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