Maine canoe racer Bill Stearns dies at 78

Posted May 12, 2010, at 9:55 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:44 a.m.

ORLAND, Maine — A man who was well known in Maine for his prowess at the bow of a canoe died Saturday.

Bill Stearns, 78, not only raced canoes, he also designed and built them, according to his obituary and some of the people who knew him.

Born in Berlin, N.H., Stearns grew up in Rumford, attended Bowdoin College and served four years with the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Maine, where he taught calculus from 1960 through his retirement in 1977.

Many of Stearns’ paddling exploits — including races — occurred with his wife, Fern, at his side.

“They paddled together for years and years. They were the couple to beat,” said longtime friend and fellow canoeist Edwin “Sonny” Colburn, a co-founder of the Kenduskeag Canoe Race, a Maine classic many consider a rite of spring.

Stearns and his wife raced their first Kenduskeag in 1968, the second year the race was held, and went on to compete in numerous others. Bill Stearns served on that event’s planning committee for four decades.

The couple also frequently won the national crown in their class in white-water races on the Dead River that they helped establish in 1970.

An avid outdoorsman, Stearns served on the boards of the Natural Resources Council, the Friends of Sunkhaze National Wildlife Refuge and the Bald Mountain Ski Area. He helped found the Caribou Bog Wicked Winter Ski Tour and Race and Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society and was a volunteer bateau sternsman for the Penobscot Riverkeepers and Leonard’s Mills.

Alan Stearns, the youngest of the couple’s four children, credits his father with instilling in him a passion for the outdoors.

“I grew up in the back of a canoe,” Alan Stearns said Wednesday. The deputy director of Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, Alan Stearns said his father began teaching him to paddle at age 5 or 6.

“Every weekend and all summer long we would be paddling,” he said. “We’d either be racing or going on trips or on summer projects all through the North Woods, so some of my most important memories as a child were of being in a canoe.”

He recalled that the family spent a summer in the early 1970s paddling with their parents, who were commissioned to do an inventory of the upper west branch of the Penobscot River, a journey that took them to such remote spots as Lobster and Chesuncook lakes.

Ray “Bucky” Owens, former commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said his family and the Stearnses shared many good times in canoes, on cross-country skis and ice skates and at the camp they shared at Nahmakanta Lake, northwest of Baxter State Park.

“We probably spent 20 New Year’s Days in Baxter,” Owen said, adding that his children thought of Stearns “as sort of a teddy bear. I think the kids always thought he was cuddly.”

An outdoor memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Eddington Salmon Club, Stearns’ obituary states. Donations in his memory may be made to The Nature Conservancy in Maine at 14 Maine St., Suite 401, Brunswick 04011.

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