Jeff Owen of Orono began earning his canoe-racing credentials as a young boy, paddling with his father or mother in local whitewater races.
Today, that’s still the way youngsters get involved in the sport … and Owen, one of the area’s top paddlers, is hoping to help tinker with that formula.
“By and large the only youth that have traditionally gone [to races] are the kids whose parents were involved in some way previously,” Owen said.
Today, as president of the Maine Canoe & Kayak Racing Organization, Owen is looking for ways to encourage children to take the same step he and many of his fellow paddlers did, whether their parents paddle or not.
“What we’re actually trying to do now is go look some kids in the eye and say, “Hey, this is fun. Why don’t you get your mom or dad to come out with you?’” Owen said. “Or we’re trying to put kids in canoes with each other and provide some training and access to some equipment.”
MaCKRO sponsors a 10-race whitewater, or “downriver” series, and a nine-race flat-water series.
One of those races, the popular Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, garners the most attention each year, with hundreds of participants making the 16-mile trek from Kenduskeag to Bangor.
But newcomers need not leapfrog into the sport in mid-April in the crowded Kenduskeag field. There are plenty of other, earlier options to sample.
“There are an awful lot of other races that are shorter, easier, and that are great venues to learn and practice and hone your skills,” Owen said. “And several of them occur before the Kenduskeag each year.”
Owen said he hopes some changes in this year’s downriver series will entice younger or new paddlers to give the sport a try.
“We’re trying to pull off some really nice awards, including nice championship sweatshirts, gift certificates … and only those people — new members [of MaCKRO] and youth — who do at least five of those races can have their names put in a drawing for an Old Town Canoe,” Owen said.
Some races are sponsoring high school divisions, and others have begun offering prizes to children even younger than that, Owen said.
Owen said the excitement of whitewater canoeing is infectious, and getting new people to try the sport once is the key.
“All of us in the club are just hooked for life on the sport because it’s an absolute blast,” Owen said. “It’s outdoors. It’s healthy. It starts in mud season when you’re just itching to get outside and you go to one of these races and sometimes there’s still snow on the ground but you see all of these colors — the canoes — and the people all having fun.”
Owen looks forward to those spring and summer days on the water, and has won championships at the local and national levels.
“It’s a tremendous sport. And it increases awareness of the environment, it has people doing aerobic exercise in a way that is lifelong,” Owen said. “Seventy- and 80-year-old people are in the sport. So we’re really looking to hook people into it because it’s such a good sport and it’s a blast.”
To that end, Owen has started the Go Active Club at Orono High School, where he teaches, and will offer club members the chance to learn necessary skills and participate in races.
Owen encourages others interested in learning more about the sport to contact a MaCKRO member to learn more about different ways to become involved.
“We have a backbone of people in our club, whitewater paddlers, who will openly say, ‘If you’ve got a kid interested, I’ll paddle with him or her,’” Owen said.
In addition, Owen said MaCKRO members are planning some clinics early in the season, during which novice and experienced paddlers can team up to run rivers the week before series races are run there.
And for those who don’t have the necessary equipment to give the sport a try, MaCKRO has a solution: Become a member of the club, and you can use MaCKRO equipment to hone your skills.
“We’ve received some donated canoes that we’re in the process of repairing and outfitting,” Owen said. “And we’ve created an equipment policy that allows people to use those boats at no cost.”
The MaCKRO Downriver Series kicks off on March 28 on the St. George River in Searsmont. Subsequent early season races will be held on the Passagassawaukeag River in Waldo (April 4), Souadabscook Stream in Hampden (April 11), Marsh Stream in Frankfort (April 12), Kenduskeag Stream in Kenduskeag (April 18), the East Machias River (April 25), the Machias River (April 26), and the Meduxnekeag River in Houlton (May 2).
For more information on the circuit or becoming a MaCKRO member, go to the organization’s Web site at http://mackro.org.