Head to the Kenduskeag Stream this morning, sit on the banks of Six Mile Falls, and eventually, you’ll hear someone yell three words.
I guarantee it.
Those words — and what they reflect — have become as much a part of the race as the presence of a speedy Canadian kayaker, like multi-year winners Robert Lang and Trevor Maclean.
They have become as big a part as the always-standing Zip Kellogg, who works his way downstream in formal attire.
For the 25th straight year, those three words will be uttered again this morning. Repeatedly. I guarantee it.
“Here comes Gumby!”
“It started off when the Kenduskeag [Canoe Race] wasn’t so regulated,” said veteran stern paddler Dan Pelletier of Alton, who joined the Gumby Gang about five years after Daryl Boyington and Larry Doucette made their fateful shopping trip to Spencer Gifts.
The goal: Find something to spruce up their canoe for the annual race.
Eventually, they succeeded. Boy, did they succeed.
“They were debating between Gumby — a full blowup doll — Superman and another doll that’s probably best not to mention for the kids. They chose Gumby, and for some reason, Gumby just took off,” Pelletier said.
The duo took Gumby to the starting line, inflated him, and stuck him in the middle of the boat.
Then they headed for Bangor.
The river vultures — fans who line the Kenduskeag waiting for whitewater carnage to begin — loved Gumby.
They still do. Even if they have no idea who the Gumby Guys are.
“Everybody knows the Gumby boat, but they don’t know us,” Pelletier said with a chuckle. “That’s fine.”
For the record, this year’s Gumby Guys will be the same four who have teamed up to make most of the trips over the past 10 or 15 years: Boyington, who lives in Hampden; Doucette, who lives in Vermont; Toby Day of Milford, and Pelletier.
The group has received plenty of attention over the years, and a photo of them — make that, most of them — appeared in Sports Illustrated in 2006.
Pelletier, a Master Maine Guide who paddles from the rear of the packed 20-foot Old Town XL Tripper canoe, was nearly invisible.
But he’s getting used to the anonymity.
“It’s almost amusing. I’m the most experienced paddler, and I have a business [that is featured prominently on the bow of the boat], so a little plug wouldn’t hurt,” Pelletier said. “It’s funny with the amount of coverage, I always seem to get cut out.”
In the SI photo, Pelletier was nearly cut out. But not entirely, as it turns out.
“If you look at that Sports Illustrated photo, there’s a wooden paddle in it, and I’m connected to that,” he said. “But other than that, I didn’t get mentioned and I didn’t get into the photo. That’s happened a number of years.”
Over the years, the Gumby boat has negotiated the rapids at Six Mile Falls in a number of creative ways, and the group races by a simple motto: “If you can’t be fast, be funny.”
“Amazingly, they never dumped during the race,” Pelletier said. “They dumped getting into and out of the boat, but Gumby has never, amazingly, swam Six Mile Falls. Close a few times. But no.”
You want close?
Sometimes, the crew takes a straight line through the rapids. Other times, they’ve gone through Six Mile Falls backward.
And once? Well, once things got a bit hairy.
“We were debating on running backwards,” Pelletier recounted. “I was going to make the call at the last minute. Our communications got mixed up. Daryl in the bow was trying to turn the boat one way and I was trying to turn it the other. We hit the bank and ran the falls sideways.”
And again, Gumby stayed dry.
Dry is one thing. But Gumby needs more than that. He also needs air. A lot of air. And as he ages, he sometimes needs a nearly constant supply of air.
“It’s the same original Gumby. I’m the keeper of Gumby now,” Pelletier explained.
And as the 25-year-old vinyl blowup toy ages, he’s not as supple as he once was. Maintenance has become essential.
That’s why, once a year, Pelletier finds himself in a bathtub with a green cartoon character. He soaps up his team’s mascot, looks for air bubbles, and patches accordingly.
“I take a yearly bath with Gumby, I guess you could say,” Pelletier said. “I wash him in soap and try to find the leaks, but you still can’t find ’em all.”
By Friday afternoon, Pelletier had finished one patching session, with another planned. On race day, however, he was sure the crew would find more holes … and more work to be done.
“We’ve tried a number of things, but every year he leaks, and basically one member of the crew is pumping Gumby [full of air] most of the way down,” Pelletier said. “It’s a constant leak.”
To combat that leak (and to avoid a starboard-listing Gumby), Pelletier fashioned a wooden rack that holds Gumby upright no matter how much air he loses.
Gumby’s profile is recognizable, but many river vultures are especially curious to find out what slogan he’ll wear on his T-shirt each year.
One year, during President Bill Clinton’s administration, Gumby’s shirt proclaimed “Clinton Knows Whitewater.”
Another year, when Doucette’s wife was pregnant, the crew marked the occasion (and took advantage of their pal’s absence): They stuffed a beach ball under Gumby’s shirt and wrote “Larry Did It” in large letters.
“We try to keep it fun, and nothing too controversial,” Pelletier said.
This year’s shirt won’t be designed until this morning, but Pelletier hinted that it would be a tribute to Art Clokey, the creator of the Gumby character who died in January at the age of 88.
And though the crew placed high in their open class one year, Pelletier said competition isn’t a big priority for Gumby’s team.
“Actual racing? None of us are really into it that much,” Pelletier said. “Daryl likes to paddle hard, but we have to slow him down a little so we can make the TV coverage. It’s mostly for fun.”
Want to be a vulture?
If you’ve never watched the race and want to see some whitewater action, there are numerous streamside perches perfect for novice river vultures.
Many head to Six Mile Falls, which is located on outer Broadway. There’s plenty of room to spread your wings, and with the stream running low, less water means more grass to stand on.
Closer to town, folks flock to the stream along Valley Avenue.
Parking at each spot is limited, but if you’re willing to take a short walk to the water’s edge, you’ll be able to pick a good spot.
One thing to remember: Much of the race course runs through private land, and many landowners have allowed fans access to the stream on the day of the race. Respecting that privilege is essential. Carry out your trash. And if you see other rubbish lying around, why not carry it out with you?