BANGOR, Maine — There are about 3,300 miles between Nine Mall Falls and Six-Mile Falls, but at least Tom “Fuzzy” Thurston didn’t have to paddle all of them.
The Machias native now living in Nine Mall Falls in Washington state took a 12½-hour flight (including layovers) from Spokane to Portland and another 2½-hour drive from Portland to Bangor for the privilege of paddling 16½ miles from Kenduskeag to Bangor in the 43rd annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race on Saturday.
“I’m so pooped, I can’t even think. It got to the point where I could barely lift my paddle out of the water any more,” Thurston said with a wide grin. “I left at six o’clock in Spokane and arrived in Portland at 11 a.m. the next day on Friday, but I’d do it all over again.”
Thurston was one of 951 people paddling 510 boats in the race under clear skies and bright sunshine.
While the weather was perfect, water conditions were anything but.
“There was a lot of traffic, a lot of rocks, and very few holes of open water between them,” said the 55-year-old Thurston. “It was nasty. I said ‘Where’d all the water go?’ after looking at it [Friday] night.”
That was the question on everyone’s mind, from beginner to grizzled veteran alike. Even the guy with the fastest time of the day was left shaking his head after lugging his kayak up the banks of the Kenduskeag past the finish line.
“It makes for a comfortable day, but it doesn’t make for a fast day,” said Canadian Trevor Maclean, who won his second straight Kenduskeag title and fifth overall with a time of 2 hours, 17.58 minutes. “This year, it was pretty low water. You’re more concerned with hitting rocks and getting hung up on them.”
Maclean came down from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to compete in the race for the eighth time. In the years he hasn’t finished first overall, he’s been second.
Another sage kayaker and a name that’s synonymous with the Kenduskeag Stream Race also found the going tough as he navigated the 16½-mile course. Eleven-time race winner Robert Lang finished second overall for the second straight year with a time of 2:22.45.
“It was a beautiful day, but it was an absolute slog. That’s my worst time, ever,” said the 55-year-old from Rothesay (formerly Renforth), New Brunswick. “There was a lot of drag on the flat stuff. It wasn’t bad, but it was tough. I fetched up on a couple of rocks. I came through Six-Mile pretty good, but the lower part was tricky.”
Most of the racing field found all of the course tricky.
“I didn’t dump at all, but the trouble was scraping over the rocks. We hit a lot of them,” said Thurston.
So, was the first Kenduskeag experience also the last for the retired U.S. Air Force survival instructor?
“Oh no, we’ll be back. This is the craziest canoe race I’ve ever done!” Thurston said. “I’ve already been kicking myself, knowing I had a canoe for all those years, but not using it competitively.”
Beginning in 2005, Thurston has come back to Maine each April to paddle the Machias and East Machias River races. This year, he had an extra reason.
“My bow man’s been doing this for 12 years and his normal stern man wasn’t going to be able to take the day off from work, so he made a long distance call to get me to replace him,” Thurston explained.
Ironically, Thurston has had a canoe since he turned 16, but used it exclusively for fishing until he did his first canoe race in 2005. He and paddling partner Brian Battista of Parsonsfield finished fifth out of 13 finishers in the two-person century canoe class with a time of 2:49.55.
As tough as the shallow water made the race, it failed to dampen the enthusiasm of race participants.
“We don’t race to win the race, we just go to have a good time,” said Josh Donovan, a lobsterman from Mount Desert Island doing the Kenduskeag for the second time. “It’s a great community event. Plus today was just beautiful!”
Donovan partnered with Josh Stoll of Lamoine and finished ninth in the C2 medium canoe experienced division with a time of 3:32.34.
“The last time I did this was five years ago,” Donovan said. “I’m a stern man on a lobster boat and travel around a lot this time of year, so it doesn’t always work out for me to be able to do this.”
For others, like the six paddlers of the “Kenduskeag Screamah” war canoe, the third Saturday in March has become a day when going to work is simply not an option.
“This is my seventh year in this boat, but my 15th overall doing the Kenduskeag,” said Tammy Kelley of Lamoine, one of three female ‘crew members’ decked out in blue floral skirts.
“We couldn’t get the guys to wear the skirts too. They keep saying they will and they keep chickening out,” she said.
You’d think lifting a 26-foot canoe out of the water and carrying it a couple hundred feet through three portages in a 16½-mile race would put you at a disadvantage, but the crew of Kelley; John Cangelosi, John and Leslie Winchester Mabee of Bangor; Bill Smith of Lamoine; and Ander Thebaud of Mount Desert won the open class and finished fifth overall with a time of 2:36.05.
“They weren’t bad, especially since Bill Smith redesigned the canoe and took some weight out by replacing the wooden gunnels with aluminum,” said Thebaud. “And in the water, it actually maneuvers much better than you’d think.”
Easier or not, Kelley and Thebaud both took about a half second to say what their favorite part of race day is.
“My favorite part? AFTER,” Kelley said with a big laugh.
On that point, many of Saturday’s paddlers were in the same boat with her.