Let's put things in perspective first. When the Mid-American Canoe and Kayak Race made its maiden journey down the Fox River, state Sen. Robert Mitchler of Oswego was merely 41 years old and still three years away from being elected to what would become a prestigious political career in the Illinois State Senate.
That was in 1961. Mitchler went on to serve five terms, and the Mid-Am has rolled downriver ever since. Today, both are still going strong.
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On June 5 (the first Sunday in June), the Mid-Am celebrates its 50th running and, shortly thereafter, Mitchler does likewise for his 91st birthday.
Mitchler has been a frequent participant in the Mid-Am (22 times), including last year when he and sons John and Kurt hit the river.
For Mitchler and many others, the Mid-Am is a festive June tradition that celebrates the river and the communities it unites. But the race also is representative of one great recreational resource, the Fox River.
This year's Mid-Am will celebrate the race's history, combining classic tradition with modern grace. Just as the Fox River has changed over the years (cleaner, healthier and its shores preserved), the race also has new features.
For many years, the race was a 17-mile marathon between South Elgin and Aurora. Today, the Mid-Am features two race lengths -- a 10-mile trip from St. Charles and a 6-miler from Batavia -- both finishing with a post-race party and awards ceremony at McCullough Park in Aurora.
For those who like variety, the race is twice as nice, offering a still-challenging option for racers and a shorter route for newcomers and families with children who want to experience for the first time what the Mid-Am is all about.
First-timer or old-timer, all participants this year will receive a commemorative keepsake, because each paddler will be a part of history. Anything that lasts 50 years -- heck, that's half a century -- is worth remembering.
There's an added attraction for racers this year as the Mid-Am will be part of the Illinois Triple Crown. Paddlers who enter the Des Plaines River Canoe & Kayak Marathon (May 22), the Mid-Am (June 5) and the Chicago Flatwater Classic (Sept. 18) will be competing for a trifecta of season-ending awards and honors.
Just the same, the Mid-Am is the perfect venue for first-time paddlers to get a taste of river recreation while enjoying the ambience and camaraderie of fun-loving folks. Don't despair if you don't have a boat. The Mid-Am has once again partnered with Freeman's Sports to offer easy-as-a-mouse-click canoe rentals.
Even a caveman (with a computer) can do it. Simply register online at foxvalleyparkdistrict.org and sign up for the canoe rental package. Each paddler will receive a $10 discount off the registration/rental fee. On race day, show up at the start line -- where a canoe awaits you -- paddle down the beautiful river and leave your canoe at the finish area to go enjoy lunch at the party.
The Fox River resembles a frozen tundra right now, but don't be fooled -- it's merely resting up for the first Sunday in June.
• Jeff Long is the public relations manager for the Fox Valley Park District. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org