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Huckleberry Finn Raft Race Remembered as Good Clean Fun on Lake Waramaug

By Bob Deakin

(Mark Grusauski, Brian Orth and Ted Gereg (L to R) launch their raft during the old "Huckleberry Finn Raft Race" on Lake Waramaug in Warren, CT in the late 1980s.)

Labor Day is often a quiet holiday. It does not come replete with marching bands and speeches, but some residents may remember the summer activities put on by Dick Combs, the late owner of the Inn on Lake Waramaug.

One of the most popular events was “The Huckleberry Finn Raft Race,” a homemade raft race on the lake that drew hundreds of spectators each year. The race continued a tradition on the lake that was born in the 1800s and ended in 1906. It was revived in 1981 and offered as a trophy a one-foot tall statue.

There was no entry fee to join the race and the rules were simple: each raft had to be homemade and the total amount spent on materials could not exceed $25. “This rule will be strictly enforced” entrants were warned. Sails, oars and any other methods of propelling the craft were allowed with the exception of motor power. Everyone had to wear a life jacket and those 10 to 14 years old had to be accompanied on the craft by an adult. No one younger was permitted to compete.

The race route was short, beginning at the lawn of the restaurant on the shore of Lake Waramaug. The former inn is now a private residence, located just west of the intersection of Bliss Road and North Shore Road. The restaurateur usually placed an obstacle out on the water for the boats to reach before returning to the shore as the finish line.

Former Kent resident Mark Grusauski participated in a number of the races with friends and remembers a year when the turnaround was a carefully arranged group of buoys and another when it was a boat full of reporters.

“It varied from year to year but I can’t imagine the thing lasted for more than 20 minutes,” he said recently.

Judging by old newspaper photographs it was probably a good thing the race was short. A front page photo from the Washington Eagle in 1987 showed a rickety wooden craft with three men from Bristol titled, “Trial and Error.” It was propelled by two men on bicycles with the rear wheels attached to paddles in the water. A third man paddled and steered from the side.

Another photo from the previous year showed a man on top of what appeared to be a coffee table, flailing away with his hands and struggling to move his “raft” along the course.

A New Milford Times photo collage from 1984 showed a man and a woman piloting a raft shaped like and egg, supplying the power with their legs from below the surface, like ducks.

“I think we won that thing twice,” Mr. Grusauski said, laughing as he recaptured the memories. “Mr. Combs liked to have fun. The prize was a dinner for two for every person on the boat so we elected to go with a six-person boat.”

The name of his 1987 entry was “The Silo Six.” The crewmen were John Arno and Ted Gereg from Kent and Brian Orth, Scott Walker and the late John Buchmann, all from Sharon. They won the race with a time of seven minutes and one second.

The “Cider Barrel 6” won in 1988, crewed by Arno, Buchmann, Gereg and Orth, along with Eric Kaminski and Bob Skueglia of Kent.

Hundreds of spectators showed up, as was the case each year, cheering the competition on. Mr. Grusauski doesn’t recall an official ceremony to commemorate the event but said there were always a series of tailgate parties near the shore the day of the race.

Morette Robarge Orth was Mr. Orth’s girlfriend at the time and has since become his wife.

“We were the girls on the beach that cheered,” she recalled with much enthusiasm.

“The raft was like 40 feet long and they kept winning the race,” she said of the six-man crew. “The Kent Greenhouse lent them a flat-bed truck so they could get the thing to the lake.”

Marge McAvoy used to attend the races and remembers it being a great time for all. Many of the rafts never made it to the finish line, disintegrating under their own weight and faulty construction. One, she remembers, was made entirely of concrete.

“It was a blast but it was sad when they discontinued it,” Mrs. McAvoy remembered fondly. “It was so much fun.”

The “Huckleberry Finn Raft Race” continued into the early 90s and ended a few years before the Inn on Lake Waramaug closed. It may not have been the biggest or the most organized event around Lake Waramaug over the years, but according to those who were there, it was the most fun.

Labor Day is often a quiet holiday. It does not come replete with marching bands and speeches, but some residents may remember the summer activities put on by Dick Combs, the late owner of the Inn on Lake Waramaug in Warren, Connecticut.

Originally published in the Kent Good Times Dispatch on September 10, 2004

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