Duck race plays important role in generating Riverfest revenue

When 5,000 ducks hit the surface of the Mississippi River Sunday afternoon during Riverfest, the start of their aquatic journey signals an important milestone.
If all has gone according to plan, the tiny participants in 16th Annual Great Monticello Duck Race will have a quacker backer rooting them to a first-duck finish.

Kayla Gilles and Sydney Burns, Monticello Dance Team members, work a Riverfest duck donation table outside of the Monticello Walmart on Wednesday, June 26. (Photo by Tim Hennagir)
Kayla Gilles and Sydney Burns, Monticello Dance Team members, work a Riverfest duck donation table outside of the Monticello Walmart on Wednesday, June 26. (Photo by Tim Hennagir)

The fun-filled event is one of the showcase events on the celebration’s final day. The event is also a major fundraiser that keeps Riverfest rolling financially.
Dan Carlson, past Monticello Chamber President and Monticello Rotary Club past and president elect, stated the following about the ducks in a June 1 letter to the business community: “The Monticello Duck Race not only highlights the beautiful Mississippi River, it also has become a financial strength that supports this community celebration.” When ducks are adopted by businesses, it ensures $5 a duck and provides financial support for a four-day weekend of events.
The first adopted duck to cross the finish line wins the fowl’s foster parent their choice of two new 2013 Honda Metropolitan Scooters or one new 2013 Honda Recon 250 ATV. There are 30 total winners. The last duck across also wins. Roseanne Duran oversees the duck adoption effort for the Riverfest Committee.
“If we have a good year, donations will be close to $5 a duck,” Duran said. Revenue generated by corporate and local business adoptions plays a critical role because the money collected provides early start-up funds for many Riverfest activities.
It’s something the committee has always done, and they count on the corporate duck adoptions,” Duran said. “Getting the ducks adopted right away helps get the Riverfest Committee’s financials going because we are the first ones to bring in money.” Adoption booths are another source of revenue.
Duran uses a computer spreadsheet to keep track of who is working the duck adoption tables at Cub Foods, Hi-Way Liquors, Walmart and other locations around town.
“We did our first duck adoptions at the Monticello American Legion during our waffle breakfast,” she said. That duck race-related event is somewhat different because it raises funds for the Legion. ”Organizations can come in and work the adoption booths, and designate it to any group they want. Three or four years ago, I had three or four kids who just wanted to go to camp through their church,” she said.
“They didn’t have the money, and the church didn’t have the funds to pay, so they asked if they could work hours at the adoption booth and donate the money to their church, which then paid for them to go. I said they could do it, because they were donating it to a non-profit,” she said.
Groups often split adoption booth shifts. Duran said some of the bigger groups ask for June 27 and June 28 each year and a member helps organize the adoption station staffing.
“What organizations receive is based on the percentage of money or funds left over after expenses and prizes are paid out by the Riverfest Committee,” she said. “All of the hours are put together, not just duck hours.”
Wes Olson is a longtime Monticello Riverfest Committee member. Recently, he recalled how the duck race started and provided some behind-the-scenes background on the annual effort that lines the banks of the Mississippi River with spectators eagerly awaiting the sight of 5,000 falling ducks.
According to Olson, in 1997, then Monticello Lion Club President John Pearson brought the duck race idea to the table. “I took the idea and organized the duck race that year with 3,500 borrowed plastic ducks,” Olson said. “Throwing them off the bridge damaged and sank some. The next year we ordered about 5,200 rubber ducks from China.  When they arrived at a shipping dock in St Paul, former Monticello Times publisher Don Smith and I retrieved them. They were individually wrapped in plastic making the belly numbering project go late into the night.”
Olson was chairman of the duck race for three years, and each year, the method of getting the ducks to the water changed as well as the collection effort. “The fourth year we did the race, all 5,000 ducks hit the water together for the first time,” Olson said. The ducks are stored in a secure storage locker, he added.
“We audit them and account for all duck numbers one thorough 5000, every other year,” he said. “When one is lost or waterlogged we replace it with a spare.”
The duck drop committee consists of about six Monticello Lions Club  members. They assemble three to four, 4 by 8-foot drop boxes the morning of the race and hang the boxes from the side of the Highway 25 bridge. The ducks arrive about 1 p.m. Mixing gravel in with ducks when put they are put into their boxes is critical, Olson said, because the ducks’ rubber surface tends to stick together in the heat. That prevents a clean drop.
All ducks are ready for the drop by 3:15 p.m. and four to five  boats are below to follow ducks down river along with a couple jet skis to corral the ducks as they float.  As the ducks cross the finish line buoys, the first five are collected in order of race completion. Holders of duck adoption numbers are called into the office trailer on the shoreline where Olson and three to four others list the called duck numbers
“We list the next 40 duck numbers for potential prizes. We then cross-reference the duck number to a computer-generated printout to get the ticket number, and double check it,” Olson said. “Once all the winners are listed, the boats begin to net the ducks, hopefully before they reach Elk River.”

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Contact Managing Editor Tim Hennagir at [email protected]