KENDUSKEAG - All the signs are here. The weather is warming up, the snow is disappearing and baseball is being played. Yes, spring has sprung, and one of our area’s most beloved traditions is upon us again.
It’s Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race time.
Hundreds of hopefuls will once more descend on the town of Kenduskeag on April 15 for the 51st annual running of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. The race will commence at 8:30 a.m.
A little history: The first race was held in 1967, and the Bangor Parks and Recreation Department has been involved since its inception. In the entire history of the race, there has never been anything in the way of corporate sponsorship. It is a wonderfully self-contained community event.
The first race had 34 paddlers participating. The number of racers has varied from year to year, with peak numbers as high as 1500 brave boaters during the mid-1990s. Over the years, tens of thousands of people have taken part in this iconic event.
It’s worth noting that the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race is the largest paddling event in New England and one of the largest in the entire country.
The race course is 16.5 miles long, with 10 miles of flat water. The other 6.5 miles consist of rapids of varying degrees of difficulty, from class I through class III. Generally, the most difficult area for paddlers to negotiate is Six Mile Falls. Fortunately for spectators, there is a bridge right there, providing a first-rate vantage point to enjoy the inevitable spectacular splashdowns. This is where the prime tips and flips really happen.
There are a wide variety of competition classes; over 20 in all. There are different categories for kayaks and canoes, one or two paddlers. There’s even an “open” class, consisting of boats carrying more than two people and any craft that doesn’t necessarily qualify as either a canoe or a kayak. The classes are also broken down by level of experience. Essentially, this means that no matter where on the spectrum your paddling skills fall, there’s a place for you in the race.
Registering for the race is easy and can be done in a number of different ways. You can download the registration form from the Bangor Parks and Recreation website and mail it in along with your registration fee. You can register and pay online (though you’ll still need to sign and deliver the form to Parks and Rec). You can also register in person at the Parks and Recreation office right up until 1 p.m. on April 14. Finally, you can register onsite on race day from 6:30 to 7:45 a.m.
Preregistration is recommended; signing up early means a fee of $25 per paddler versus $50 apiece on the day of the race.
The Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race is one of the most entrenched and entertaining traditions that this area has to offer. Whether you participate or just go to watch, it’s a heck of a good time. And trust me, anyone can do it. How do I know?
Because I’ve done it. Twice.
Memories of races past
I have a longstanding connection to the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. I grew up in Levant – West Levant, to be precise.
This meant that the canoe race was nearby. You could hop into a car at my house, make a right turn out of the driveway and in five minutes, you’re at the bridge where the race launches. Heck, there were a couple of times in my youth that I straight up rode my bike over there to watch some of the racers head out.
And yet I never actually PARTICIPATED in the race when I was young. I had friends and relatives who would do it, but for whatever reason, I never got into a canoe myself while I was living practically next door to the thing.
It took the transition to adulthood for me to reach the point where I would actually participate in the race. As of this writing, I have paddled in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race twice in my life – once in 2001 and again in 2008 – and while I’d like to take one more go at it, I’m rational enough to recognize that the combination of my inherent laziness and the unstoppable march of time likely means that it’s “Two and Through” for me and the race.
Care to float down Memory Stream with me?
In April of 2001, I was living in a house on French Island in Old Town with a bunch of degenerates (though it should be noted, three of those degenerates – one of whom features prominently in this story – were in my wedding party; all of us somehow became upstanding citizens when we weren’t paying attention, but that’s a story for another time).
My friends Nick (who would serve as my best man slightly more than a decade later) and Steve – outdoorsy types both – had decided to paddle the race and asked me if I would be interested in joining them. Having grown up nearby but never participated, I agreed.
We borrowed a canoe from Nick’s parents the night before the race and made our way to the starting area that morning. Nick and Steve were dressed appropriately while I was clad in flannel and jeans and basically everything that they recommend against wearing. Nick and Steve prepared the boat with all the inflatable doodads and whatnot while I stood around being generally useless, as was (and still is) my way.
And yet, I never got the sense that they regretted asking me. Fools.
So it came time to start. Our initial hint that things might be a bit tricky for us was when we all three got into the canoe for the first time and pushed off into the water – Nick at the front, Steve at the back, me in the middle. There was a lot of beef in that boat; we were sitting unexpectedly low in the water.
