Ted Blight grins as he recalls the excitement of the Port Alberni Salmon Festival’s historic bed races.
The bed race started in the late 1970s and used to take place every Labour Day weekend as part of the annual Salmon Festival. During this event, teams of five (four pushers and one rider) competed to see who could push a wheeled hospital bed across the course in the fastest time. The event hasn’t been held in Port Alberni for decades.
Racers ran an aggressive course from the old army barracks—now the Alberni District Fall Fairgrounds—down Roger Street to Victoria Quay. It was a thrilling ride, says Blight. This year’s Salmon Fest organizers are hoping to bring back that excitement for 2019.
Blight was part of the young Woodward’s Patenaude Pushers team from 1980. Most of the team members were barely out of their teens, and Blight was “old enough to be their father,” he recalls. As he was the person people at Woodward’s turned to whenever something needed to be fixed—and he had a welder at home—he was tasked with making the Pushers’ bed.
Beds were built to certain specifications: they couldn’t be larger than a double bed. Blight fashioned the Woodward’s bed like a giant scooter that could fit seven people. “We had trailer wheels from a boat trailer on the back and a pneumatic wheelbarrow tire for steering. I couldn’t keep up with them on my bike,” the bed went so fast.
On one training run two days before the 1980 race, Blight said their main competition, the RCMP, was waiting for them. The Pushers left the fairgrounds and whipped down Hollywood Street.
“Out of the bushes on a side street came an RCMP guy with a radar gun. He said, ‘you guys were going 42 miles an hour!’”
On race day, the Woodward’s team was one of 42 at the starting line. With a bottle neck at the gate leaving the fairgrounds, two-thirds of the teams had a head start. It didn’t matter: by the time their bed hit the bottom of Roger Street enroute to Victoria Quay, no one was in front of them.
“It was fun,” Blight says. “No one got hurt.”
The excitement didn’t stop there: the Woodward’s Pushers travelled to Hawaii in February 1981 to participate in the eighth annual Carole Kai Bed Race. They were one of two international teams in a race that had nine full divisions of eight teams apiece.
After two practice runs, “they put us up against the American Army,” Blight said. “They had four guys on either end of the race whose heads were in the clouds compared to us.” The much larger army team won handily, but the experience was worth it, he recalled.
Blight said the bed races phased out following that exciting 1981 run; it has been nearly three decades since the races were considered part of the annual celebration of salmon. If the 2019 Salmon Fest organizers have a say, the bed races will return this year.
“We were really wanting to do something more family oriented,” explained 2019 organizer Bill Surry. “It used to be really exciting. We wanted to bring back some of the things we used to have and see what people think.”
In this year’s course, teams will run two at a time from Tyee Landing along Harbour Road to Harbour Quay. At the Quay, the race continues in a circle around the fountain, and then back to Tyee Landing.
Organizers looked at successful bed races in B.C. and in Washington State in order to put together the event. The popular “Bed Races on Beacon” has been taking place in Sidney for the past two years. In Cloverdale, the bed races have been taking place annually since 1977.
There will be a number of prizes for participants, said Surry. As long as two teams are registered, the races will go on.
“We were hoping to get six to eight teams,” he said. “We’re trying to get it started and build from there. It’s gonna have growing pains,” he added. “But we used to get a lot of beds and have a lot of fun with it.”
At this time, participants will be required to build their own beds, but Surry said organizers are hoping to have beds available for rent in upcoming years.
“We may in future years change that,” he said. “But we haven’t got that far yet.”
If you are interested in registering for the Great Bed Race, contact Bill Surry at 250-731-6930.