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Rubber duckies take a wild ride into the bay

Spectators watch as the rubber duckies descend from Waukewan Dam. Sarah Schmidt. (click for larger version)
July 08, 2009
MEREDITH — Nearly 4,000 rubber duckies tumbled down the Mill Falls waterfall and into Meredith Bay at the 18th annual Meredith Lions Club Rubber Duckie Race, racing with an extra boost from the accumulate rainfall.

Every year, the running of the rubber duckies draws crowds to watch the little yellow birds tumble down the waterfall and into Meredith Bay - some for the spectacle, and others in the hope that their duck would be the one to enter the bay first. That honor - and a $1,000 grand prize - went to Adrienne Stevens of North Sandwich, with Rubber Duckie #2026.

What most of the crowd doesn't see, however, is the work that goes into getting the ducks from the top of the falls into the bay. The annual July 4 rubber duck migration is a little more complex than simply dumping the ducks at the top, and hoping they all make their way to the bottom.

Weeks prior to the event, members of the Meredith Lions Club readied for the race by encouraging visitors and residents to adopt a rubber duckie. Proceeds from the adoption of the 3,983 rubber duckies will benefit 15 local organizations - the first $1,000, according to Lions Secretary Marie Valliere, always goes to David's House in Lancaster. Other organizations, including the Meredith Senior Center and New Hampshire Sight and Hearing Foundation, will also benefit from the race donations.

On the morning of July 4, the Lions Club set up a tent in Hesky Park to hand out last-minute adoptions and to sell rubber duckie paraphernalia - race-themed T-shirts, rubber duckies, quacker noisemakers, and the popular duck "paddlers" - paper cutouts of ducks stapled to a paint stirrer, on which spectators could write the number of their adopted duck.

"People will be cheering them on with their paddlers on paint stirrers," said Valliere. "We got them in a donation from Aubuchon. When it's hot, you can use them as a fan."

Four-year-old Mary Riley, a duck adopter, waved her paddler proudly.

"Look at mine, mine says 'Go Ducky!'" Riley said, pointing to her paddler. Her two brothers also waved paddlers for their adopted ducks.

Young volunteer John Folsom dutifully donned a duck costume, walking around Hesky Park and waving at cars on Route 3, trying to pique people's interest. Young Lion volunteers traded shifts in the costume all day long.

Across the highway, work of a different sort was going on. Lions Club members and volunteers were busy lining the bottom of the falls and the channel to the bay with wire netting, designed by Lion Sal Branante. This would keep rubber duckies on the right path, and prevent them from being pushed away from the main flow of water. Once the ducks were down the falls, the wire would guide them, pushed by the current, under bridges and under Route 3, and into Meredith Bay.

In Meredith Bay, they would pass under the footbridge, loaded with spectators, and into the newly-designed baffle, where Valliere and Mary Yaeger would be waiting for them. With a newly-redesigned baffle, Valliere said that the new design would help them cope with the strong current pushing the ducks into the bay.

"We have a good baffle now," said Valliere. "Last year was fast, and this year will be fast. We watched the duck races in Keene, and got the idea from them, to redo the baffle to make it easier on us when the race is fast."

The baffle ended in a bundle of Funoodles, allowing Valliere to see exactly which duck was first into the bay. Cash prizes were awarded for the adopters of the first five rubber ducks, and prizes were available for the next 22.

Up at the top of the falls, however, preparations were still going on to ready the ducks for their journey. Just below the Waukewan Dam, where the water surfaces before heading under the Inn at Mill Falls and down the waterfall, volunteers worked to lower in chicken-wire frames by rope and position them - not an easy task with the volume of water generated by the recent rains. These frames would prevent the ducks from getting caught in a corner and not going down the falls.

"The water is going real fast because of the rain," said Lion Joseph LaFrance. "In two minutes or less, they'll be down and in the bay. We do this every year - it's our biggest fundraiser."

Lion Joseph LaFrance and his daughter, Kara, helped Kim Kortz lower chicken-wire frames above the spillway, preventing the ducks from moving forward. Once complete, plastic bins full of rubber duckies were emptied into the "holding tank," pressed against the wire barrier.

Once the go-ahead had been given at 4 p.m. sharp, Bramante and Joseph and Kara LaFrance lifted the gates, letting thousands of rubber duckies splash down the falls in an explosion of yellow. Watching spectators cheered the beginning of the short migration down the falls and into Meredith Bay.

Two minutes later, the ducks were in the waiting hands of Valliere and Yaeger, who scooped up the winners and gave them to the judges. The remaining rubber duckies were netted and hauled into two waiting canoes, to be floated back to land, dried, and prepared for 2010.

The crowd surrounded the Lions tent, waiting to hear the winners. The situation was made a bit more urgent by a threatening thunderstorm, which chased away much of the crowd and soaked those who remained.

Cash prizes for the first five winners were donated by area businesses. Celeste Lovett of Moultonboro won fifth place for $100, and Jack Powers of Meredith won fourth place for $200. "Trustey," of Wenham, Mass., won $350 in third place. Second place went to Megan Wayland of Reading, Mass.

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