BY ASHLEY FISCHER Contributing writer
For most people, watching 100 rubber ducks charging down the Kern River would be a fairly lighthearted way to spend an afternoon.
But for 91-year-old Frances Manbeck (also lovingly known as "Grouch"), Kernville's annual Rubber Ducky Races are pretty darn serious.
25th annual Rubber Ducky Races
When: Kids games at 10 a.m., lunch served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., races at 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Riverside Park, Kernville
Cost: $25 for single duck or $100 for family of five ducks (also includes two meal tickets) Note: Entrants receive a ticket that corresponds to duck(s) entered in the race. You do not get to keep any ducks except for the "Celebrity Ducks" race ($100 per ticket).
Information: 760-379-7785 or 760-379-3667, ext. 15
Not afraid of being perceived as a bit of an odd duck, each year Manbeck really gets into the spirit of things, wearing orange pants and a yellow shirt (to match the ducks, of course), as well as a custom-made baseball cap, with rubber ducks affixed on all sides.
"I have my walker with my seat, and I just sit there all day. People may think I'm crazy, but I'm having fun. Don't get me wrong, though, I also like to win. Winning definitely adds to my enjoyment."
According to Marsha Smith, secretary of the Kern River Valley Exchange Club, which hosts the event, Manbeck is just one of many dedicated locals who has been bewitched by these rubbery waterfowl over the past 25 years.
"This is by far our largest fundraiser of the year," she said. "We have a lot of locals who are pretty dedicated. 'Serious fun' is what they call it."
For those of you unfamiliar with the world of champion rubber duck racing, the mechanics of it are pretty straightforward: 100 weighted, regulation-sized ducks (Smith had to special order them from Australia) are dropped from a bridge into the river.
They then float along toward the finish line until they're captured by the readied nets of a group of volunteer high school students.
The first-, second- and third-place prizes of $75, $50 and $25 are awarded, and then the next batch of eager competitors is released into the water. This continues for each of the 10 heats until 30 first-place winners are selected to participate in the "Main Event" race, which boasts the largest prize of the day: $1,000.
There are also a handful of specialty races, such as the "Celebrity Duck" race, which features ducks bearing the likenesses of everyone from Marilyn Monroe to President Barack Obama.
These cost more to buy into than the regular heat races ($100 per duck as opposed to $25), but there are also fewer participants, so your duck has a greater chance of coming out on top.
Whatever the odds, Manbeck always participates in every event of the day, and, like any seasoned gambler (which she is), she attempts to tip the odds in her favor by entering multiple ducks in each race.
In the past, she said she enjoyed quite a winning streak. "People would look up at the board and say, 'Oh no, not Grouch again,'" but recently, it seems her luck has run out.
Last year, she went home with a measly $25 in winnings, and, in spite of participating for the last 15 odd years or so (the exact date of when she started eludes her), Manbeck has never won the $1,000 grand prize.
Of course, not everybody is there to compete.
Fortunately, on the day of the races, Riverside Park is brimming with alternative activities; most of them catered toward those still young enough care more about simply playing with a rubber duck as opposed to racing one for money.
Starting at 10 a.m., there will be games, face painting, snow cones, hot dogs, a waterslide, a rubber duck pond and drawings for all sorts of duck-related prizes.
"We try to keep this whole event very family friendly," said Smith. "It's perfect for anybody who wants to come out and have a good day in the park with their kids."
Manbeck, however, prefers to go solo. After enjoying the deep-pit barbecue lunch of salsa, beans and salad (served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), she situates herself somewhere close to the scoreboard and just sits and watches the ducks go by.
"Aside from winning, there really isn't a favorite part for me," she said. "I enjoy all of it. The ducks come down the river, they wobble, they bobble, and you hope yours is in the front of the pack. It's just something this old lady likes to do."