Chris Chase likes to think of Saratoga Rowing Association's Head of the Fish Regatta as something like an outdoor, hippy rock concert - at least that was what it felt like to him when it started in 1986.
"The Head of the Fish was like a Grateful Dead concert," said Chase. "Hey, it's the Head of the Fish; you can do anything and it's cool."
Fun and different can be difficult to achieve in a fall head race. Any way you look at it, races are a one or two-day parade of boats going in a single direction, usually on a river. It's not six-across sprint racing, so the moments of drama and suspense usually involve boats and oars clashing on turns, under bridges, and at pinch points.
But the Head of the Fish does have one unique aspect - the Fish Head trophies. And they've got colorful covered in spades. Each one is unique, handmade, and started out as a real fish.
"The Head of the Fish was started by a bunch of masters rowers who always thought to be different and fun," Chase said. "And so, the fish heads took on a life of their own."
Like anything, there is a history behind the trophies, said Chase. The first was crafted by local Saratoga Springs architect and Saratoga club member Tom Frost; Frost designed and made the first one as an overall points trophy.
"It has a glass bubble with a silver fish that he made, and it rotates and spins and has heads that come out that he hand carved," said Chase. But it didn't stop at just the one trophy, and soon there were individual race trophies for every event that has more than five entries.
Each trophy is unique, takes up to seven hours to make, and uses everything that can be found to add color and texture, including eyes from "Mr. Potato Head" toys. Frost made the trophies, and club members held off-season parties to decorate them. At first, it was mostly masters, some of whom liked to mix the work with libations, with predictable results.
"We have great parties to decorate them," Chase said. "And back in the day, when you could be politically incorrect, the guys would have beer and whiskey when they were decorating them, and sometimes the fish heads would be over the top."
Head of the Fish fish head
Those days might have passed, but the trophies don't lack for color and design.
Frost eventually passed the responsibility of creating the trophies to Alida Durrant, Saratoga's assistant varsity and freshman women's coach. "She does an awesome job," Chase said. "She paces herself, going out to the Saint Lawrence River and Salmon River and waiting for the salmon to breed.
"(Fishermen) get all these salmon and cut the heads off, and Alida will grab them. We also have fishermen from the various lakes around here that will send them to us frozen. It's quite a production."
Each fish head is gutted of meat, double baked, painted and glued to a base. They are popular and well-travelled according to Chase, who says he gets Fish Head Trophy reports from around the world.
"I've had friends text me pictures from pubs where there are fish heads hanging," he said.
For Chase, making individual Fish Head Trophies and medals is a way to reward rowers and supporters for coming and supporting the six Saratoga Rowing Association regatta and programs. Each regatta has its own medals and trophies and they all are unique.
They are made from old, brass oar locks, crystal bowls, and medals found anywhere Chase can find them. And each medal is attached to a colorful, handmade lanyard.
Antique brass oarlock trophy
"We wanted to be different in all fields, so I started buying different trophies. I started finding these big crystal punch bowls at Marshalls. Anything that's cool. I glue them on and you have these extravagant trophies.
"None of our medals are stock," he said. "We try to design really awesome lanyards, everybody has the red, white and blue lanyards, or blue lanyards, or just red. Ours are made of silk and they're all different.
"You should see the kids when they see them," Chase said. "The parents invest a lot of money and time on rowing, so they should be special."