A small band of adventurous teens from Orono High School are preparing to race against the country’s top white-water canoeists June 18-22 at the American Canoe Association’s Downriver Open Canoe National Championships, which will be held in North Carolina. On June 16, they’ll load their canoes on a trailer, pack into a van and head south to represent Maine in a weeklong competition.
“I’m not supercompetitive, but I like white water,” said senior Laurie Hamilton, one of the five students who plan to participate in the nationals.
White water she will have. On the Nantahala River, Hamilton will enjoy an eight-mile course of constant rapids.
She and the other four young paddlers are members of GoActive, Orono High School’s thriving outdoor adventure club led by science teacher Jeff Owen, expert paddler and president of the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization, more commonly known as MaCKRO. About 15 students regularly participated in the club throughout the spring, attending biweekly practices and competing in races throughout the state nearly every weekend.
The five students competing in the nationals — Hamilton, eleventh-grader Billy DeSisto and tenth-graders Kailey Schmidt, Samantha Nadeau and Calum Hamilton (Laurie’s brother) — are among the most experienced members in the club.
“It’s almost constant white water the whole way, with a Class 3 drop at the beginning and a Class 3 or 4 drop at the end,” Owen said. “It sounds very entertaining.”
On Tuesday afternoon, dark clouds loomed overhead, spilling raindrops sporadically as the five young paddlers climbed into white-water canoes to keep their skills sharp for the event. From Brown’s Beach, they launched into the Stillwater River in Orono and expertly maneuvered the boats in figure eights, playing “follow the leader.” They then picked up the pace and executed a few sprints past the launch.
Switching to Kevlar canoes more appropriate for flat-water paddling, they worked upriver to the Stillwater Dam.
Laurie Hamilton, paddling stern, called out “hut” to switch paddling sides in sync with her partner. Oftentimes, she interrupted herself midsentence to yell the cue, then continued with her sentence without a hitch.
“It was a small club when Laurie started freshman year,” said Laurie and Calum’s mother, Fiona Hamilton, who attended practice to paddle with the group. “She just loved it so much. She would get up at the crack of dawn every weekend to go canoeing. I never heard of white-water canoeing until she tried it … the whole canoeing community really want to welcome the younger generation.”
During the short paddle, the gloom lifted and sunlight brightened the fresh green foliage hanging out over the riverbanks. The group rounded two islets near the dam and headed back to Brown’s Beach, where they pulled out and carried the boats across the road to a garage packed with canoes.
Waving away mosquitoes, the students talked with Owen about the competition, a series of races that spans several days, ending with an award ceremony. The students and Owen will have the opportunity to participate in multiple downriver and sprint races.
“I think it’ll be a different experience than most of the races we’ve done in Maine,” Owen said. “It’s not common here to have constant white water. Usually there’s some flat water in between. The closest to this race we have is the Dead [River].”
“The last part of the East Machias [River Race] was amazing,” said Nadeau, who competed in nine races in Maine this spring with her paddling partner Schmidt. “That was nonstop action.”
In addition to the many Maine canoe races, all five teens also participated in the East Grand Adventure Race on May 12. Kailey and Samantha took home first place for high school girls; Hamilton and his usual paddling partner, Yuval Boss, won for high school boys; and the Hamiltons won the high school mixed class.
As they prepare for their week in North Carolina, all are looking forward to a change of scenery and the chance to put their skills to the test against a new group of competitors, but they don’t expect to see a large number of young racers. They never do.
“I think it’s a global pattern, or at least for our country,” Owen said. “A lot of outdoor sports have diminishing participation, but we’re working to buck that trend.”
The number of competitors at nationals each year varies depending on where the event is held and whether there is a large local population of canoe racers. For instance, when the nationals are held in Maine, turnout is usually at a high, said Owen.
“I don’t know what to expect in North Carolina,” he said. “The nationals has been held there many times, so there’s that history. And it’s a paddling mecca, with rafting companies all along the river and outfitters, a whole industry based on white water. I’m optimistic.”
Owen’s particularly excited about this event because he never has paddled the Nantahala River.
“One of the reasons I wanted to take the crew this year is because I’ve heard this is such a great river — appropriate for a group like this,” he said.
Each student will be attending the nationals at a reduced cost of about $300, thanks to funding by MaCKRO and individual donations.
“Becoming a national champion — that would be pretty sweet,” Schmidt said.
“Yeah, winning is always cool,” said Laurie Hamilton.
Last year, Hamilton and fellow GoActive members Alex and Chris Introne competed in the national championships on the Deerfield River in Charlemont, Mass., and all three students were successful in winning races.
“Just remember, you can’t swim across the finish line,” Owen said, reminding the crew of the challenging final drop they would have to maneuver near the end of the race. The comment launched the group into a conversation about what it means to be “in control” of a boat.
Hamilton leaned against the garage door frame and said, “Well, I haven’t swum yet this year.”
“Did you just say, ‘yet?’” Owen teased.
“Yeah. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that,” she said, smiling.
For information about the American Canoe Association’s Downriver Open Canoe National Championships, visit wwocd.org.