Fast water may move race site

Posted June 30, 2009, at 9:47 p.m.

Usually, the biggest concern for organizers of the annual American Canoe Association Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver Championships is water, as in whether there will be enough for the races.

Less than 24 hours before the start of the ACA WWOCD and Kayak Downriver National Championships in West Forks, water is again the primary concern.

Only this year, there’s too much of it.

The relentless precipitation producing substantial rains during 22 of the last 29 days has caused race officials to discuss contingency plans.

“Circumstances will force us to make some changes due to the fact the water may be too high for canoes,” said race chairman Clayton Cole, referring to the (not-so) Dead River. “We’ll make our decision Wednesday. Our first option is to move the race to the Kerry Brook section of the Kennebec River gorge.”

Normally, Florida Power and Light, which regulates the water levels of Long Falls Dam, situated between Flagstaff Lake and the Dead River, releases around 1,300 to 1,800 cfs (cubic feet per second) for the race. According to Cole, the dam was releasing 6,000 cfs on Monday and Tuesday.

“We’re seeing more showers and rain forecast for coming days and we don’t know that they can hold back any more water through Friday,” Cole said. “The water level is really entirely in the hands of Mother Nature, but wherever we paddle, it’ll probably be a higher-than-normal level.”

That means faster water and faster times.

Fortunately, this isn’t the first time organizers have faced this challenge.

“This same scenario happened in 1996, when we had a month of rain and a hurricane, and moved it to the Kennebec,” said Cole, who was one of the organizers back then. “The good news is because of all this rain, there are other rivers we can use now that we’d never even consider normally because the level’s too low.”

The normal course length is 12 miles of Class II and III whitewater. The new one could be 8-10 miles.

“The normal course is more challenging than the Kenduskeag Canoe Race,” Cole said. “Basically, take Six-Mile Falls and imagine 12 miles of it and that’s the basic course.”

Cole, who had 70 paddlers (only five of them kayakers) preregistered through Tuesday, expects between 100 and 130 paddlers for the four days of racing. Today is a practice day.

“You’ll see many of the top canoeists, like Jeff Owen and Steve Owen, and probably the top 10 canoeists from the Kenduskeag and other early spring races,” Cole said. “We’ll have people racing representing anywhere from 10 to 17 states and another two or three Canadian provinces.”

Racing is scheduled to start around noon each day, regardless of the location. Race headquarters will be located at West Forks Fish and Game Club in front of Riverdrivers’ Outfitters on Route 201 in West Forks village. Award ceremonies will take place around 5 p.m. each day except Sunday.

Thursday marks the start of racing with the downriver, two-person (mixed) and two-person open canoe races. Friday marks sprint races, Saturday is men’s solo canoe and women’s two-person open canoe racing, and Sunday is women’s OC1 and men’s OC2 racing.

A new wrinkle this year is the Bill Stearns Cup, which will be presented to the person with the fastest combined time from two events (one solo and one tandem race). Stearns, of Milford, founded the first whitewater canoe championship event in the country in 1970 on the Dead River.

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