CHICAGO – It was a harebrained idea: save a beloved boat race event by building a makeshift dam out of sandbags and pumping hundreds of millions of gallons of water into a dying lake in north-central Illinois.
Oh, and do it in the middle of a severe summer drought.
With less than two weeks to go before this weekend's PRO National Championship Boat Races on Lake DePue, volunteer Rich Magnuson took on the task when the small town's desperate mayor called him with what he acknowledged was a "harebrained idea."
Magnuson, a duck hunter familiar with area waterways, knew the right people to call to get pumps working — and how to bark orders.
"I was just the guy that did the yelling and told them, 'This is a dictatorship. This is what you're going to do. No more arguing. ... We're losing water while you're arguing,'" said the 60-year-old retired boilermaker.
The annual race is an institution that provides an economic lifeline for the town of 1,500 people, bringing in millions of dollars and helping to buy everything from little league uniforms to equipment for schools. It's also a homecoming for far-flung former residents, who return from as far away as California and Florida.
"It just means everything," Magnuson said. "As a little kid growing up ... I fell in love with the boat races. I don't think I've ever missed one."
So, when race officials warned that they might have to cancel the event because of the dangerously low water level, Magnuson raised an army of about 350 volunteers to fill sandbags by hand and construct a dam. Then he and his team brought in five massive pumps and ran them off the power from farm tractors to bring in water from a nearby river.
Magnuson watched over the equipment around the clock to quickly attend to breakdowns, living in a tent along the lake and marveling at visits from eagles, woodpeckers, possums and beavers, whose loud purring sounded to him like mocking laughter.
"I swear ... they'd make fun of me," he said. "You know, like, 'You trying to make a dam, you dummy.'"
At one point, the volunteers tore down one of those beaver dams, which had held back water from another nearby lake. After that water rushed in, the critters helped out by immediately rebuilding the dam to hold the water in Lake DePue.
"The beavers, they're pretty resilient," he said. "I wish I could have hired 30 of them to build the dam and we'd have been in great shape. They're pretty doggone good at it."
By a Wednesday deadline, he and his team were able to add 2 feet to the water level — doubling the size of the lake — and bringing back enough water to save the race.
With the job done, Magnuson took a break before the power boat races and played a round of golf with his friend the mayor.