Where a small town meets a big tradition

Written by: Jaylin Hardin | Sports Editor

From May 23 – 27, 2024, one of the largest Memorial Day celebrations in the nation took place. Hosted at Riverside Park in Grants Pass, Oregon, a town of roughly 39,000 people, the festivities hosted several vendors and attendees from around the country and the globe.

Boatnik, as it is fondly known, began in 1959, and has its early beginnings with the Grants Pass Active Club, a non-profit organization focused on giving back to the children of Josephine County. All proceeds from the event go directly to supporting youth programs.

Originally conceived as a boat race in the 1950s, it has now evolved into a multi-day extravaganza that many in the community say embodies pride and patriotism.

The festivities began with the annual parade through downtown Grants Pass, with local marching bands, organizations and dignitaries among the participants. The drivers for the hydroplane, sprint and drag boat races also participated in this parade, showing off their vibrant boats that took to the water almost immediately after. This year’s parade theme was “Honoring Our Heroes, a Salute to Service.”

Two of the most iconic participants of the parade are the Grants Pass Cavemen and the Grants Pass High School — GPHS — marching band. Both have received national recognition, with the GPHS marching band participating in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade almost every year and the Cavemen traveling nationally to spread goodwill and tourism for Josephine County; the Cavemen are an organization that began in 1922 that now works alongside the Active Club. Dressing in animal skins, horsehair wigs and buck teeth, the Cavemen run rampant throughout the parade, “kidnapping” parade viewers and putting them up for display in a handmade, wooden cage. 

One of the Cavemen’s more iconic moments occurred in the 1940s, when they kidnapped Presidential Nominee Thomas E. Dewey while he was in Oregon for his campaign. The picture of Dewey circulated throughout Europe until it reached Soviet Russia, where news outlets claimed they dressed in this manner to “protest against the cruel and Wall Street-backed church.” Other notable kidnapees include Shirley Temple, Babe Ruth, Henry Ford, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Herbert Hoover, as well as the Oregon congressional delegation, who were once held hostage and harassed on the Senate floor.

Following the parade, the fun really began, with drag and sprint boat exhibitions and time trials taking place on Saturday and Sunday and the hydroplane boat race, the Tom Rice Memorial Race, taking place on Memorial Day. This year, the sprint boat racers came from USSBA Racing, an organization that participates in sprint races around the globe.

Taking place alongside these races was a golf shoot-out, carnival, Brewfest and concert, hosting the rock band, Firehouse, as the headliner. Both the shoot-out and the Brewfest occurred on Saturday and Sunday, enticing thousands of visitors to try more than 50 brews and ciders from the region and 64 golfers to try and win the grand prize. 

The carnival took place Thursday afternoon through Monday night and featured rides and carnival games from Davis Shows Northwest. Vendors in attendance offered a plethora of services, from food and jewelry to art and different physical experiences, including Zorb Water Balls, rock climbing and bungee trampolining.  

The one event everyone truly looks forward to, however, is the Memorial Day service.

The ceremony began with a jet flyover from Oregon’s 173rd Fighter Wing, located in Klamath Falls, Oregon. The national anthem then played as a flag was unfurled from Grants Pass’ Caveman Bridge. 

A pastor from a local church led the ceremony in prayer in memory of fallen soldiers, followed by a moment of silence. Veterans from a local unit gave a 21-gun salute and a wreath and rose petals were floated down the Rogue River, accompanied by a bagpipe playing “Taps.”

During the roughly 11-minute ceremony, silence fell over the park in honor of fallen soldiers. 

Attendees and Active Club members both spoke fondly of their time at Boatnik.

“It’s an event that gathers everyone together far and wide to celebrate the town and the Rogue (Valley) for the new season,” said sophomore Clark Callahan. “I remember puking up an entire deep-fried jumbo pickle, and it is one of the best memories of my life. I love Boatnik.”

“(Planning) is a year-long process,” said Active Club President, Kent DeRocher. “As soon as Boatnik is over on Monday, we start planning the first week in June for (the) next year’s.” DeRocher was recently elected president of the Active Club for a one-year term but has been a member of the organization since 2003, only a year after he moved to the Grants Pass area. 

“I love it. I mean, it’s a lot of work… But it’s been fantastic,” DeRocher said. “I met someone that I was really good friends with that was in the Active Club and they brought me in (my) first year I was here… I moved here and I was in the Club and that’s all I know.”

In my own experiences at Boatnik, I have found nothing but fun and whimsy, as well as a beautiful ceremony honoring fallen soldiers. As a Grants Pass local who has attended Boatnik every year — except 2020 — I think it is an experience everyone should have a chance to enjoy, young or old. 

“It’s a place that the valley gets to gather, watch the races and (all) the amazing events that go on,” said junior Kat Griggs, who is a Southern Oregon local.” If you haven’t been, put it on your calendar for next year. It’s a great time.”  

Next year’s Boatnik will take place from May 22 – 26, 2025. For more information on Boatnik visit www.boatnik.com, or if one wishes to explore the Rogue Valley, visit www.visitgrantspass.com

Contact the author at howlsports@wou.edu