'Paper champ' is positive for cardboard craftsman
June 7, 2009
By Jeff Manes, Post-Tribune correspondent
"They took all the trees, and put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar-and-a-half just to see 'em
At a glance
For more information about the Great Cedar Lake Cardboard Boat Race, call 374-6157, 374-4444 or visit the Web site www.cedarlake summerfest.com .
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot"
-- Joni Mitchell
In April, Boston has its Marathon. In May, Kentucky hosts the Derby, and Indianapolis the 500.
But there is another race that takes place on the Fourth of July right in our back yard you might not recognize -- The Great Cedar Lake Cardboard Boat Race.
It is an honor to feature one of the sport's all-time greats for this column -- three-time winner Ken Rasmussen. Eat your heart out, Bill Rodgers, Secretariat and Helio Castroneves.
Rasmussen, 38, grew up in Harvey, Ill., and attended Thornton Township High School. He and his wife, Mary, have three children ranging from 3 to 20 years of age. They've lived in Cedar Lake since 1990.
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I realize a good portion of Cedar Lake's population has Chicago roots. Why did you choose to live near the Lake of the Red Cedars?
"When we came here 20 years ago, it was dirt cheap," Rasmussen began. "It was the best place for a young, struggling family just starting out. For quite a few years, we rented this house with an option to buy. I have three 25-foot-wide lots in front here, plus another one in back."
You're not the first person I've interviewed who lives atop one of these precipitous slopes overlooking the lake. What a view through the white oaks and black walnuts. I love it that you've left your property in its natural state. Beats mowing grass; it's beautiful.
"Yeah, I might plant a few wildflowers."
What do you do for a living?
"I'm a union carpenter out of the cabinetmakers' local in Chicago. I started out as a cabinetmaker, but the pay scale is almost one-third lower than an outside carpenter.
"I work for a general contractor, James McHugh Construction Co. My son also is in the trade, but it's slow downtown (Chicago) and he's out of work. We're praying for the (2016 Summer) Olympics. We build the high-rises; I've got my swing-stage card."
"I can go out on suspended scaffolding."
What's the highest job you've been on?
"About 600 feet."
That's getting up there, brother.
"Hey, anything over 60 feet is death. There's definitely a rush to it when the wind picks up."
You mentioned your son; does your father also wield a claw hammer and wear a nail pouch above the Windy City?
"No, for the past 35 years or more, my dad has worked in the press room for the Chicago Sun-Times."
Ken, enough small talk. Can you win the cardboard regatta again?
"I hope so; there are cash prizes this year."
Tell me, Champ, how'd you get into the sport?
"The first year they had the cardboard boat race, about eight years ago, I just happened to stumble upon it as a spectator. I thought it was the greatest thing; I was hooked. I build at least two boats and as many as four every year; my son and oldest daughter have always participated."
As you know, it's about 250 feet between those buoys; contestants have to circle them twice. In 2006, you were clocked at 3:10, while furiously paddling "These Colors Don't Run" to victory. In '07, you and "Red White and Blue" flew at 2:52. And last year, in the kayak-like "Stars and Stripes," you crossed the finish line in an incredible 2:48.
"I also have the record for the Most People in a Boat category -- 18."
Which pontoon was that?
"Either the pirate ship or the 'Yellow Submarine;' I'm not sure. I can make one of my canoe-type racing boats in a day. The big pontoons are a little more involved. I've got a big pop-up tent I keep them in now. One year, it rained on July 3 and ruined my boats because I hadn't waterproofed them."
Explain the strict rules in cardboard boat racing.
"You can use some wood for blocking, but not for floatation. Absolutely no Styrofoam, foam rubber or plastic pipe. They don't want you to use paint below the waterline, but you can use candle or surfboard wax for waterproofing -- nothing commercially bought, like Thompson's. I've found Crisco shortening works well, and it's pretty much biodegradable."
What about a 50-horse Merc?
"No gas or electric motors, but you can make a paddle wheel or use a sail. But you gotta remember, you have to able to turn. It's not just a straight run.
"One year, the police department made like a 14-foot rowing skiff; it had the outriggers with the big 8-foot-long oars. Looked great, but they couldn't turn.
"Remember Cleo? She also looked great in that sexy gold outfit and shades. But they DQ'd her because all she did was munch clumps of grapes and sip wine while her two slaves waded in the water, pulling her along."
Any mishaps for you through the years?
"The time the wind caught us when we were in one of our big pontoons and took us out too deep, the poles wouldn't touch the bottom of the lake. We just kept heading out to sea."
Ken, you love living in Cedar Lake, don't you?
"I'll live right here forever, unless Dean White wants to give me a bunch of money for my property. This was always such a nice place for poor people to live. It always amazed me that I was able to raise my family here by the lake."
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Each year, I look forward to standing on the pier while covering the Great Cedar Lake Cardboard Boat Race on the Fourth of July.
To the west of me, speedboats, sailboats and cabin cruisers bob in place as their riders clap for the cardboard crafts.
To the east of me, a melange of spectators clad in tank tops and flip-flops form a line along the shore, with Lake of the Red Cedars Museum as their backdrop.
And it all looks like a panoramic postcard from another era as good people like the Rasmussens partake in the great race.
Contact Jeff Manes at email@example.com.