The street was blocked off for the parade that would come down a bit later that afternoon, but all eyes were on one block of Joseph Campau, where spectators were cordoned off by yellow tape to watch the Hamtramck Yacht Club Canoe Races.
What’s that like? It’s a bunch of teams representing Hamtramck’s bars and places of amusement. They build “canoes” on wheels to race up and down the street in heats, leaving the starting line with one person pushing and another riding, trading places at the end and coming back, then swapping one player and heading back toward the finish. The winning teams compete in a great final canoe race for the “Captain’s Wheel,” a ship’s wheel to be displayed in the bar that wins this absurd tournament.
Oh, and one more thing: The contestants perform their tasks while the crowd is urged to pelt them with water balloons, shoot them with super soakers, and even dump buckets of water on them.
Hamtramck City Clerk August Gitschlag was master of ceremonies, dressed in a pirate costume and using a bullhorn to egg on the crowd, the teams, and to goad the crowd into using many of their water balloons on him. At times, it felt like a “Drown the Clown” booth, with Gitschlag taunting the crowd and dodging their artillery (One miscreant dumped a bucket of water on Gitschlag several times during the proceedings.)
The chintziest-looking boat of all was the one from the Painted Lady Lounge. They ran a canoe in 2014, but it had been taken apart, its wood used to repair the floor behind the bar. It looked almost as if they’d taken the floor up again to make this year’s canoe. Run by an energetic team of regulars that included Erica Pietrzyk, Jeff Salazar, and Alex Lovat (wearing a crash helmet, no less), the canoe seemed to have just a little too much drag and was beat out by an all-black canoe from another bar.
Surprisingly, the Painted Lady’s canoe handled much better than the Fowling cohort’s craft. We’ve come to expect big things from Chris Hutt, given his reputation for creating such things as a 13-foot-tall version of the game “Plinko” from The Price is Right. They arrived with a wedge-shaped number they’d just built the night before; in fact it looked like sawdust was still flaking off it as Hutt spray painted FOWLING on the side of it.
When the Fowling team’s heat came, the craft went wild, careening over to one side of the street, then the other. I’d say the problem was the use of what appeared to be a large rubber wheel on the front. A small, flat wheel would have been better; the rubber likely stuck to the road and impaired the steering of the person pushing the canoe.
I didn’t bring any water or balloons myself, but I was given some ammunition by local resident and candidate for Hamtramck City Council Susan Dunn. She offered two large, blue, well-formed water balloons, and I took the biggest. During the first heat, I lobbed it with my best overhand throw at a rider clad in black, and my aim was perfect. It struck her right in the belly, but bounced off, a dud. Clearly, this event calls for the cheapest balloons you can get, for maximum detonation-to-throwing ratio. As soon as one heat was over, children scrambled out under the yellow tape to grab more balloons to hurt at the next racers. That was great fun, seeing kids wearing everything from T-shirts to colorful saris racing out to grab them.
The event is ridiculous, pointless, and probably involved a fair amount of early morning drinking, but left my spirits high. What a weird place Hamtramck is. What a lot of oddballs it must have to create an event so ludicrous, so senseless, so utterly outrageous.
What a wonderful place to be.