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Parents and children have a blast during Bel Air's annual turtle race, frog-jumping contest

A soggy morning made for active frogs at the 2015 Fourth of July Frog Jumping Contest in Bel Air Saturday, July 4. (Matt Button, David Anderson and Dan Griffin, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Saturday morning started out damp and drizzly and then turned rainy, creating a perfect environment for the frogs and turtles taking part in Bel Air's annual Independence Day Turtle Derby and Great Bel Air Frog Jumping Contest.

Tim Odell, the master of ceremonies for both events, noted that the heavy rains last month have meant more amphibians than usual are out and about.

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Families crowded around a fenced-off arena in Shamrock Park as children competed to see whose turtle could make it from an inner ring to an outer ring first and later see whose frog could jump the farthest.

The contests were two of many community events for Bel Air's Independence Day celebration, which were held throughout Saturday morning and early afternoon, including flag-raising ceremonies, community breakfasts, a watermelon-eating contest and a bike rodeo.

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Turtle race spectators were also treated to flyovers by two A-10 Warthog military attack jets.

Shanice Lewis, Miss Bel Air Independence Day 2015, was among the race judges.

The weather alternated between a drizzle and steady rain.

"We're sorry about the rain but everybody's spirits are high," Mike Blum, chairman of the evening parade and a lead organizer of the day's events, said. "The people that are here seem to be having a great time. We're a rain or shine organization; the Fourth of July only comes once a year."

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Odell urged the youth participants in the turtle race to wash their hands after handling the creatures and "before your touch your face or eat or anything."

He also stressed the need to properly care for the turtles and frogs, especially those caught in the wild for the races.

"It is very important that you return it to the same place where you found it, the exact same spot," Odell said.

The turtles were raced first in heats, and there were different races for the different types of reptiles, such as box turtles and aquatic turtles.

The turtles started behind the inner circle in a ring of several concentric circles. Whichever turtle got across the outermost ring first was the winner.

Some turtles stood still after the start of each race, and others quickly skittered toward the outer ring as the spectators cheered.

Mykaela Getz, 10, of Bel Air, and her stepsister, Kendall Bittman, 7, won their heat. They said their turtle was nervous before the race, but quickly surged ahead of the competition when the start was announced.

"I didn't think he was going to go anywhere, and he just ended up taking off," Mykaela said.

Her father, Steve, 33, also raced turtles as a child for Bel Air's Independence Day celebration. He said he wanted to pass the tradition on to the girls.

'It's a pretty cool thing to do in Bel Air every year," he said.

The turtle races and frog-jumping contest have been part of Bel Air's Independence Day celebrations for decades. Hamster races have also been a tradition, but they were not held this year.

A number of parents in the crowd raced animals as children.

Lauren Heiser and her husband, John, and their sons, J.W., who is 3 years old, and Everett, 17 months old, watched the competition.

'I just think it's nice that they have small-town events, and you can get out and see people in the community," Lauren Heiser said. "I think events like this and the Farm Fair are what make Harford County a unique place to live."

Kelsey Fink, 25, who grew up in Bel Air and now lives in Forest Hill, told her 5-year-old daughter, Ryleigh, about how she raced turtles and hamsters as a child while they watched the frog-jumping contest.

"I love doing things with her that I did growing up," Fink said of her daughter. "I love the small-town feel that Bel Air brings with their Independence Day."

For the frog-jumping contest, each amphibian got three jumps, and the frog's total distance from the starting point was measured.

Kevin Emerson, 8, of Bel Air, and his 11-year-old sister, Brooke, entered their first contest with a frog they caught behind their house with the help of their mother, Jill, and father, Jim.

"I liked it," Brooke said. "You could see the different types of frogs."

The Emerson family's frog jumped 4 feet, while some of their competitors jumped 6 and 7 feet.

"We always do the parade," Jill Emerson said. "We've never come to any of [the daytime events], so next year we'll know what to expect."

"We've got some new strategies for 2016," Jim Emerson added.

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