After hearing that the Westfield River Wildwater Races would be canceled this year, Jeff DeFeo couldn’t just go with the flow.

The Montgomery resident saw the March 8 notice while wintering in Florida. As a competitor in the races since 1974 and a former committee chair, he couldn’t sleep while thinking the annual tradition would end. The next day, he began making phone calls.

“I made a couple of calls to find out what the issues were and what it would take to resolve them,” said DeFeo. Once he had his answers, DeFeo reached out to people who wanted to help.

“They immediately stepped up — and we had the budget shortfall covered by noontime on Saturday,” he said. Within a week, race organizers announced that the 69th annual race will be run as planned on April 20.

John Raymaakers, right, and Bob Wippert navigate the Westfield River during the 2023 wildwater race. Raymaakers’ family company became a presenting sponsor this year to keep its long tradition going.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo

Two of DeFeo’s local business contacts, John Raymaakers of the Raymaakers family companies in Westfield, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons Inc. and ROAR Inc., and Dennis Bolduc, owner of Indian Motorcycle of Springfield, agreed to join the race as presenting sponsors. J.L. Raymaakers & Sons pledged $4,000 while Indian Motorcycle pledged $500.

“We talked as a family and felt it’s the right thing to do,” said Raymaakers. “Very happy to help out so this tradition can keep going.”

Bolduc said he feels the Westfield River race not only has a long tradition but also has value to the community.

“That’s why it’s worth contributing to and becoming a presenting sponsor,” said Bolduc, who initially responded to one of Raymaakers’ posts of the race’s Facebook page. “I replied and told him to let me know when, where and how much. I was enthusiastic to support it.”

Kathryn Koegel, the race’s managing director, said organizers didn’t expect a rapid groundswell of community and business support after announcing that they would skip the 2024 event because of logistical and financial issues. 

“Our Facebook page blew up, not just with anger about the race going away, but with offers of volunteer help as well as sponsors stepping up,” said Koegel.

Other area businesses pledging financial support include Westfield Bank ($1,000), Polish National Credit Union ($500), Clean & Green Junk Removal ($500) and Greenfield Savings Bank ($250). Champion racer Travis Wheeler created a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $4,500 from individuals and racers who care about the event.

In addition, Pioneer Valley Waste Management offered to provide free trash services and the Wild & Scenic Westfield River Committee will fund portable potties to keep the river clean.

DeFeo said it’s important to him to see the race continue.

“It’s always been a big part of my life,” he said. “I’ve made many great friends through it over the past 49 years. I would hate to see others not be able to have some of the experiences that come from enjoying the Westfield River.”

This will be his 49th consecutive race. He also served as co-chair of the race for nearly 20 years. From 1983 to 2005, he served with Jurgen Igel. When Igel died unexpectedly, DeFeo took over by himself until 2012.

Bolduc said the Hilltowns have “lost a lot” over the years.

“I feel we need to preserve, as much as we can, stuff that I enjoyed as young man that can be carried on for the new generations and keep our unique identity in the Hilltowns going,” he said. The Chester resident said the race “shines a spotlight on Hilltowns and everything we have to offer up here — the beauty of the countryside, the people and the lifestyle.”

Bolduc said he’s received mixed reactions from people about his support of the race, but 90% of it has been enthusiastic. He also reached out to other businesses in Westfield, including ACT Vehicle Equipment and Micro Abrasives Corp.

Raymaakers said he competed in the race for 17 straight years before taking a short break. He started when he was 12 when his parents got him, his brother and sister kayaks for their birthdays.

“My brother and I did the race together with my dad. It’s a great day for all the families and everybody — and I just didn’t want it to stop.”

The Westfield resident said the race is his favorite day of the year.

“There’s nothing better than going through the Hill and Dale Rapids with a couple hundred people yelling at you,” he said. “Trying to get through that in 30- to 42-degree water gets your blood rushing. It’s fun. Every year I get to see people I only see that one day a year.”

Online registration was expected to go live March 20 at westfieldriver.org/races. Early bird pricing of $35 is available until March 31 and includes insurance. The price rises to $45 until the week before the race.

Those new to the race are encouraged to attend the two free clinics (April 6 and 13 at 11 a.m.) that leave from the center of Huntington, just off the green bridge on Route 112. They will learn from expert paddlers how to safely navigate the course.

More than 350 paddlers will encounter “a fun, fast ride on a river so beautiful and historic” that 30 years ago it received Wild & Scenic designation from the U.S. Congress. The race will start at 9 a.m. when expert paddlers begin at the Knightville Dam north of Huntington and make their way downriver to class 3 rapids. They will navigate around massive boulders as they are propelled by a rush of spring flowing water for 5 miles.

Later in the morning, paddlers in the Classic Race will begin in the center of the village of Huntington and make their way toward Russell through class 2 rapids for 8 miles. Paddlers must carry (portage) their canoes or kayaks over two sets of rock outcroppings to evade impassable waterfalls.

Raymaakers said the race is the longest continually run canoe race in North America.

“That’s a huge title to have,” he said. “And once that’s gone, the whole tradition of that race loses some of its value and appeal. We just couldn’t let that happen.”

mlydick@thereminder.com | + posts