For nearly a half a century, paddlers have flocked to a local stream in mid-April for an event that has captured the region’s imagination. And alongside that stream, throngs of “river vultures” have stood vigil, waiting for the carnage to begin piling up.
At places like Six Mile Falls and a hole called “Shopping Cart,” and many other trouble spots on the 16.5-mile journey from Kenduskeag Village to downtown Bangor, spectators stand and wait for the inevitable: Someone (or, more accurately, many, many “someones”) are not escaping unscathed. They’re getting wet. And when they do, those race fans will cheer.
Yes, the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race has a long, rich history: This year will mark the 47th edition of the spring classic.
We asked you to share your Kenduskeag tales. Many of you responded. Here are some of your favorite memories:
From Larry Merrill, Orrington
Earl Baldwin sold me a kayak in the summer of 1970. In the spring of 1971 he said I should enter it in the Kenduskeag race. I’d only used the kayak on ponds in calm water and knew absolutely nothing about white water, but I agreed to try it.
In the week before the race I paddled part of the course with members of the Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society. Frankly, I was terrified. I didn’t have any real problems but totally refused to try Six Mile Falls, knowing I couldn’t possibly navigate it successfully.
The night before the race, I drove out just to look at Six Mile Falls and see if there was any way I could run it. As far as I could see, there wasn’t. Then an elderly Native American gentleman approached and asked if I was racing the next day. I told him “yes” but said I was going to portage Six Mile Falls. He seemed incensed. He said he knew I could do it, and save a lot of time by running the falls instead of carrying. He gave me explicit directions on where to go, and said I couldn’t possibly have any trouble.
I happened to be one of the first to start the next morning, and not too many people had passed me, so when I reached Six Mile Falls, I decided to go for it. About halfway through the upper portion the boat was upside-down and I was swimming. I later learned the route suggested was not a good one.
The water was cold. My ignorance of white water included not knowing what to wear. I was dressed in jeans and a cotton sweatshirt, which was about the worst outfit I could have chosen. I could almost see the heat leaving my body and passing into the water around me, and I was cold. Fortunately I soon came to shallow water where I could stand up and get out. I stood on the bank, shivering. That was enough Kenduskeag for me.
Or so I thought. Then along came the elderly Native American gentleman I’d seen the night before. He asked what I was waiting for, and I told him I was done. He said, “No, don’t quit. You’re ahead on time. Don’t quit now.”
Reluctantly, I got back in the boat and headed for downtown Bangor, shivering all the way. After the first portage my hands were so cold putting the spray skirt back on seemed impossible. After maybe 20 minutes, a final major effort got it back in place, and I made it to the finish line. So late there’s no record that I finished, but I did.
If I’d just finished near the last, I probably would have said that was enough kayak-racing for me and called it quits. But being dead last in my only effort I couldn’t stand. I worked and improved and eventually I won some trophies.
And though I’ve been to hundreds of kayak races since my first, I’ve never seen the elderly Native American gentleman again.
From Jim Minner, Summerville S.C.
No photo attached, since you already chose it for your article’s example of bad paddling! Cliff Raymond and I were roommates at UMO back in the late ‘70s, and have remained friends since. We always wanted to do the race but never got around to it until 2010, determining to do it “before we got too old”. Evidently we passed our ‘too old’ thresholds sometime prior to 2010, and as a result took a few more swims than just the well-photographed one at 6-Mile Falls. But we DID finish the race!
My anecdote comes from what happened after the race. A few days post-race, back home in South Carolina, my next-door neighbor came over to tell me that his brother had called him that morning to say that he’d seen my photo in his ‘local’ paper…in Kuwait. The paper was ‘The Arab Times’ English Language print edition. (he was working for a defense contractor in Kuwait at the time). Sure enough, a quick check of the Arab Times Online version showed Cliff and me splashed (pardon the pun) on the printed page half-way around the world. Our public humiliation was now Global!!! http://www.arabtimesonline.com/Portals/0/PDF_Files/pdf10/apr/21/50.pdf
I’ve had a lot of fun telling that story since then…albeit with some embarrassment. But I appreciate the Bangor Daily News, the AP wire service, and of course the Kenduskeag Canoe Race organizers for giving us a good tale to tell, and the documentation to prove it!
From Kate DeCoste, Hermon
My first tale is from my first year doing the race. My two friends — Amanda Coleman of Hermon and Amanda Ellis of Holden — and I decided it would be a riot to be “trolls,” so we put bottles in our hair and colored our hair crazy colors and received many comments about our get ups.
We braved the dreaded Six Mile Falls and thought we were doing wonderfully, until we suddenly hit a hidden rock, sending the girl in the front of the canoe flying out and the other girl and I trying to catch our balance and stay in the canoe.
All three of our hair was still perfect, even the girl who fell out and went underwater! Needless to say, we got a lot of laughs and did the same thing last year. Looking forward to this year!
From Julie Dawson Williams
I saw your article in the BDN requesting that folks send in stories about the Kenduskeag Stream Race. I thought I should share the photo and narrative that I have attached and explain the story behind them.
