SKOWHEGAN — Moonlight Madness opened Thursday night in the midst of showers, menacing clouds and a weather service warning about severe thunderstorms.

Then the skies cleared and — for the first hour of the River Fest — it was bright and sunny, a regular Chamber of Commerce evening.

“I had nothing to do with that,” Chamber Executive Director Cory King, one of the festival’s sponsors, joked about the brief change in the weather. “But we do have a lot of people involved in this that said they put their best wishes and prayers out there, and that kept the blue skies.”

Out on Water Street, where a DJ was setting up for music on the street, the song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey blasted from the speakers.

Thursday’s Moonlight Madness was a night of strolling, food, skateboards, a climbing wall, a bounce house, a municipal dunk tank, and later, as the rain returned, the serious business of competitive bed racing down Water Street.

Denise LeBlanc, director of Skowhegan Parks and Recreation, said 13 teams of five people each had signed up for this year’s races. She said teams are taking the event more seriously these days, in a competitive way, but still having fun.

“This is the biggest bed race we’ve had yet,” LeBlanc said. “We usually have six or seven teams. We’ll have 12 or 13. The last few years, the teams we’ve been getting, once they compete, they know it’s fun; so now it’s like a competition.”

Over at the dunk tank, the pastors of two local churches took their turn in the seat, ready for the cold water with a direct hit on the target. They would be followed by Town Manager Christine Almand, Deputy Police Chief Don Bolduc and Fire Chief Richard Fowler Jr. — all of whom are new to their jobs.

“I hope the water’s not too cold,” Almand said before her turn in the tank. “I’ve never been in the dunk tank before, and it’ll be a different experience.”

Fowler, the new fire chief, said the tank was like an initiation for the newest members of Skowhegan municipal government.

“I’m excited about it. It’s good for the community,” Fowler said. “It’ll probably be cold and shocking at first, but it’s for a good cause. The wife brought me a good warm towel for afterwards.”

Spectators lined both sides of Water Street, huddled under awnings and in doorways as the dunk tank activity and the bed races proceeded despite the rain.

“It’s a lot of fun. This is a great time,” said Patrick Corcoran, who with his wife and 14-year-old twins are vacationing in the area from Braintree, Mass.

The teens tried their hand at the dunk tank, but neither managed to dunk the Skowhegan celebrity.

“I missed, but I did kind of OK,” Carissa Corcoran said. “It’s fun.”

River Fest is a collaborative effort by the Chamber, Main Street Skowhegan, the Run of River Committee and business volunteers.

This year’s events, including a Rotary lobster feed and canoe races, were all once part of Skowhegan Log Days — logging and chain saw competitions that started in 1977, then faded away in 2002 after 27 years, taking Moonlight Madness with it. Then, seven years ago, Moxie Outdoor Adventures approached the town with an offer of free raft rides down the Kennebec River Gorge through downtown as a way to promote the proposed $4.5 million Run of River white-water park in the gorge. Gradually all the old events — except for the logging competitions — returned, said Skowhegan Road Commissioner Greg Dore, who also is chairman of the Run of River Committee.

The Run of River project was launched 10 years ago as a means to draw kayak and canoe enthusiasts to downtown Skowhegan while creating a fun day on white-water rapids, Dore said. The project is getting estimates of the cost of permits for the construction of three sets of man-made rapids on the river

River Fest continues on Friday with the Skowhegan Rotary Club lobster bake from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Big Top in the municipal parking lot.

Saturday features free rafting rides from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. down the Kennebec River gorge. Sign-up is at the Big Top.

There also will be the River Fest Craft Fair from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Big Top and the Glow Stick River Run at 8:30 p.m. at the U.S. Route 2 boat landing and rest area. It is also Move More Kids Day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., presented by the New Balance Foundation and Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative. Events are to feature hula-hooping, potato sack races, a bean bag toss and a rock climbing wall.

There will be live music and a beer garden from 4 to 10 p.m. in the Big Top. Fireworks are set for 9 p.m. at Great Eddy.

Sunday, the final day of River Fest, is the day of the Ron Paquette Road Race. Registration is at 6 a.m.; the race starts at 7:30 a.m. at corner of High and Court streets. The event is held in honor of Skowhegan native Ron Paquette, longtime runner and 2012 inductee into the Maine Running Hall of Fame. Race proceeds will benefit the Wounded Heroes Program of Maine. The cost is $15 on race day.

The day closes with a concert in Coburn Park, 5 to 6:15 p.m. It is part of the 21st summer series featuring Celtic music by the Community Orchestra. Refreshments are provided by Skowhegan Three Women’s Clubs.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow

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