As we tried to maneuver ourselves into position, my inexperience became very clear. Now, I had been very upfront about my canoeing abilities or lack thereof; I told them that I could count on one hand the number of times I had ever even been in a canoe. But despite my flailing ignorance, my boatmates were optimistic.
Then we started rowing.
Those initial 10 miles of flat water are exhausting to race through – particularly when you’ve got a boat weighed down in the middle by a heavy dude who doesn’t really know how to paddle. We pushed our way through it, but just before we went round the bend to approach Six Mile Falls, Nick suggested a pit stop.
See, it turns out that Nick’s grandparents lived right there on the banks of the stream. So we decided to get out, stretch our legs, have a snack and so on. As you’ve probably figured out by now, the “race” part of the canoe race wasn’t really a big concern for us. After 45 minutes or so, we got back into the water and headed for the Falls.
And then almost immediately went into the drink.
Heavy boat, you see – we wound up getting stuck on rocks in the middle of the falls and tipping over, much to the delight of the vultures. We drifted under the bridge, climbed out and dried out. As an added bonus, I had lost my paddle, so not only would I be weighing us down for the rest of the trip, I couldn’t even contribute.
So I sat in the middle and had a leisurely cruise the rest of the way while Nick and Steve propelled us toward the Penobscot. A highlight was going through downtown and realizing that due to the high water, we were actually going to have to lie down to get under one of the footbridges.
And that was that. If you’ve ever wondered what kind of people wind up finishing last in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, well … now you know.
In 2008, I had been part of the team here at The Maine Edge for a while. One day, I pitched the idea of doing a story where I participated in the 42nd running of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. Fellow Edge staffer Pat Shaw volunteered to join me, so we registered for the race. Our canoe was a medium-sized green number courtesy of Mike Fern. Our registration number was 233.
I hadn’t been in a canoe since my previous go-round with the race; Pat’s paddling experience wasn’t much deeper. Still, when we set out that morning, things were looking good. We managed to get into the water without embarrassing ourselves, and soon we were making our way through the ten miles of flat water that leads to the excitement of Six Mile Falls. After some initial difficulties with regards to steering, there was steady progress.
However, our journey truly began when we came upon the falls. We followed a group of our fellow racers into the beginning stages of the falls. It rapidly became clear that this was a mistake. There was a bit of a traffic jam that resulted in our canoe getting bumped, spinning sideways, and finally tipping us into the stream.
Maine streams in April are pretty chilly, in case you were wondering.
Undaunted, we pulled ourselves and the canoe out of the stream, dumped the water out of the boat, and set out to hit the really difficult part of the falls in earnest. We emerged into view of hundreds of spectators, most of whom would like nothing more than to see us get dumped by the rapids (our previous fall had gone unseen by most observers). We hit the falls; Pat made eye contact with a spotter who seemed to think that we were about to get wet (again). Instead, we went through dead center, over a drop of three feet or so, and managed to stay upright. We even heard a few cheers from the bridge and banks.
There was no time for celebration, however, as there was still plenty of stream ahead of us. Still, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. We had made up some time through the falls, and were now moving at a nice clip. We breezed through the first mandatory portage with no problems, and things were looking up.
This is where we may have gotten a little cocky.
We kept on down the stream; then, the current started picking up. We were rapidly descending on the second portage. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the sign, and by the time we realized what was happening, we had been spilled once more into the frigid waters of the Kenduskeag, losing one of our paddles. We were rescued by one of the many wonderful safety personnel, but despite our best efforts, our canoe had continued downstream, getting stuck mid-stream atop another canoe that was in turn stuck on a rock.
Eventually, race officials dislodged the canoe, sending it downstream. We took off after it; Pat proceeded to run to the water, jump in, and swim to the canoe. After a struggle, he snagged it and managed to make his way to shore. After that ordeal, however, we decided that it wasn’t to be, and informed a nearby official that we were out of the running.
So we didn’t make it to the finish line. Regrettable, but it doesn’t change the fact that we made a (kind of) fine showing and did the Edge (sort of) proud.
In the end, I greatly enjoyed my canoe racing adventures, which just goes to show that even those of us who are less disposed to “being outside” and “doing things” can have a good time hitting the water and heading downstream. The Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race is one of those uniquely Maine events that everybody should try at least once. Take part in the tradition and have some fun.
And try to stay dry.