'Great' raft race returns

INDEPENDENCE -- From 1972 to 1984, thousands of rafts, boats, canoes, kayaks ... just about anything that would float, ventured down the Willamette River in a test of nautical skills.The Great Willamette River Raft Race was the highlight for many a bored and adventurous Oregonian in the Willamette Valley.Eventually deteriorating into a booze-fueled romp down the river, the race officially ended in 1984, though some kept the idea alive for a few years afterward.Fast forward almost 30 years and the reincarnated Great Willamette River Raft Race, hosted by the Networking Exchange Club of Salem and Salem television station KWVT, will celebrate its fourth year of new life Saturday."We all thought it was a great idea. We have the river here and not a lot going on in it," race coordinator Gail Francis said. "It's supposed to be a fundraiser, but so far it's just fun."Proceeds from the race go toward the Exchange Club's many service projects and its child abuse prevention program ESCAPE (Exchange Sponsored Child Abuse Prevention Effort).The first year the Exchange Club hosted the race, a scant 20 racers showed up. Around 150 racers floated down the river last year.The race is far behind the 3,200-person peak during its heyday in the late 1970s and early 80s, but is gaining steam."We're hoping for 300 people this year," Exchange Club of Salem President Harold Wood said.Racers will be divided into three categories -- "river queen" for homemade crafts, "water baby" for all inflatable vessels and "river cutters" for canoes and kayaks.Launching from Riverview Park in downtown Independence at 9 a.m. for river queen and water baby racers and 9:30 a.m. for river cutters, participants can cruise or hustle to the finish line 11 miles away at Wallace Marine Park in West Salem.An awards ceremony will follow the last vessel to land. Medals will be awarded to first-place finishers in each category."What made the event special in the past was there was so many people that there was a lot of camaraderie, people would laugh and joke and splash," Wood said. "Bring sunscreen. You don't realize that three hours on the water with the sun reflecting, you're going to get burned." The Lazy River What: The Great Willamette River Raft Race. When: Saturday. Check-in at 8 a.m., first launch at 9 a.m., second launch at 9:30 a.m. Where: Launches from Riverview Park in Independence, lands at Wallace Marine Park in West Salem. Cost: Online entry is $10 before the race; day-of-race fee is $15. For more information and to register: 503-580-0425; www.willametteriverrace.com; or email to gailfrancis@gmail.com. Of note: Vessels more than 10 feet in length must have an Oregon Invasive Species Permit.

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