CRANFORD, NJ — Cranford residents trickled into the the docks behind the Cranford Canoe Club in small groups discussing race strategies and strapping on orange life vests. The murky waters of the Rahway River were still, but in just a few minutes, more than a dozen canoes would leave a trail of waves in their wake and give the spectators something to cheer about.
There was good fun and spirited drama at the annual Cranford Canoe Races on Saturday, July 4, in what Cranford Parks and Recreation organizers said was at least the 15th edition of the races to kick off the town’s holiday celebrations.
“It’s just a tradition. We do it every single year and try to make a point of it. It’s usually split between this and the Firecracker Four Miler. But usually, it’s a good event for people around here,” said Ian Hay, who, entering the day, had won his age group with Geddy Warner for the past seven years. “There’s a lot of people, but it changes year to year. It depends on the year.
Sometimes there’s six canoes per race, and other times there’s 15 canoes. It’s a pain, but always line yourself up in the middle.”
A couple hundred people came out for the canoe races, whether they were competing in one of the eight divisions — including 10- to 13-years-old, 14 to 20, 21 and up, father-and-child, mother-and-child and two marathons — or just w atching from the bridge, where parents and peers got a bird’s eye view of the action.
In just the first race of the day, in the 14- to 20-year-old division, a major upset occurred as Hay and Warner were dethroned. They wound up in a fast-paced battle of contact with another speeding canoe down the middle, and in a split-second finish, the title was won by newcomers Jack Carroll and Johnny Busch.
“We practiced this morning,” said Busch, 14, explaining why they nearly missed the race. “We’ll be back stronger next year.”
Meanwhile, less than a mile over on Springfield Avenue on the path of Nomahegan Park, the crack of a racegun signalled and more than 1,300 people were starting the 36th annual Firecracker Four Miler, another well-loved 4th of July tradition in Cranford.
“I don’t run that much, but it’s a thing to come out and do. It’s a family event, it’s not like anyone doesn’t finish — everyone finishes,” said Ryan Donovan, a Cranford resident. “It’s a great event, a lot of people come out, and it makes you get up in the morning. Now you’re up, and awake, and ready for the fourth of July.”
It’s a common route that everyone runs, added Donovan, and other runners pointed out the race is for a good cause: The Cranford Jaycees, who help organize the Firecracker Four Miler, use the proceeds to help fund local Cranford students’ education.
“This raises money that goes to scholarships for Cranford High School students. So all of the money we raise here, it goes out into a pool of money and we hand out scholarships to seniors,” said Joe Traviano, the manpower coordinator with the Cranford Jaycees, who said they typically raise about $30,000 for the scholarships. “It’s one of the older races, and the Jaycees are all about community — we try to give back to the community, give away ice cream and stuff like that, so that people get value for what they come out and do.”
About 1,300 runners, said Traviano, as well as a couple hundred 1-mile Fun Run participants, participated this year, which was on par with what they usually get. There’s a lot of people from Cranford, as well as around New Jersey, especially since it has the unique distinction of being a four-miler, according to race organizers. Being more than 20 percent longer than a 5k, it offers more points for runners looking to become certified for a half-marathon.
“We always like to do something on the 4th of July, and what we do is a bit different. Most races are 5k, there’s not a lot of four-mile races out there,” said Traviano. “It’s a great time. It’s a good way to start the 4th of July and then see the fireworks.”