On Saturday morning, hundreds of paddlers will gather in the town of Kenduskeag for what has become a seasonal tradition. And over a 16½-mile course, thousands of spectators will watch and cheer for those same participants as they try to chart a safe (and more or less dry) course toward the Penobscot River.
In truth, more than a few of those spectators will save their most hearty cheers for the stream itself, as it upsets another boat, tosses it into the rocks and spills its occupants into the chilly water.
Yes, it’s time for the 45th edition of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.
Tracy Willette, the director of Bangor Parks & Recreation, which organizes the race, said the race falls at a perfect time of year and seems to provide a needed respite after a long Maine winter.
“Because it’s been around as long as it has, and [because of] the timing of it, we’re finally making the final turn toward better weather,” Willette said. “I think it’s one of those events that people look forward to finally getting out.”
The first boats will leave Kenduskeag at 8:30 a.m., with participants leaving in groups of five boats every minute after that. Preregistration will be accepted — $20 per paddler — until 1 p.m. on Friday. Race-day registration will be held from 6:30 until 7:45 a.m., but paddlers will be required to pay $40 each.
On Wednesday morning, light sleet mixed with rain at Six Mile Falls, one of the race’s most notorious white-water stretches. With rain forecast for much of the day and into the evening on Wednesday, Willette said he didn’t expect the water level in the Kenduskeag to fall lower than Wednesday’s level before Saturday’s race.
“I don’t think [the level is] as low as we’ve seen it or as high,” Willette said. “It’s kind of the middle of the pack as far as water level. I think it’s going to be a good course for everybody.”
Last year’s paddlers slogged their way through very low water, but that won’t be the case this year. A U.S. Geological Survey water-level gauge just below Six Mile Falls measured the level at 7.16 feet as of 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday. On the Wednesday before the 2010 race, that gauge measured the level at just 4.98 feet.
Willette said that between 350 and 400 paddlers had registered for the race as of Wednesday afternoon. That total is about average, he said. By utilizing available technology better, he said, the late registration rush at Bangor Parks and Recreation headquarters has been eliminated over the past couple of years.
“What’s helped us tremendously is allowing people to register online,” he said. “I think that for our folks that aren’t here local, that helps a lot. What it does is it minimizes the long line that we typically have here in our office on Thursday and Friday.”
A year ago, 889 paddlers in 479 boats registered for the race. The race record for participation was set in 1994, when 1,529 paddlers in 754 boats took part.
Willette said this year’s race will follow the tried-and-true model that has worked well for years, with one fairly significant change: Upon reaching the finish line, paddlers will be welcomed ashore in style.
“We’ve had some feedback recently about having something at the takeout,” Willette said. “This year, through some help from Darling’s insurance and [Sea Dog Brewing Co.] we’ll have a warming tent there where … we’ll have some chili and snacks and coffee and hot chocolate.”
The tent will be located at the traditional takeout spot near the Gomez memorial just before the Kenduskeag empties into the Penobscot. Race results, which have been displayed farther upstream at the actual finish line, will be moved to the warming tent this year.
First-time paddlers have a few options. They can be careful. They can do their homework. Or they could simply find a boat decorated with a dozen or more “Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race” stickers and follow those competitors through the tricky spots … if they can keep up.
Seriously, though, Willette said the presence of all those veteran paddlers who have spent decades participating in the race is something that is gratifying to those who spend hours planning each year’s race.
“It’s interesting, when the Kenduskeag comes around, to see the canoes on car tops and on racks and seeing all those stickers. As race organizers, it’s pretty interesting for us to see leading up to the race,” Willette said. “All those round stickers are lined up. That’s neat to see.”