J.R. Mabee is still looking for his first American Canoe Association Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver National Championships gold medal, but thanks to some selfless actions over the weekend, he may have one already reserved for him in heaven.
That’s small consolation for him now as he thinks about what could have been in Saturday afternoon’s solo men’s (ages 19-39) race, which he was leading by a comfortable margin about three-quarters of the way through.
The longtime Maine guide and resident was literally cruising down the 4½-mile Dead River whitewater course in West Forks when he was confronted with a decision.
“I was shocked I was able to have such a really clean run and make it to Spencer Rips ahead of everybody,” said Mabee. “As I got to Hayden’s Landing I could see Paul Cole upside down in the water and getting thrown around, but he got to the riverbank and started running.
“He’d lost his paddle and canoe and I could see the water taking them down. The paddle was right in front of me in my line, so I grabbed it and threw it in the boat. I saw his Kevlar boat as I came down and tried to bump it into an eddy, but it didn’t go. Then I took the extra time to get it to an eddy and tied it to a tree. But by that time, two canoes had gone by me.”
Mabee finished third after losing at least two minutes, and the lead.
“He probably gave up an almost certain gold medal,” said race chairman Clayton Cole, Paul’s brother. “In every pre-race meeting, we emphasize safety and tell them they’re obligated to provide assistance, but there was no real penalty or obligation there, especially in the middle of the rapids, for some equipment — potentially at the risk of your own safety.”
The 37-year-old Mabee, a Cleveland, Ohio, native who moved to Maine 33 years ago, admitted he’s been doing a little second-guessing himself, but said he’d do it all over again.
“I kind of have second thoughts because I don’t have a downriver national championship, but it just happened,” said Mabee, who is also safety coordinator for the nationals. “I probably would have done it again. River karma is very important.”
He should have plenty of it, then, because he also helped out a fellow paddler who was thrown out of a canoe Friday in the sprints races. He and wife Leslie came to the aid of Colleen Moore, who grabbed the stern of their canoe and rode down the rapids before reaching an eddy and swimming to shore. Mabee also helped corral her canoe to safety as well.
That day, Mabee was allowed to take an extra sprint run since the format was timed individual trials and not a race. He and Leslie earned bronze in the OC2 mixed (19-39) class.
Not that Mabee went home empty-handed… He and fellow Bangor resident Greg Dorr got silver medals in the men’s two-man canoe (19-39) race and Friday’s sprint race. Oh, and he didn’t have to buy any drinks over the weekend.
“I got a lot of compliments from paddlers and Paul definitely bought me a few rounds,” Mabee said with a chuckle.
Ironically, the paddler who passed Mabee and finished first Saturday was Dan Wagner of Belfast, who was also one-half of the duo that beat Mabee and Dorr by just two seconds in a sprint to the finish at the nationals on this same river four years ago.
“This is my fourth nationals here in Maine and sixth overall,” said Mabee, who is a master guide as well as a real estate agent who plows snow in the winter.
Wagner won the solo race with a time of 30 minutes, 31 seconds, but the fastest time of the day belonged to the two-man team of Zane Havens and Keith Havens of Albion, Mich., who finished in 27:11. Mabee and Dorr had the second-fastest time with 27:39. Laurie Marietta of Ohiopyle, Pa., had the fastest time by a female (32:19).