At 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 13, a whole lot of ducks will be dropped into the Mississippi River in downtown Monticello.
On the surface, it’s a relatively simple race with some nice cash prizes.
But a little bit of research shows that it only appears so simple and smooth today because of the ingenuity shown over the 17-year run of the duck races.
And while the cash that goes back to the winners gets all the attention, it’s actually the cash that flows in during duck adoptions that is truly crucial.
Because while the actual duck race is a ten-minute swim down the river near the tail end of a four-day weekend, the duck adoption process is the engine that keeps Riverfest humming along.
“We count on the donations from people,” said Wes Olson, a Monticello Chamber of Commerce board member who has long been involved with Riverfest, including helping with the duck race from the inaugural run. “We count on the generosity of the people that are adopting ducks.”
Citizens of Monticello often donate $5 per duck, although they are certainly allowed to donate more.
If all 5,000 ducks are adopted, as they are most years, that can bring nearly $25,000 in revenue to the Riverfest committee, making it one of the three biggest revenue generators along with beer sales and food sales.
Last year, there were ducks that did not get adopted. Olson and Roseanne Duran, the head of the duck adoption process, are confident that was just a blip.
“We’re going to cure that problem this year,” said Duran.
And really, it’s essential that the ducks are adopted. Olson said that if they start to lose the money the ducks bring in, changes may have to be made to Riverfest – such as charging to get into the Saturday night dance.
“Without the donations, we wouldn’t have the money to do what we do,” said Olson.
What they do has changed over the years since the duck race was first introduced 17 years ago, in 1998.
The first year Riverfest did the duck race, they did it with borrowed ducks. They borrowed 3,500 from a lady in Becker and ran them down the Mississippi.
There were some issues, but it went well enough to convince Monticello to invest in 5,200 ducks, shipped from China, to run in subsequent races.
Over the next couple years, they continued to try and smooth out the rough edges of the race.
“About the first three years, we had a ton of problems with them,” said Olson.
For the first few years, they used a combination of tarps to release the ducks into the river. This method left quite a few stragglers.
“We could never get all the ducks to drop at the same time,” admitted Olson.
In year four, Olson and company made the transition to the four boxes that are currently used. Each box is two feet by two feet by eight feet deep. The four boxes each have a trap door and they are all connected to a lever system that opens all four at once. It seemed fool proof.
The heat had other ideas.
The first year the ducks were dropped out of the boxes, they didn’t drop at all. The warm weather had caused the plastic to stick together and workers were forced to hold onto the railing while jumping into the boxes to kick the ducks through.
Safe to say that wouldn’t be an annual occurrence, so the committee needed a solution. They came up with one, pouring a mixture of gravel and dust in with the ducks to prevent them from sticking together.
“That finally worked,” said Olson. “We’ve been doing it that way ever since.”
The other issue they had was attempting to funnel the ducks to a finish line. For the first two years they used a combination of rope and fire department containment equipment to form a “V” shape in the water.
“Those were the years we learned the power of the water,” said Olson.
The water overpowered the containment system, pushing ducks out of the boundaries and testing the limits of the equipment. After two years, Olson said he knew they needed a new way.
In year three, they went with the large buoys with anchors, deciding to let the ducks flow freely through them – the method that is still used today.
In order to have a duck to follow to the finish line on Sunday, a citizen needs to adopt one anytime in the three weeks leading up the race. If said citizen can’t find a place to adopt a duck, he or she likely isn’t looking very hard.
This year, ducks will be up for adoption at six different sites, according to Duran.
Adoption tables will be set up at Runnings, Cub Foods, Wal-Mart and Hi-Way Liquors, while ducks can be adopted inside at the Monticello Times and the American Legion.
Manning the booths will be a number of volunteers. Organizations ranging from the senior center to the Monticello dance team to many others team up to help adopt ducks to community members. It’s just one way that Riverfest brings citizens together.
“That’s what I like about it,” said Duran. “It does encourage that sense of community.”
If you don’t get your duck in the days leading up to Riverfest, ducks will still be available once Riverfest gets under way. The Saturday night street dance is another popular spot to claim your floating phenom, as the Monticello Royalty candidates will be milling around chatting up townspeople and encouraging adoptions.
Duran said being around the whole process is a wonderful experience. She helped out once seven years ago, and volunteered to head up the task the following year.
“I really just had a good time with it.”
Thirty lucky community members will certainly have a good time with it this year, as that’s how many prizes are to be handed out. The top prize this year is $2,500 while second through sixth place all claim an impressive prize of $1,000. Ducks No. 7 through No. 29 claim $100, as does the pokiest of the pokey, the final duck to cross the finish line.
Those 30 will standout as winners on Sunday, but it’s clear that the community stepping up to adopt ducks helps make all citizens winners throughout the weekend.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at email@example.com