Get a feel for the Fox at Mid-American Canoe & Kayak Race

The Fox River is a lifetime friend. Similarly, I've enjoyed the same long-term relationship with the Mid-American Canoe & Kayak Race.

We go way back … to boyhood days in Batavia with my brothers and friends, fishing along the river's banks, swimming when it was hot and watching canoeists glide in the brisk current, wishing it was us.

Every year, on the first Sunday in June, we headed for the river on our bikes to watch hundreds and hundreds of paddlers in the Mid-Am. As we got older, my friends and I became those very paddlers we once idolized from the shoreline. During my years as a newspaper reporter, I covered this great event many, many times.

Started in 1961, the Mid-Am's tradition is every bit as vibrant today. On June 4, the 56th Mid-Am will welcome paddlers of all ages and abilities - folks from all walks of life, taking part in this transcendent event and enjoying time together, on the water and off.

From first-timers to 30-year veterans, the Mid-Am strikes a balance between easygoing recreation and hard-core competition. With 20 different divisions - 11 for canoes, 8 for kayaks and an open (noncompetitive) division - there's a fit for everybody, and awards to the top three boats in every division.

The Mid-Am offers two race lengths, with a 10-mile course starting in St. Charles and a 6-mile race beginning in Batavia. Free shuttles run regularly between both start lines and the finish area. Both routes finish at the Illinois Avenue bridge with a lunch party at beautiful McCullough Park.

Early heats starting in St. Charles are "racers-only" to give the most competitive paddlers free run of the course and avoid potential crowding in tight spots and portages. Those who are less experienced at being on the river - novice paddlers and young families - are able to start later and travel at a more leisurely pace.

New start-line procedures are in order this year with individualized starting. Rather than launch in heats of 10, boats will still be grouped together, but will start individually every 15-20 seconds. Think in terms of a triathlon or Tour de France time trial. In essence, each boat will have its own starting time, creating better timing accuracy and greater flexibility for paddlers.

It's easier than ever to experience a memorable trip down the Fox River in the company of like-minded paddlers. And the perks are pretty nice, too - commemorative T-shirt, goody bag, grilled lunch (hot dog or burger), shuttle bus transportation and dozens of post-race prize drawings.

You don't even need to own a boat or worry about transporting a borrowed one - the Mid-Am offers discounted canoe and kayak rental packages.

It's simple, really: 1). Register online (by May 31) and choose the canoe or kayak rental package; 2) Show up on race day at your starting site, where your rental boat is waiting for you; 3). Enjoy a glorious paddle down the Fox River; 4). Leave your boat at the finish line to enjoy the post-race lunch party and awards ceremony.

More than 200 canoes and 100 kayaks are available for rent, so bring friends and family - there's a boat for everybody. Just make sure you've registered and reserved by the May 31 deadline - day-of registration will not be available this year.

Afterward, the riverside finish area at McCullough Park is a festival of fun, food, music, beer and games. Non-paddler friends, family and spectators are welcome to join the festivities. Food vendors will have subs, popcorn, frozen yogurt and other tasty menu items, and plenty of booths to browse with local businesses joining the celebration.

There's fun along the route as well - particularly at the State Street Bridge, where the North Aurora Lions Club sets up shop and turns the portage into a party. They'll be announcing the names of paddlers - Olympic style - one of the many highlights along the way.

Go ahead, enjoy the celebrity treatment, as fans line the banks in St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, North Aurora and Aurora, waving and cheering.

Good times like these make for a great event, one that celebrates a shared, recreational resource - the Fox River - and the enjoyment it provides.

• Jeff Long ( is the public affairs and communications manager for the Fox Valley Park District.

If you go

What: The 56th annual Mid-American Canoe and Kayak Race

When: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, June 4

Where: 10-mile race begins at Mount St. Mary Park in St. Charles; 6-mile race begins at Batavia Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1197 on Route 25; both races end at McCullough Park in Aurora

Cost: Registration fees are $20-$25; boat rental is $45 to $95

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