FORT KENT, Maine — The general consensus at the Fort Kent International Duck Derby on Sunday was that it was nearly impossible to look at 5,000 smiling, yellow plastic ducks in the back of a potato truck and feel anything but happy.
The derby was a fundraiser for two local charities spearheaded by the Greater Fort Kent Area Chamber of Commerce.
Anyone could “adopt” a single duck for $5 or spend more for a flock that would be released en masse along the banks of the Fish River behind the University of Maine at Fort Kent on Sunday morning.
The finish line was about a half-mile downriver, where the Fish River meets the St. John River. The first duck across the line was worth a cool $2,000 for its owner.
“This has been just an awesome project,” Norma Landry, duck derby logistics coordinator, said Sunday. “Everyone has gotten involved.”
To help guide the duck flotilla to the finish, members of the Fort Kent Fire Department used the event to work with officials from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on a training exercise in placing hazardous waste spill berms in the river.
Normally used to prevent the spread of oil slicks, the berms Sunday were collecting a duck slick.
“Yeah, this is a first,” Richard Stolicker, Fort Kent volunteer fire department captain, said as he waded into the middle of the Fish River. “No, I don’t think any of the guys have done duck mitigation before.”
Precisely at 11 a.m., Landry began a countdown, and the back hatch of the potato truck opened. The inside conveyor started, and a cascade of yellow ducks tumbled out and down a 20-foot chute made of blue tarps and into the Fish River.
At the bottom of the chute, brother-and-sister duck wranglers Mitchell and Madelyn Charette made sure every duck fell, dropped or bounced out of the tarp and into the river.
“I got thrown into this,” Mitchell Charette said as he dodged bouncing ducks, which, it turned out, make rather effective projectiles.
They drifted in a cluster for a short while, but the duck adopted by John Robichaud of Fort Kent pulled ahead and never looked back, finishing several minutes ahead of the second- and third-place ducks.
As the top placing 10 ducks were collected and tallied by the official Duck Derby computer, a crowd of youngsters armed with nets, buckets and bins plunged into the river to start collecting the remaining 4,990 yellow racers.
“We don’t get to keep them,” Landry said. “We have to gather them up and send them on to their next race in Chicago.”
The ducks are owned by Arizona-based Game, whose inventory of 300,000 plastic ducks is on the charity racing circuit around the country.
“The ducks are a temporary adoption,” Nicole Taylor, vice president of events at Game, said last week. “They are fair-weather friends who leave you for someone else.”
The ducks may be fair-weather friends, but Taylor is not.
Because there is more to a duck derby than simply tossing 5,000 ducks into the river, as part of the deal with Game, the company sent Taylor to Fort Kent from Arizona last February to put on a one-day duck derby workshop smack in the middle of a northern Maine blizzard.
“It was an experience,” Taylor said. “But I worked with all the members of the duck team, and they were so energetic. It really was fun.”
The workshop covered everything, from marking the ducks to fundraising to how to efficiently collect the winners and ensure all involved had their ducks in a row long before the race actually began.
Before loading the ducks into the potato truck Saturday, Landry and her crew tagged all 5,000 with numbered stickers indicating who adopted which duck.
“We all had blisters by the time we were done,” she said with a laugh.
Former UMFK President Richard Cost was back in the area with his wife, Ellen, and the couple had a half-dozen ducks racing.
“Do we have a strategy?” Cost said. “Swim really fast.”
Volunteers in canoes and kayaks escorted the ducks, making sure none got hung up on low-hanging branches or rocks.
“Watch out for muskies,” someone yelled. “What do I win if my duck gets eaten by a muskie?”
It took a little over a half-hour for the winning duck to make its way down the river, and by 12:30 p.m. a steady stream was coming in. Several hundred littered the riverbanks, and Landry dispatched volunteers to corral them.
And, of course, no self-respecting duck-related event would be complete without a round or two of “La danse des Canards,” or “The Duck Dance.”
“This is something different,” said George Pelletier of G.D.& D. Farms in St. John and owner of the potato truck used to dump the ducks. “I never thought I’d see 5,000 plastic ducks come out of the back of one of my trucks.”
Funds raised at the derby were split between the Edgar J. Paradis Cancer Fund and the Hope and Justice Project.