever been, and we no longer have the Mill Pond acting as a holding tank. I suspect that (Wilmington town supervisor) Randy Preston will find a few floating about Lake Everest in Wilmington."
"The secret to winning is the ducks have to train all year," said Gina Jadwisiak selling duck tickets. "They have to swim really hard. It's going to be difficult this year because of all the rain. It's going to be fast water, but I think the ducks will still enjoy it. What's rain to a duck?"
"The water is flowing over the dam a bit faster this year," said Stretton before the race. "We have a net set up to collect the ducks after we catch the winners. Some of the ducks may slip by Randy (Quayle) and me, but I prefer that they slip by than I slip in. The secret to catching a fast moving duck is to have a big net."
"We will be down on the finish line with our nets, and the winner is first duck that crosses the line that we catch," said Randy Quayle. "We go after every one of the ducks. This is my fourth year doing it. I have been training for the last month by lifting weights."
"Duck 273 is actually a crossover athlete," boomed announcer Doug Haney 10 minutes before the race. "He does dam racing in the summer and alpine skiing in the winter. His favorite athlete is Andrew 'The Warhorse' Weibrecht."
"The ducks are not going to have any trouble getting over the dam this year," said fellow announcer Chris Knight. "We have had years when it was pretty dry and ducks got hung up in the rocks. This year, it's going to be a race to the finish."
"Actually, when the water is this high it makes for a more fair race," said Haney. "There have been some years when the ducks did not make it over the dam, and there was some unfair hurling of ducks, which gave advantage to some over those who climbed over and bounced their way down. None of that will happen today."
"It's going to be a clean and wet race," said Knight. "Well you can see the pontoon boat is getting in place, and soon these ducks will be off, over the falls and into the river heading straight for Stretton."
"What do you think about winning?" I said to the newly crowned duck trainer, Rhys, who netted a cool $1,000 for backing the winning duck.
"Awesome," said Rhys.
"It feels fantastic to have a champion in our family," said Rhy's dad, Casey Gadway. "He has always been a champion and this just proves it. We have a few ducks in the bathtub, so he got some pre-race training in. He and the duck knew what they were doing."
"Ernie, it was pretty rough down by the river wasn't it?" I said to the damp post race netter.
"It was," said Stretton. "It was roaring today. I'd get ready to catch one, and it would take a hard right and shoot across the river. I've never seen the like, but I am still dry, well sort of. I came out Wednesday and looked at the river and I thought it would be a piece of cake, and then the skies opened up. Three days of rain. What a difference!"
"Doug, I understand you clocked these ducks. How fast were they going?" I said.
"97.625 mph, which was a new water speed record," said Haney. "We've never seen speeds before at this rate. We thought there might be a safety concern, but the ducks seem to fare well."
"It has been an awesome, awesome race," said Debbie McLean. "The people of Lake Placid are so hardy to be out here in such numbers in such weather, and especially the duck handlers, those who launched and those who caught the ducks. We should probably put the word out to any fisherman who finds a plastic yellow duck to drop it off at the UPS Store."