Paddle On

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Put your running shoes away—and grab a paddle. If your competitive spirit has gone into high gear, the place to be is on the water.

The River Rat Race in on the Millers River in Athol and Orange is a decades-long tradition that brings out the strong, the brave, and the adventurous every spring. Depending on Mother Nature’s whims, the river could be running swiftly or more slowly, and the water could be icy or more tolerable, the ambient air temperature comfortably warm or a wee bit frigid.

Canoe Chaos

Photo Credit: Katie Young

Photo Credit: Katie Young

But whatever the weather and river conditions, the race is likely to be lively, maybe a bit contentious, and not without a healthy dose of laughter as hundreds of canoeists fight their way to the finish line.

Launched as a friendly bar bet, the first race in 1964 attracted a field of 12 canoes. In recent years, upwards of 200 canoes, each paddled by a two-person team, have bumped, bashed and battled 5.2 miles down the Millers River. After a two-year hiatus due to the Covid pandemic, the race returned in 2023, bringing with it all the excitement that makes the event a local treasure.

The race only last about an hour—but it’s part of a weekend of fun and frivolity, from the friendly Friday night gathering at which paddlers get their canoe starting positions to the Athol Area YMCA Big Cheese 5K road race on Saturday morning, followed by the River Rat Promenade down Main Street. The race itself starts at 1 pm with the firing of a cannon, so even if you’ve staked a spectating spot far down the course, you’ll know when the action has begun. And, of course, there’s never a shortage of after-race partying!

All Boxed In

Photo Credit: Katie Young

Photo Credit: Katie Young

If the River Rat Race is a bit too frenzied for your taste, how about something a little less formal—but at least as much fun?

We’re talking about a real homegrown—or in this case, home-made—boat race. Yes, the vessels vying for honors in the Hubbardston Dinghy Dash are all handmade creations, concocted out of only cardboard and duct tape!

There are no regulations regarding size, shape or symmetry, so a lot of imagination goes into the crafting of these watercraft. With various competition categories, the boats may be occupied (and powered) by a single adult, single youth or a group.

And while the goal may be to win the race, there are also awards for achievement like creativity, time afloat, and, perhaps the most popular, “best sink.” It’s a given that there will be some speedy and some slow collapses as the cardboard creations meet the challenge of getting wet.

Want to see—or take part in—the action? The Dinghy Dash, scheduled for 10 am on August 24 at Brigham Pond, is coordinated by the Hubbardston Recreation Department; you can register to participate, or just get more information about the race or other town events, at

Also on tap this season: the Cardboard Canoe Race at the Groton River Greenway Festival on June 9. There’s a full day of fun at the Petapawag Canoe Launch, 11 South Rd., Pepperell, with music, art, free canoe tours, conservation exhibits—and the cardboard canoe race at 3 pm to wrap up the event! See Groton River Greenway Festival on Facebook for details. §

If you love being out on the water, but aren’t ready to go off to the races, you’ll be happy to know there are lots of great places to go boating, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing in this region!

The Nashua River has deep ties to the industrial and agricultural history of the area.

For a terrific introduction to the Nashua, check out the programs offered by Nashoba Paddler in Groton. In addition to offering canoe and kayak rentals, these folks provide classes, camps and tours throughout the year. Try a full moon canoeing tour, or bring the family to paddle with beavers!

Learn more about Nashoba Paddler and their programs at