Fort Smallwood Park looked like Hog Heaven.
Thousands of motorcycles turned the city-owned park at the mouth of the Patapsco River in Anne Arundel County into a sea of chrome yesterday during the 11th annual Operation Santa Claus -- better known as the Toy Run.
Along major Maryland highways, it was easy to see something strange was happening as Harleys and Hondas, Suzukis and Kawasakis headed toward the site in northern Anne Arundel County, many with large stuffed animals buckled onto the sissy bars.
But it was Santa Claus who had to evoke the most surprise, humming down Interstate 95 on a Kawasaki at the end of a caravan he guessed at "several thousand motorcycles" -- mostly from Delaware and points north, but certainly not the North Pole.
Santa admitted to being 65-year-old Al Koch, a bearded Aberdeen Proving Ground retiree whose red attire stuck out rather noticeably amid the more common cyclists' costume of black leather and black T-shirts and got him plenty of hugs from motorcycle mamas.
Most of the T-shirts carried messages -- like the "Real men wear black" shirt worn by Robert "Rocky" Robertson of Manchester, a member of the Frederick chapter of HOG (Harley Owners Group). The Toy Run, he said, is the second-best motorcycle gathering he's seen, surpassed only by Daytona's annual March Bike Week, which last year brought 350,000 or so to the Florida beachfront.
Mr. Robertson said he rode in on a Harley he won in a raffle at last year's Daytona event.
"Your $5 bike," laughed his wife, Linda Robertson, who rides on the back -- scared away from riding on her own by a fall she took during a riding lesson. "I stay on the back. It's more fun."
The event largely benefits the Salvation Army, with the preferred price of admission a toy or canned goods that will be given to needy families at Christmas, or $5 in cash.
Organizers and Baltimore police officials keeping watch over the event in the park estimated the crowd at close to 100,000 -- nearly double the number attending last year, when a hurricane was threatening the mid-Atlantic region.
The lure was free entertainment (country-western, of course), dollar beer and booths offering all manner of biker jewelry, clothing and regalia -- and the joy of sharing an afternoon with thousands of fellow motorcyclists.
Numerous state and Anne Arundel police officers directed traffic along Fort Smallwood Road, where local residents set up lawn chairs and picnicked as they watched the daylong procession of bikers.
"We've been here 20 years, and the event last year was the first to put up a banner, a billboard, thanking the community," said John Lyba, sitting on his lawn with his wife and neighbors.
There was little trouble beyond occasional minor accidents and miles-long traffic jams. The only "rumble" came from the deep-throated vrrroooms of revving engines.
The Toy Run was moved to Fort Smallwood Park last year after outgrowing sites in the city near the Inner Harbor and under the Jones Falls Expressway.
Bob Ritter, the administrative officer of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation who originated and still directs the event, said about 5,000 attended the first Toy Run in 1981, and the pack was estimated at 80,000 in 1989 when it was last held in the city at Guilford Avenue and Pleasant Street.
Yesterday's donations amounted to two tractor-trailer loads of toys and two vanloads of canned goods. Cash was being counted last night.
Call it Christmas in October.