St. Clair Rotary Club to hold 1st annual Turtle Race, raise funds for construction of new park

For more than two decades, the St. Clair Rotary Club’s annual Great Lakes Freighter Raffle would give winners the unique opportunity to visit those great lakers, ferrying winners out to board those giant ships that give the region much of its charm. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to that Blue Water tradition, at least temporarily; the freighters stopped welcoming guests due to safety protocols.

It was a double whammy for the St. Clair Rotary Club, which not only misses out on their beloved tradition but also their primary source of fundraising. While 2020 was a wash, the Rotary Club has come up with a new way to raise funds for their numerous community projects while also creating a new tradition in the process.

The first annual Pine River Turtle Race is scheduled to launch at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 29, featuring several thousand turtles racing down the currents of the Pine River. Bumpers will be placed to make sure that none of the turtles get away.

Okay, so they’re plastic turtles. We should make that clear. Patrick Coughlin, chairman of the St. Clair Rotary Club, had to make that clear to his club, too.

“The club was a bit skeptical at first. No one had really heard of such a thing before — some thought they would be live turtles and PETA would come in and yell at us,” Coughlin says.

“But Michigan State has a plastic duck race that turns into this week-long celebration and people go crazy over it. I filled in the club on how it works and we still had some skeptics, but that went away once we immediately found our corporate sponsors.”

The St. Clair Rotary Club hopes to raise $20,000 to build Wildlife Landing.
It works like this. The Rotary Club is selling “turtle adoptions” from a variety of St. Clair businesses. People purchase an adoption package — $5 for one turtle, $20 for five, and $50 for twelve — and receive their raffle tickets. Each ticket number is associated with a three-inch plastic turtle. On the day of the event, the turtles are released into the Pine River and the top three finishers receive a prize: $1,500 for first place, $1,000 for second, and $500 for third.

It’s a fun way to raise money for a number of good causes, Coughlin says. “The whole point of Rotary is to give back to the community, to put money back into projects that you can see, that you can enjoy now and down the road.”

Turtles can be purchased at a number of St. Clair businesses.Money raised from the Pine River Turtle Race will go to a number of Rotary projects, including scholarships, literacy programs, immunizations for senior citizens, STRIVE, and exchange students. But the one that “you can see” is a big one, one that should last for years to come.

The Rotary Club plans to build a new park on the banks of the Pine River: Wildlife Landing. Located near another of their parks, Rotary Centennial Park, Wildlife Landing will transform somewhere between 300 to 400 ft. of overgrown Pine River frontage with landscaping, seating areas, and educational components. The organization has tapped Friends of the St. Clair River to help with the wildlife aspects of the project.

“It’s an area that was a little uncared for and the Rotary thought that there was something we could do with it. We talked to the city and they said go for it. The Rotary went out and cleaned it up,” Coughlin says. “We want to raise $20,000 to build it up.”

One of the concept drawings for Wildlife Landing.
Expect for the project to get started this fall and for the plants and benches to be installed in spring 2022.

“We’re talking to people about memorial benches, putting some of those in there. And we’re talking about putting in an area for educational purposes: what reptiles, birds, and other wildlife are in and around the river,” Coughlin says.

“Have a bite to eat, watch the boats go by, and learn about the environment.”

Visit the St. Clair Rotary Club online to learn more about the Pine River Turtle Race and participating turtle adoption centers.