Racers get on rivers thanks to early thaw

Posted March 12, 2010, at 9:32 p.m.

Over the years, Dale Cross has grown accustomed to keeping a close eye on the weather during March and April.

He’s a whitewater paddler, after all. And he directs two of the state’s first canoe races each spring, come … well, you know … or high water.

Many years, Cross is crossing his fingers, hoping for the ice to melt so that racers can actually get down the St. George and Passagassawakeag rivers.

This year, the Belfast man and his fellow whitewater enthusiasts are enjoying an early spring thaw. Many diehard racers are already training for the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization’s Downriver Point Series, which kicks off on the St. George River in Searsmont on March 27.

But that doesn’t mean Cross still isn’t paying close attention to the weather.

“We’re going to get another snowstorm and torrential rains,” Cross said, semi-seriously, on Friday. “Because we need ’em.”

Cross will admit that the early thaw has its benefits — more training time among them — but as a race director, he still wants paddlers to enjoy a wet-and-wild experience in a few weeks.

“It’s been absolutely beautiful. People have been out and down the [St. George] River already. Both of our rivers are wide open. I can hear the splashing and moving of the water and it’s so inviting,” Cross said.

Cross said he’s optimistic that more precipitation will again swell the rivers that have receded during a recent dry spell.

“[We’ve had] 2½, three weeks of no rain or snow. You and I have been in Maine for a long time,” Cross said. “It’s going to happen.”

Cross is an avid paddler who has been racing for 30 years.

By my estimation, that qualifies him as an expert. He debates that title, admitting only that his hobby has allowed him to swim in many of the region’s top whitewater rivers. Still, at my urging, Cross agreed to offer a few tips to new paddlers who might want to participate in the upcoming races.

In addition, he’ll offer a synopsis of each of the first five Downriver Point Series races, from a paddler’s perspective.

Tips for the newcomer

The rivers are flowing. Whitewater abounds. But Cross said all paddlers would benefit by wading gently into spring rather than leaping in with both paddles.

“I think that what any paddler needs to do is just get in the boat,” Cross said. “Flat water, anywhere they can get in where it’s safe, to get their sea legs.”

Cross said those early training sessions give paddlers the chance to learn new skills or refine well-established ones.

“[They should] get some things straightened out with a partner, on flat water, before they get into the whitewater stuff,” Cross said.

In addition, seeking some expert advice is a good idea, he said.

“Also, I think it’s wise for folks that are just getting started … that they go with other folks that may understand the sport a little better,” Cross said. “It keeps everybody safe. It’s important to back up two steps and make sure they’ve got the proper equipment.”

That equipment may include wet suits, neoprene gloves, good life jackets and paddles that are in good repair, Cross said.

Being able to maneuver a boat in flat-water sections is essential before paddlers decide to take on rapids, according to Cross. And spending as much time as possible in a boat is beneficial to veteran racers as well and will help them get in paddling shape before the races begin.

“Usually, two or three times out, you start to feel better,” Cross said. “Your arms, back and all the muscles you use paddling get a little more used to being in a boat. It’s like anything: If you do it a little bit, practice a little bit, you don’t get as sore at the race.”

A paddler’s assessment

If you’re looking forward to hopping in your canoe or kayak and competing for the first time this year, Cross said the race schedule works its way from shorter races to longer, more challenging ones. That progression is ideal, he said, and allows racers to face different challenges every week.

“In all the races I’m going to talk about, you’ve got the chance to swim. That’s always exciting,” Cross said. “You want to stay in your boat, but that [thought] in the back of your head always adds some excitement.”

Here’s his view of the first five races on MaCKRO’s Downriver Points calendar:

— 31st annual St. George River Race, 11 a.m., March 27, in Searsmont (six miles): “I love the St. George because it starts out with about two or three miles of flat water wide enough so you can paddle right along and pass people,” Cross said. “Then you have about a mile and a half of good whitewater, between Class II and Class III, and that’s always fun.

“It has great viewing areas for spectators as [racers] navigate the rapids. Then it goes back to flat water for about a mile, mile and a half, and then a Class III ledge drop which is a lot of fun. Then you finish in fairly fast-moving flat water that makes you feel like you’re moving pretty fast. It’s a great finish,” Cross said.

— 37th annual Passagassawakeag River Race, 11 a.m., April 3, Waldo (seven miles): “It’s a little longer than the St. George, which works out pretty well. The Passy is a lot different than the St. George,” Cross said. “There’s a lot more corners and a lot more navigating in flat water. It’s a winding river with a lot of 180-degree corners, which really provides a great challenge to everyone.

“Like last year, if the water’s up, you’ve got some great challenging Class II or Class III whitewater for about a mile and a half to two miles. This river also finishes with about a mile straightaway, very wide. It’s like a stock car finish. You can see people all around you, so it’s really cool. Several boats wide could finish at the same time,” Cross said.

— Souadabscook Stream Canoe Race, April 10, Hampden (eight miles): “The Souadabscook is, and was for a long time, the river that people looked at as the whitewater championship of Maine,” Cross said. “It has incredible ledge drops and whitewater. If you want that kind of challenge, that river is what you die for.

“It starts on flat water and goes across a pond. It’s also massed up by class, so that’s very exciting. You know where everybody [in your division] is, and you can pace yourself, kind of draft … until all hell breaks loose [at the rapids]. I’ve probably swam in the Souadabscook more than any other river around. I respect that river and all the paddlers do,” Cross said.

— Marsh Stream Canoe Race, April 11, Frankfort (nine miles): “It’s another incredible river for paddling and racing. There is also plenty of whitewater in that race. Going back [to the previous races] there is a real progression in difficulty as well as length,” Cross said. “One race can really help you develop for the next one. You do the first two races first, and get yourself ready for the Sou and Marsh Stream, which ultimately gets you ready for Kenduskeag.”

— 43rd annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, 8 a.m. April 17, Kenduskeag (16.5 miles): “That’s the race that’s most talked about. It has the most attendance,” Cross said. “The thing the Kenduskeag does is it tests your endurance. There’s plenty of whitewater, plenty of spectators, a lot of enthusiasm, and again, it really tests your endurance.

“You’ve got 10 miles of flat water [before the rapids start]. Six Mile Falls is a welcoming sight, I’ll tell you. You’re waiting and waiting and waiting, and by the time you get there you’re kind of tired, and then you get thrashed a little bit,” Cross said.

Cool prizes up for grabs

Cross, who directs the St. George and Passagassawakeag river races, is looking forward to making the events more popular for paddlers this year.

His solution: Prizes.

“We have really amped up our races,” Cross said. “We’re giving away a brand new Old Town Guide canoe to one of the paddlers.”

In addition, top finishers based on combined time in the two races will receive Zaveral or Werner paddles.

“We’re really excited about it,” Cross said. “We’d love to be the group that starts the whitewater season out, and over the last 37 years it’s been a big part of our spring. We just wanted to get it started with a bang.”

To register for or find information about the St. George or Passagassawakeag races, go to www.waldocountyymca.org and click on the “canoe races” link.

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