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Ardmore fundraising duck floats halfway across the world

Ardmore duck racer floats up Beaver River and lands on rocky shores of the Barents Sea

LAKELAND - The things this little duck from Ardmore would have seen on his 10,000 kilometre journey... if only it had eyes... and wasn't made of plastic.

"They don't have eyes — just a pressed impression where the eyes would be in the very rigid plastic," said Monika Iverson, an organizer of recent Ardmore Duck Race fundraising events, including the June 4, 2017 running. That was the year where one of the 2,000 little, yellow entrants poured into the Beaver River at the start of the race avoided the catch nets of volunteers at the finish line, and apparently bobbed and weaved its way from northeastern Alberta into the world's ocean system before coming to rest on the northern Russian shoreline in 2019. From just outside Bonnyville on the Beaver River to the rocky shores of the Barents Sea on the Ribachy Penninsula of northwestern Russia two years later, little Duck no. 1417 had a big journey. While his yellow buddies were raising funds for an area school, he was out slowly exploring half of the world's waterways.

Earlier this month, more than four years after it went missing, a social media link has helped to reunite the duck with its Ardmore family.

From Ardmore with love

The Ardmore Duck Race has been going on for the last 30 years. The event, held in the community about 20 kilometres east of Bonnyville, raises thousands annually for student activities at the Ardmore School. The race is normally a 250-metre float for the numbered, yellow, plastic ducks around a bend in the river to the finish line under a local bridge. In most years, the event has been a sell-out spectacle, with each of the 2,000 ducks getting a $10 sponsorship. The last two runnings of the race, however, were affected by the move to an online raffle event due to COVID-19 outdoor gathering restrictions.

And while the last two raffles have operated on the world-wide web, it's the recent world-wide connection to Duck no.1417 that organizers hope will generate  attention. More than two years after he slipped past the hands of volunteers, Duck no. 1417 was in the safe hands of a Russian family who plucked him from the rocky shores of a northern European ocean in August of 2019. The family has  spent the last two years trying to find the proper home of their unique discovery. 

"A duck with a number just sitting on the seashore is a rather interesting artifact," Vladimir Matusevitch told LakelandToday when the newsroom contacted him at his home in Moscow last week. "Our whole family was on vacation. We love to spend it in the north near the ocean on the Ribachiy Peninsula .. the duck lay high, well above the high water in the rocks, along with floats from nets and other marine artifacts."

The fact the duck was spotted at all is surprising, says Matusevitch, as his family picks the location for its remote beauty.

"This is an extremely quiet place where the nearest human settlement is more than 50 kilometres away," he said.

"Duck-tective" work

The find took Matusevitch, an artist and graphic designer, on his own journey. First he traced back possible routes the little yellow traveller may have taken. Thinking more likely from the European coast or the British Isles than further waters, he backtracked the ocean currents into the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic, the British Channel and the warm northern gulf stream. At the same time, he began documenting his search, sending hundreds of emails and social media posts to possible communities across the continent where duck races were promoted. His 'Duck no.1417' facebook page began in September of 2019. Calling it "duck-tective" work, Matusevitch heard back from some duck-race organizers in the UK and around the world. He also had contact with retail and wholesale stores debating if they sold the same kind of duck.

"I knew about the duck races, and decided that it is quite possible to find its origin," he said. "It was fun, the more answers I got, the more fun it got."

But after a few months without further clues, Matusevitch and Duck no. 1417's facebook following of about 87 inquisitive souls went into hibernation around Christmas time of 2019.  The COVID pandemic was also affecting family, work, and duck-hunting time. The little yellow duck found its way into a cabinet in the Matusevitch home, still visible in several of his social media selfies, sitting on a shelf beside commemorative cups, photos and other family treasures.

She scrolled down

Ironically, at the same time the duck was sitting on a shelf, one of Matusevitch's dozens of social media requests to duck race charities around the world was sitting in the inbox of the Ardmore Duck Race facebook page.

Around the world, similar slowdowns and challenges were happening. The online duck race page wasn't monitored as closely as it had been before the pandemic. The message sat there for two years.

"He messaged as many duck race organizations as he could. He sent one to us late in 2019, but we're just volunteers and we didn't see it," Iverson told Lakelandtoday.ca last week, just days after she found the message while looking for previous event winners on the site in preparation of the most recent online version.

 "I was scrolling down and I noticed a message from August 29 of 2019."

The message included the photo of the faded yellow duck with the faded ink numbers. Right away, Iverson knew it was her duck, because it was her writing. The way she crosses her 7s and adds a tail to her ones ... it was definitely one of the ducks she had personally numbered.

"Despite some fading from the salt in the water, and the sun ... it was immediately recognizable to me," she said.

She contacted Matusevitch, finally solving his mystery and opening up a new mystery of how the tiny plastic duck traveled thousands of kilometres up the Beaver River to the Hudson Bay, likely into the Labrador Strait, across the Atlantic Ocean, into the Norwegian Sea, then to the Barents Sea, skirting northern Norway on the North Cape current and eventually landing in view of a Russian family on an Autumn holiday. The trip is approximately 10,000 kilometres, and according to ocean current charts, most sea speeds would have been at around two kilometres per hour, meaning a direct trip could have had the little duck bobbing on river and ocean waves for more 200 straight days. Both Iverson and Matusevitch said the little traveller could have been caught in ice flows, or bobbed around coastal towns for months, been a play toy for young arctic seals for a season, or caught in river-bank branches near his Ardmore start point and perhaps had to wait out a frozen Lakeland winter before starting his trip. Any number of scenarios could have played out.

"I mean can you imagine that it went all that way and nothing grabbed it and ate it or broke it. What a journey it must've been," said Iverson, still blown away by the story. "I was absolutely astonished."

It's a small world

The story of the little lucky duck is also serving as a good lesson for the students in the Ardmore School, says Iverson who is a member of the school's Parent Advisory Committee. 

"We involve our students in the duck races. It's a small community and a small school with lots of support from our families. This story is amazing for the kids to see," she said.  "It shows them how something that we do here can affect people on the other side of the world in ways you could never imagine. It shows the kids how we are all connected."

Coming home

Matusevitch plans to send the duck back to the Ardmore group ... the return trip likely by airmail this time.

When he gets back home, Duck no. 1417 will likely stay dry for the foreseeable future.

"When we get it back we're going to find a very high pedestal at our school for it," said Iverson, adding that the hope is to have next year's event back on the water ... with the exclusion of one duck who may be retired from racing. "That duck will probably never see water again."

Halfway around the world, Matusevitch says his family has enjoyed their role in the story. Finding a connection 10,000 kilometres away is not something he thought would happen after finding a plastic duck washed up on the shore.

"I really never thought it would take me this far," he said, adding that he plans to stay in touch with the Ardmore group and wishes them well in the continuing fundraising efforts.

There could be more out there

In the last decade, Iverson says only four floaters have ever "ducked" capture at the Ardmore Duck Race finish line. 

"One was recovered a short time later, so there were actually three that are out and about," she said with a laugh. "We got this one in Russia, so where are the other two?"

The last online version of the duck race, the second year running for a virtual raffle draw, raised about $20,000 for Ardmore school activities.

The Ardmore School PAC accepts donations for the school year-round. Iverson said anyone —  from any continent — can donate.