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Janet Danforth, of Chicago,  left, watches the Rubber Duck Race with her two children, Logan, 4, and Rylie, 6, during the Boulder Creek Festival in 2016. The race will return this year, but the 2021 edition will be held in the pool at Scott Carpenter Park. (Camera file photo)
Janet Danforth, of Chicago, left, watches the Rubber Duck Race with her two children, Logan, 4, and Rylie, 6, during the Boulder Creek Festival in 2016. The race will return this year, but the 2021 edition will be held in the pool at Scott Carpenter Park. (Camera file photo)
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A beloved Boulder community event returns in a new setting this year as the Great Boulder Duck Race moves from the creek to the pool.

The race, which has been a fixture of summertime Boulder activities for 33 years, will be held Aug. 29 at Scott Carpenter Park pool on Arapahoe Avenue at 30th Street. The event is free to the public and serves as the PLAY Boulder Foundation’s biggest fundraiser of the year.

The PLAY Boulder Foundation, which hosts the race, is the nonprofit partner of the Boulder Parks and Recreation department. The money raised by each team goes toward programs that benefit low-income families and disabled individuals.

“Boulder is about community and inclusivity,” said Stephanie O’Neil, a board member for PLAY Boulder who is in her third year of assisting with the Great Duck Race. “PLAY Boulder is there to help beautify, improve, and enhance our spaces.”

Since the race’s 1988 inception, the general structure of the competition has remained the same. Participating teams can “adopt” rubber ducks for $11 apiece, and teams win prizes based on how well their ducks perform in their dash to the finish line. The teams represent diverse aspects of the community, from Boulder fire-rescue and police departments to local coffee shops.

This year’s competition deviates from its predecessors in that the ducks will float along a man-made lazy river instead of the chilly and rushing waters of Boulder Creek. O’Neil said the move to Scott Carpenter Pool is a permanent transition that arose partially out of environmental concerns.

“The plastic is not good for the environment,” she said. “The ducks get caught on the rocks, and the volunteers have to do an entire sweep of the creek. It gets really hectic.”

It’s also difficult to work around the creek’s water levels. There is usually either too much or not enough water in the creek for a fun and fair race, depending on what month the competition takes place in. This isn’t a problem with the lazy river, however.

“We’re able to control the actual [water] flow,” O’Neil said. “We appreciate that we can control the duck race in a safe, viable format. Logistically, it will be a little bit easier.”

Last year, PLAY Boulder held a virtual duck race in lieu of the real thing. This summer, the organization has focused on promoting the event through social media and getting Boulder residents excited to experience the race in person again.

“The duck race is about bringing families together in Boulder and celebrating our parks and recreation,” O’Neil said. “From this year on, we hope to grow this event into more of its own festival.”

O’Neil estimates roughly 3,000 rubber ducks will be utilized for this year’s contest. Since the space offered by Scott Carpenter Pool is limited compared to Boulder Creek, the ducks will race in five heats rather than all at once. The event will follow local COVID-19 guidelines, with maximum capacity set at 1,500 people.

Jonathan Thornton, a spokesman for Boulder Parks and Recreation, said that he looks forward to seeing how this long-standing tradition adapts to a new environment.

“It’s different from Boulder Creek,” he said, “but we’re thrilled to still have a good landing spot for these rubber ducks.”

Those interested in adopting a duck or volunteering for the race can visit playboulder.org for more information.

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