School was out for the day, but instead of going home to watch TV or gearing up for track practice, a group of Orono teens jumped in trucks topped with canoes with their science teacher, Jeff Owen.
By 3:30 p.m., the GoActive Club was huddled on a rock outcropping upstream from Six Mile Falls, a white water section of the Kenduskeag Stream. Eighteen of the 26 members could make it to the stream that day, and they gathered around Owen to hear his voice over the roaring water.
The sun reflecting off the water made the cool spring day seem warmer. It was a good day to learn how to navigate the falls before the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race that weekend.
“You look for rocks, waves,” said sophomore Yuval Boss as he stood on the ledge, pointing at patterns in the water. “And if you look here, you’ll see a chute, where the current comes together.”
Bossl and senior Alex Caballero, standing beside him on the stream bank, were planning on competing in the Kenduskeag race together.
“[Canoe racing] is better than baseball; it’s better than soccer — no offense, Alex. It gives you a thrill,” said Boss.
“These are kids who for whatever reason don’t want to get on the more formal athletic teams,” Owen said. “The club is lower pressure, less commitment. They can choose what practices they want to go to.”
Orono High School’s former outing club was defunct when Owen began teaching at the school six years ago, so he asked to start up a club with an emphasis on outdoor fitness — mountain biking, running and snowshoeing. The group is especially active when they can pick up their canoe paddles in the spring.
“It gets kids active in the outdoors in the types of sports they can do their whole lives,” said Owen. “It’s not like high school athletic team where when the kids graduate from high school, for 90 percent of them, it’s the end of those sports. These are things that the kids can enjoy their full lives and be competitive in. There are really good paddlers who are in their 70s and 80s.”
Owen is the president of the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization, or MaCKRO, an organization that works to promote canoe and kayak races throughout Maine and New England; it’s no surprise that he passes on his love for the water in GoActive.
The club began with six students the first year and has doubled in membership each year.
Thursday, after scouting the falls, the students shuffled off of the outcrop and returned to the road to fetch their boats. In pairs, they would paddle the first half of Six Mile Falls.
“It’s really cool to learn from Mr. Owen and all the experts. It’s a lot better than going into it blind,” said Paul Robinson, a senior who has been a member of the club since it’s inception. He geared up beside Laurie Hamilton, also an original member, and his partner for that weekend’s race.
Both Laurie and Paul joined the club thinking they’d skip out on spring sports and paddle occasionally, but they soon learned that Owen was planning on biweekly practices on the Stillwater River and clinics on the Friday before races, which are scheduled every weekend from the end of March until school got out for the summer.
During quiet-water practices, Owen teaches balance, propulsion and steering through obstacle courses, “Paddling Follow the Leader” and speed workouts. A group of 15 experienced MaCKRO paddlers pair up with new GoActive members for races and help during pre-race clinics on white water.
“Freshman year, we were like, ‘Dude we paddled this big white-water river the other day,’ and others were like, ‘Dude, why aren’t I doing this?’” said Laurie, smiling.
That’s how the club grew.
“I’m putting my dry clothes here,” Laurie said to Paul as she tossed a duffel onto the forest floor beside the stream bank. All students are told to wear a life vest and proper clothing and carry a set of dry clothing. The greatest risk in paddling is hypothermia. Scrapes and bruises are common if a canoe capsizes in rapids, but all in all, Owen says that canoeing is a fairly safe sport.
With tie-dye shirt wrapped around her chin-length blond hair, Laurie moved through the soggy woods with Paul to the launch above the falls.
Grass draped off her paddle as they glided out of a shallow, calm pocket of water into the roaring mainstream currents. Their canoe rocked as they descended over a ledge and they held tight to their paddles so that their peers wouldn’t call them “gunnel-grabbers” from the outcropping just a few meters away. Without incident, the pair navigated the swirling current and steered to calmer waters.
Eliot Lamb and his paddling buddy Samantha Nadeau weren’t so fortunate. They capsized in the frothing waters. Samantha struggled for footing as Eliot stood in the waist-deep water, holding onto the canoe until it was pulled out of his hands by the current and swept downstream. The instructors captured it and the pair made it to shore drenched but unharmed.
“I learned that you can’t always see the rocks. I’m used to it by now,” Eliot said .
“What was happening with MaCKRO was it was all the older racers and no new blood,” said MaCKRO member Karen Francoeur. “So, how do you get new, younger people involved?”
“It’s certainly an area where the whole racing scene could grow, there’s no question about that,” said Owen, referring to the usually short high school bracket in canoe races.
In an effort to foster youth paddling, MaCKRO is holding a High School Challenge for teens around the state to compete in canoe races. So far, East Grand’s outdoor club has accepted the challenge, and Owen hopes that more teens will enter races and represent their schools. For five races, MaCKRO adds the top three finish times from each school and deducts time based on the total number of boats the school entered in the race.
“So you can do really well if you have fast boats or a lot of boats — either way. We’re trying to encourage overall participation,” Owen said.
The young Orono paddlers are already emailing back and forth about this weekend. The club will be competing in the 8-mile canoe race down East Machias River on Saturday, camping, and then competing in the 12-mile canoe race down Machias River on Sunday.
GoActive results in Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race:
First place in high school bracket: Alex Introne and Eliot Lamb, 2:34:29; second: Chris Introne and Daniel Perry, 2:50:35; third: Laurie Hamilton and Paul Robinson, 3:11:54; fourth: Yuval Boss and Alex Caballero, 3:20:16. Two pairs of high school paddlers who weren’t from Orono placed after the GoActive members. Other GoActive members paddled with adults and didn’t place in the teen bracket.