On Tuesday — a day or two after the St. George River shed its winter coat and began to flow freely — Dale Cross was one of several avid paddlers who tossed canoes into the frothing flow and headed downstream.
“My daughter and I did it and water was going over her head, into my lap,” Cross said with a chuckle. “We were thrashing down through it. And it is very cold right now. I can tell you from experience.”
If it sounds like Cross is complaining, you obviously don’t know many serious canoe racers. For people like Cross, a longtime competitor and race director, the mid-March freshets are what keep them going through Maine’s long winter months. The cold water, thrills (and constant threat of a spill) are just part of their favorite spring pastime.
Their wait soon will be over: The state’s whitewater paddling schedule kicks off March 26 with the 32nd St. George River Race, which begins at 11 a.m. in Searsmont. A week later, on April 2, the 38th annual Passagassawakeag River Race will be staged in Waldo. Both are directed by Cross, and both are part of the season-long Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization Downriver Points Series.
Subsequent series races will be held on the Souadabscook Stream (April 9), Marsh Stream (April 10) and Kenduskeag Stream (April 16). And while many spectators may assume the whitewater season ends after the popular Kenduskeag race, that’s not the case: Series events are held on the East Machias, Machias and Meduxnekeag rivers in April, and on the Union and Sebec rivers in June.
Despite the drenching he endured on Tuesday, Cross said conditions on the river were optimal.
“It is absolutely awesome right now,” Cross said. “The water’s really up nice, so it’s a great ride right now. I’d love to see it exactly at this level for the race day.”
A couple of solid rainstorms over the next 10 days would assure that, said Cross, who was eagerly awaiting just such a dousing on Wednesday afternoon. Plenty of snow is still piled in the woods and the constant melting would add to the river’s level, he said.
And if the present water level holds until March 26?
“There would be some casualties … with boats, I’ll put it that way,” Cross said, quickly clarifying his answer. “It is fun. There’s a lot of good-sized waves and great whitewater for anybody that wants to be challenged by the river.”
And while the MaCKRO series draws a lot of serious paddlers who are vying for championships in their respective divisions, Cross said the rivers themselves often provide the toughest competition for those who are looking to test themselves in an outdoors setting.
“Three-quarters of the folks that actually go to the race aren’t racing against each other. They’re sort of racing to get down through the river and do it without flipping and stuff like that,” Cross said. “And the challenge is definitely there for this year. Hopefully it stays up.”
MaCKRO is once again putting added emphasis on growing its sport and has continued its popular High School Canoe Race Challenge for this season. That series consists of five races, starting with the Passagassawakeag River Race, with prizes awarded to top finishers.
While the downriver races all share a common ingredient — whitewater — the conditions vary from race to race. And since it’s spring in Maine, so can the weather.
“[Last year it was] 10 degrees above zero the morning of the race at St. George,” Cross said. “The Passy, it was 65 at the end of the race, sunny, and people were getting sunburns. That’s one week later.”
Cross said area races have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, which could bode well for this season.
“Last year we were two crafts from breaking an all-time attendance record for the Passagassawakeag,” Cross said. “[We had] 127. I am really hoping to break that record this year.”
In addition, Cross said the St. George race drew more than 100 boats, and he’s not entirely sure why. He does have some ideas, however.
“The length of our winter, maybe,” he said. “It’s a rural sign of spring. I think folks are getting that cabin fever [and thinking] ‘Let’s go do something outside; spring is finally here.’ And also, we’ve had some good water and good races over the years.’”
Also contributing: Eastern Maine has turned into a paddling hub, especially during the early competitive season.
“We attract people from all over the state for these races because it’s some pretty good whitewater,” Cross said. “And a lot of people come down from up north because there’s no water available to paddle on right yet.”