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Class warfare

Honor on the Charles River

photo of Honors professor Tim Duket and students"Why am I even here?" wailed BC junior Colleen Myron as she stood on the banks of the Charles River in a hard rain on a chilly, dim Sunday afternoon in late April. Her classmates Dave Reynolds and Stephen Czick, standing beside her, shoulders hunched against the downpour, grunted in a sort of primal empathy. "Why?" Myron said again.

The answers were simple: a good cause, the urging of faculty, and the reputation of the A&S Honors Program's Class of 2003. This spring, for the sixth consecutive year, students in each of the program's four classes joined in the annual Run of the Charles, a canoe relay race that draws more than 1,000 participants from across the New England region. The main purpose is to raise money to protect the Charles River watershed, but for the BC students, mostly a collection of novices and landlubbers, class pride is also on the line.

Organized by Honors Program faculty member Timothy Duket and director Mark O'Connor, each class fields a team of 10 paddlers who work in relay pairs to navigate a river course that runs 24 miles from Needham to Cambridge. At each hand-over of the canoe, the paddlers are required to re-enact a voyageur's portage, shouldering their vessel and trotting it a ritual half-mile overland before passing it on to the next two racers.

Though they now stood groaning in the rain, the Class of 2003 had swaggered into this year's contest, having already won as freshmen and sophomores. The seniors, meanwhile, never having won, were desperate for a closeout victory. All looked set for a fierce down-to-the-wire battle—and then the weather turned sour, and a number of participants decided to sleep in rather than make the 8:00 a.m. van from campus to the river. "We faced three choices in the morning," Duket said. "Not doing the race; consolidating the teams—but nobody wanted to work with other classes; or just working it out as we went." They took the last option.

Things got off to an inauspicious start. Just 100 yards into the race, the freshmen's canoe capsized, ending their hope of victory. By the time the second leg of the relay began, the juniors had fallen 15 minutes behind the hard-charging seniors. At the canoe exchange, however, they discovered that one of their paddlers, Dan Burns, was AWOL. ("Dan went out last night and was, uh, not feeling good this morning," Reynolds would explain to his teammates after the race ended.) Professor O'Connor was hurriedly drafted to take Burns's place. It was a fateful move. Though a middle-aged academic, O'Connor, an avid canoeist, was described by his students as "Old Man River himself," and he earned the title, driving the juniors from 15 minutes down to a 15 minute lead by the end of the stage.

The seniors were not done, however. With Mike Reif, a former crew team member, anchoring the fourth leg, they closed to within a few minutes of the juniors at the Watertown docks. Alas, Courtney Beer and Annette Keane, who were to take over the senior canoe for the final leg, had gone sightseeing in town in the anticipation that they would not be needed until around three o'clock. Reif's boat pulled in at 2:30, and the seniors waited, and waited, while the soaked freshmen and a resurgent sophomore team sailed up. Then the sophomores got tipped at the dock ("By a couple of girls who had absolutely no cause to think they should help push our canoe into the river," in tipping victim Marc Mathias's later recollection), and the juniors, calling themselves "J.J. and the Argonauts," paddled off to an easy win. Eventually Keane and Beer returned from their grand tour, and then Beer fell into the river as she stepped into the canoe, and a nasty headwind kicked up, and the luckless seniors finished dead last.

"I was covered in Charles River water!" Beer wailed, arms outstretched in disgust, as she and Keane pulled the boat up to the landing at nearly 5:00 p.m. By then the fitful post-race celebrations on the river's banks were coming to an end. A few damp barbecues sputtered gamely beneath impromptu tents of blue plastic sheeting, but most of the canoeists had made a rapid exit. Duket gathered his charges for a final photograph, then packed them into the available cars and vans for the ride back to campus. He looked exhausted.

"We spend the whole day ferrying these kids between the waypoints and back to campus," he said. Duket, his wife, Amy Martin, Professor O'Connor, Professor Alice Behnegar, and West Newton canoist Debbie Colgan—a friend of Duket's— had put more than 200 miles on their vehicles during the event. Standing in the rain in a gray sweater and ballcap, his feet sinking into the muddy ground, Duket shook his head. "Every year, we say, 'This is it. No more. Never again,'" he said. "But by the next year, we will have forgotten, and it'll all start over again."

It may only have been a trick of the fading light, but he did not look altogether dismayed.

Tim Heffernan

Photo: Honors professor Tim Duket welcomes Courtney Beer ’02, rear of canoe, and Annette Keane ’02 at the finish line.

Lee Pellegrini

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