Thirty thousand rubber duckies are dumped off the Columbus Street bridge. No, it’s not a garbage spill, although somebody does have to clean them up and take them to Cincinnati.
The dump truck’s deposit begins the Windy City Rubber Ducky Derby, a fundraiser for Special Olympics Illinois. With a five-dollar donation, people have adopted the ducks now “racing” with the help of a police-boat hose pushing them along. The ducks show no sense of urgency, seeming to go in every direction except the finish line, and the pace is more agonizing than exciting, but about forty minutes later the winning ducks are fished out of the water, only a quarter of the way to the Michigan Avenue bridge.
Now in its fourth year, the derby is expected to raise more than $250,000, says Doug Snyder, president and CEO of Special Olympics Illinois. “Ask any of the athletes, and they’ll tell you how much Special Olympics means to them and how important this event is,” he says. But it’s not just about the money. “We try to make it a festival. We want to have fun.” That’s clear from the handful of duck mascots—as well as others from sponsors—mingling with the crowd.
Before the race, for which spectators have lined the bridge and edge of the river, booths and activities are set up outside the Wrigley building. There’s a Moonwalk, a giant rubber duck, face painting, temporary tattoos, souvenir shirts and sponsor tables. About a hundred volunteers run the activities and sell adoptions and souvenir ducks.
Souvenirs, because people don’t get to keep the ducks they adopt—these are nomadic ducks. Special Olympics holds duck derbies throughout the country, so all thirty thousand will be fished out of the river, cleaned off and transported to the next race.
But those with a stake in the race still feel ownership of their competitors. One toddler on the bridge keeps shrieking “Go, duckies, go!” And for good reason: the winning six ducks bring in some nice rewards, including a seven-night trip to the Dominican Republic, four tickets to see each of Chicago’s professional sports teams and a family trip to the Trump spa.
Christine Bahu has teamed up with some friends to buy forty-two ducks, both in hopes of winning the prizes and to support the cause. She and her 7-year-old twins haven’t been to the race before—“and I can’t believe I haven’t”—but they’re enjoying themselves this time. “They are so excited. They’re having a great time,” she says of the boys, although they did think they could throw the ducks into the water themselves. “Thank you for bringing us,” one calls as he jumps in the Moonwalk. (Amy Brachmann)