This photograph documents both of my grandparents, Robinson and Elizabeth Speirs (lifelong Bangor residents), participating in the first Kenduskeag Canoe Race in 1966. According to family lore, my grandmother was the only woman in the field. The story is told in our family that my grandfather invited my grandmother for a picnic the day of the first race. He happened to bring the canoe, and by the time they were done with their picnic my grandfather had convinced my grandmother to give the race a go. They finished the race without spilling into the stream.
Elizabeth Speirs is still alive and well and lives locally.
From Michael P. Gleason, Bangor
I live in a bascally “dry” world, and not one with much derring do. But back about 1975, I let a friend – who wanted VERY badly to enter the Kenduskeag Canoe Race – talk me into doing a “pre-race ‘dry’ run” with him, so he could get a feel for the stream.
After leaving one of our vehicles somewhere downstream, so we’d have a ride back, we launched his canoe some distance above Six Mile Falls. I had never been in a canoe in my life. I think he put me in the stern. I had left my wallet, watch, and glasses in the vehicle. Wearing Levis and a T-shirt, I tied my favorite high school sweatshirt around my waste, just in case I got cool during the trip to Bangor. We shoved off and headed downstream.
I would guess that we hadn’t gone 300 yards when we encountered the first turbulence. I was impressed with my friend’s deft handling of the canoe. It wasn’t a minute later that we hit real white water, and before I realized what was happening, the canoe was upside-down, and we were each fighting the current. I had never gotten so wet so fast in my life, and I couldn’t believe how quickly the cold of the water was sapping the strength from my arms and legs. Somehow, someway, we each made it to the shore and dragged ourselves onto dry land. Though the canoe got hung-up near the bank a short distance further on, my favorite high school sweatshirt was gone forever! We shivered our way back to the car, and as we cranked up the heat I resolved to never challenge the Kenduskeag again – one resolution that I’ve kept these many years since!
From Chris Spellman, Bangor
This coming up April will be my 18th run on the Kenduskeag. I have fared pretty well in the past ten or fifteen years grabbing a few wooden canoe’s for my trophy case but the first five trips down the sixteen mile stretch of stream didn’t always go the way I had anticipated.
My third attempt at staying dry was downright embarrassing and humbling. My friend and co-worker Mike Dunn decided to take part in this annual spring adventure by paddling from the bow position. Thanks in part to our friend, local businessman and former Bangor city councilman Dan Tremble who had a weatherworn canoe sitting in his yard with springtime snow still melting on the hull. Certainly not a canoe racer’s dreamboat Mike and I decided to make the best of it.
We threw out the idea of practicing and went with a simple “try and stay dry” mentality. Sunny skies prevailed from the start of the race and the first ten miles from Kenduskeag village to six mile falls went by without any mishaps’. As we approached the falls I (the stern man) became… well …undecided. At the top of six mile falls I somehow turned the canoe sideways.
Big mistake! It only had taken a quick couple of seconds to watch the boat fill up with fast-flowing stream water. With the open side of the boat facing upstream the bottom of the boat was pinned against the end of a very large limb. The weight of the water-filled weather-worn canoe was to much to bare and both Mike and I to this day can still hear the POP!
I wrapped my Gortex* jacket around the punctured canoe and thirty minutes after our mishap we were able to make it to dry land where our day ended. Thanks to my dad’s Macgyver-like skills he was able to repair the canoe. The only problem for me was that I was unable to find matching paint from the Old Town factory so the ongoing joke for many years between me and Mr. Tremble has been that I borrowed his blue canoe but returned it green.
From Barbara Bentley
My mother’s love affair with the Kenduskeag Stream – well, almost any stream, for that matter – might make a good story. Whit McEvoy (1917-2001), long time resident of Bangor, was among those canoe enthusiasts who founded the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society and then explored the streams of Maine in about every season – in the winter, they were on skates. I recently unearthed five of her trophies from the Kenduskeag Race (1971, 1977, 1983, 1984, 1985). She had her regular canoe partners; but if one of them failed her due to other commitments, she drafted one of her four children – each of whom had done time as her bow over the years.
When she and I combined forces in the race, we were in the Century Class (our ages adding up to more than 100), and we always got a trophy, if not due to our prowess, then to the few entires in the class. Her interest in water levels, year round, necessitated trips stream-side, detours to streams not on our route, and much speculation as to what it would be like on race day. What route would we take through Six Mile Falls, the site of endless practice sessions? Picture her four children in various crafts and at various levels of competence making trips down the falls, hauling canoes back up, over and over again. Wet and often chilly, to boot.
From Steve and Jocelyn Hatch, Clinton
In the spring of 2002 our youngest daughter [Jocelyn] and I [Steve] decided to try the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.
We made some practice runs on sections of the Sebasticook River to get comfortable in the tandem kayak.
The evening before the race, she called and suggested that we get helmets for the race. She thought these were required for anyone paddling a kayak.
Someone must have been looking out for her because at Six Mile Falls we became lodged between rocks and were run over by a canoe.
The canoe rode up over us and struck her in the head. I had attempted to push the canoe away but was too late.
Fortunately, we were bruised and wet but otherwise OK. The helmet had no doubt saved her from a more serious injury.
The guys in the canoe found our number and called to make sure she was OK.
The collision made the front of BDN on April 22, 2002.
Just one of many classic happenings at Six Mile.