Rains anchor Gatlinburg’s Regatta, but fun prevails

Though river too high for race, prizes keep entrants happy
Jul. 05, 2013 @ 05:21 PM

The Pigeon River was running too high and too fast to hold the River Raft Regatta Thursday, but that didn’t mean the city couldn’t give away prizes to the dozens of people who still brought items to enter in the annual Fourth of July event.

City officials had hoped to still host the event despite Thursday’s stormy forecast, and in fact the rain was still holding off when the noon start time rolled around. But while it wasn’t raining there, heavy rains in the mountains had the river so swollen that officials said they didn’t feel safe putting personnel in the water.

“The water’s higher than it’s ever been on this day,” said Vicki Simms, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We don’t want to get anyone hurt.”

They have to put people in the water to catch the craft at the finish line, and along the course to pull out entries that get stuck on rocks or on the shore.

It was disappointing news for the people who brought entries ranging from items straight from the store — “Junk,” in the Regatta’s vocabulary — and “Treasures,” or handcrafted items.

Seven-year-old Riley Evans, of Gatlinburg, was taking a dejected look at the collected rafts shortly after the announcement. He said he wasn’t sure he would win, but he’d bee confident he’d place. “I felt like I was going to be like third or fourth,” he said.

But even though there wasn’t a race, city officials still gave out some trophies.

They drew winners for the “junk” category, and gave out awards based on design for the most original handcrafted items as well as the top treasures, based on the overall design as well as how it related to Gatlinburg.

It was actually a family from out of town that took home the top treasure.

Eleven-year-old Samantha LiCata and her 7-year-old brother, Noah, made a raft that featured a man and child fishing in a stream with a lush green forest in the background and a sign saying “Welcome to the Smokies.” The two of them are from Ross Township, Ohio.

“We just thought about the Smokies and Gatlinburg and what we imagine when we think about them,” Samantha said.

One award winner has been entering in the race for 21 years now. At 89, Ralph Egli isn’t showing any signs of stopping.

He hasn’t won a race yet, but he still enjoys coming.

“I think it’s just a fun Fourth of July activity,” he said. “I’ve never had a winner, that’s why I keep trying.”

This year he’d gone a simple route: He’d taken a frisbee and pushed styrofoam into the dish, then mounted a flag on it. He wasn’t sure how seaworthy or aerodynamic that made it, he said. He just thought it looked good. “I don’t know the technicalities,” he said, flashing a grin.

Even if one of his rafts gets to the finish line first, chances are he’ll keep coming, he added.

“I just like to see the rafts and watch them go.”

n jfarrell@themountainpress.com