Remembering Lew Gilman, founder of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race

Posted Aug. 19, 2011, at 4:29 p.m.
Lew Gilman (rear) and Ed "Sonny" Colburn, founders of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.
Photo courtesy of Ed "Sonny" Colburn
Lew Gilman (rear) and Ed "Sonny" Colburn, founders of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.
Lew Gilman (rear) and Ed "Sonny" Colburn, founders of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.
Lew Gilman (rear) and Ed "Sonny" Colburn, founders of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.

Lew Gilman, one of the founders of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, died Thursday night at the age of 81 after an 18-month battle with lung cancer.

Gilman, a Hampden resident, found joy in inventing for the outdoors, and more specifically, designing canoes.

“Early on, at his camp, he always wandered in the woods and canoed,” his daughter Amy Gilman, 39, of Woodend, New Zealand said Friday in a phone interview. “And that’s just how he grew up — fishing and canoeing and hunting.”

He started working at Moore’s Machine Shop in Old Town at age 14, and was instantly recognized for his ability to understand mechanics. He then went to work as a welder for the Air National Guard, owned a auto shop for a while and then became co-owner of Rivers & Gilman Moulded Products in Hampden, where he made simulated birch bark canoes that bore the trade name “Indian.” In 1968, he joined Old Town Canoe Co. as a designer and revolutionized the way plastic canoes were made.

“It was really about being outdoors,” said his daughter Laurie Gilman, 50, of North Yarmouth, Maine Friday afternoon. “The guy was really a genius.”

He also was a family man. Gilman was a devoted husband to his wife Norma who died Aug. 13, 2010. And he cherished his grandchildren, Corina Arimond, 5, and Declan Arimond, 3 (children of Amy). The family is in the process of making funeral arrangements.

Gilman’s love of the outdoors extended beyond his various jobs and business ventures. On Friday morning, Ed “Sonny” Colburn, 79, co-founder of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race and friend of Gilman, related bits of their long friendship and love of canoeing.

Colburn met Gilman, then known as “Spook” in 1951 during a high-school party held at the Colburn family camp at Beech Hill Pond. The two met again through the Air National Guard, and their friendship continued to strengthen.

“Thank god I had a furniture delivery down there in Hampden,” said Colburn. “I used to go and see [Gilman] anyway, he ran Rivers & Gilman canoe company, and it was the end of April when I came by and said, ‘I’m gonna go see Lew.’ So I went in and sat and talked to him for a few minutes.”

It was about 3 p.m. Friday, and the two decided to meet at the old Miller’s Restaurant in Bangor to talk about holding a canoe race to mark the beginning of spring.

“I told him what was going on about trying to get a canoe race going, and he said, ‘Why don’t you go down the hill three doors to city hall an go in and see the rec department?’ So Monday morning, we went down and they grabbed it. Shortly after that, we had a meeting [for the first Kenduskeag Canoe race],” said Colburn.

The first Kenduskeag Canoe Race organized by the duo was held May of 1967. Just 32 canoes paddled the 16.5-mile course, which begins in the town of Kenduskeag and ends near the confluence of the Penobscot River in downtown Bangor. Seven of those canoes failed to complete the course, which is a combination of quiet water and class I, II and III rapids. But it was the unexpected spectator response to the first race that encouraged them to keep the annual race going.

“I think the spectators are what makes the race so much fun,” Gilman said in a 1991 Bangor Daily News article before participating in the race with his two daughters. “We’ve seen them there year after year. They make the race special.”

“He had no bad habits,” said Colburn. “I mean, he was just a nice guy … about every five years, he and I would go down the stream.”

Since 1967, more than 28,000 paddlers have participated in the race, and although the number of paddlers varies from year to year, as many as 1,500 contestants participated in a single race during the mid-1990s.

“I don’t think he ever missed [a race],” said Laurie Gilman. “I came up this year, and we watched it on TV together.”

All the while, Gilman worked on boat designs that would get more people out on the water. Royalex (a brand of ABS plastic) was added to Old Town Canoe Co.’s boats in the 1970s when Gilman developed new methods for producing molds with it. And the company’s Discoverys line of canoes, introduced in 1984, employed a three-layer polyethylene hull developed by Gilman. The Discoverys is the world’s best-selling canoe line, according to an Old Town Canoe Co.’s owner’s manual.

A 2008 article in Canoe & Kayak Magazine states: “If there’s a Yankee definition of a jack-of-all-trades, it’s Lew Gilman. Chemical, mechanical or impossible; Lew will do it!”

In retirement, Gilman continued to tinker and invent. Sifting through his research on Friday morning, his daughters found stacks of papers on steam engines, wind power and materials that might help him turn recycled paper into wood pellets. One of his last projects was to make a practical contraption to reel in his oxygen line, said Laurie Gilman.

On Friday, she recalled her father’s favorite saying: “The impossible just takes longer.”

To learn more about Gilman’s role in the annual Kenduskeag Canoe Race, check out “Tales of the Kenduskeag,” a 1993 book edited by Jim Smith and Fern Stearns.

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