KENT WARD

Shooting the rapids the hard way

Posted April 22, 2011, at 8:44 p.m.
Last modified May 31, 2011, at 11:58 a.m.

The photograph dominating the lead sports page in Monday’s newspaper showed Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race participant Mark Bamford of Bucksport reaching for a lifeline after having been spilled from his kayak into the roiling icy white water at infamous Six Mile Falls last Saturday.

Shot by Bangor Daily News photographer Gabor Degre, the photo pretty much said all there is to say about the hazards of negotiating the falls located on the outskirts of Bangor proper. It also brought to mind  a story that former BDN co-worker Ken Buckley enjoyed telling about his misadventure in the race in the early years of the event.

I have a hunch that many paddlers who have participated in the race during the past 45 years likely have horror stories of their own to tell about their run for the roses down the 16-mile course from Kenduskeag to Bangor. Details of Buckley’s account may have become fuzzy with time, but the gist of it, as I recall, was this:

He and a newsroom cohort had decided spur-of-the-moment to enter the race scheduled for a couple of days later. The fact that the pair had no canoe — nor, for that matter, much experience negotiating white water — was no deterrent. They rented a boat the next morning for practice at the challenging Six Mile Falls stretch of water that seldom fails to weed out the rookies in the annual April race. At the very first serious rapid the bow of the rented canoe went under, spilling the two into the frigid water, providing them with a new appreciation for the clinical definition of the word “hypothermia.”

They made it downstream to Flour Mill Dam before they agreed to give it up as a bad job. Bruised and cold, they had lost half a paddle and all of their enthusiasm, and their tippy vessel showed some serious battle scars.

They returned the canoe to the outfit they had rented it from and suggested that they would drop by in the morning to rent another one  — preferably a less-beat-up model — for the big race. One look at the canoe, and the rental guy promised them that such a transaction would never happen on his watch.

With that rebuff, the duo put any dream of racing glory temporarily on hold. But a couple of Aprils later, Buckley decided it was time to remove the race from his bucket list of things to accomplish before riding off into the sunset of retirement. This time he teamed up with an eager chap from the newspaper’s advertising department who freely acknowledged that his canoeing skills were next to nonexistent — an accomplishment that apparently qualified him to borrow a friend’s aluminum canoe for the event.

The tranquil first leg of the race from Kenduskeag Village to Six Mile Falls was uneventful. The pair arrived at the white water in fine fettle and confidently began their bid for their 15 seconds of fame down the famed rips in front of a gallery of river vultures openly rooting for the paddlers to soon be upside down.

Almost instantly our adventurers became stymied sideways in the stream, taking on water between a rock and a hard place, their borrowed canoe fetched up against a boulder in a configuration Buckley described as looking “sort of like the letter L.”

After they were rescued from their predicament by friendlies manning the lifelines, the man from advertising suggested that now might be the proper time to repair to the warmth of his hearth for a hot toddy to ward off the chill born of a hard day on the river.

Soon thereafter, the friend who owned the canoe showed up, and not long after that he inquired as to the status of his canoe. The host suggested he have a drink. But the visitor wasn’t near as interested in  having a drink as he was in having a look at his boat.

The rest, as they say, is history, boat owner and borrower coming to an amicable agreement as to reparations. Far as I can tell, everyone has lived happily ever after. If my guys have made another attempt to shoot the rapids at Six Mile in the years since The Incident, I suspect it has been with a camera.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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