APPLETON, Maine — Hundreds of people flocked to the rural riverfront between downtown Searsmont and the Route 105 bridge here Saturday, grateful for the chance to observe what they hoped would be the belated meteorological kickoff to a spring the calendar said should have started weeks ago.
Some were busy navigating the 101 canoes and kayaks that left the starting line for the 35th annual St. George River Race.
Others were cast as “river vultures,” perhaps hoping to see friends or family members take a chilly spill amid the whitewater along the six-mile route, though for most the main goal was to savor a sun-splashed afternoon in the wake of what almost universally is being considered the longest winter in recent memory.
“What a great way to celebrate the beginning of spring, just perfect,” said Doug Fox of Unity, who completed the race in a two-person canoe with his son Silas, a senior at Mount View High School in Thorndike. “The water level was just right, nice and fast. We could use some more practice, but we did all right.”
Less hospitable weather had pushed back the start of Eastern Maine’s canoe and kayak season, particularly lingering ice that forced the postponement of the St. George race for eight days and the cancellation of what was to have been the 41st annual Passagassawaukeag River Race in Belfast.
“Everyone had been waiting and waiting and waiting,” said St. George race director Dale Cross. “This is a week later than usual and we miss not having the Passy race, but just to get out and into some good water like we had today, I don’t know where else you could do it in the state of Maine right now. People were really excited to get out.”
Times were fast on the swift water, which was considered at a near-perfect level by veteran and younger paddlers alike.
“It was beautiful,” said Dan Littlefield of Belfast, who has competed in this race since its inception and made this year’s run with John Goulet of Holden. “The water level was a little higher than normal; I don’t think we touched a rock the whole way. There were a lot of waves, but we ran clean through them and had a good clean run.”
Kayaker Ray Wirth of Belfast won the race for the second straight year with a clocking of 39 minutes, 1 second. The canoe team of Mark Ranco and Chris Francis of Bangor finished second in 40:30, followed by a tie for third between the canoe tandem of Barry and Lori Dana of Solon and kayaker Hank Thorburn of Harpswell, both timed in 41:12.
But the festive mood of virtually all who took part in the event suggested that success on this day was not being measured by a stopwatch.
“Just paddling kind of reminds me of the warm weather to come,” said 18-year-old Sammi Nadeau, an Orono High School senior who teamed with classmate Kailey Schmidt to run the St. George for the fourth straight year.
Nadeau and Schmidt are gearing up to defend their 2013 ACA Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver National Championship in the girls ages 16-18 division come mid-June in North Carolina.
“We went pretty hard in the flatwater, nice and clean,” said Schmidt of the St. George race. “We ran the lines very cleanly compared to [a practice run] Friday. We took our time in the whitewater and tried to stay as dry as possible and then tried to make up our time in the flatwater.”
The event also received some national attention as Evan Olmsted, a Farmington-based cameraman for the Animal Planet cable television series “North Woods Law,” shot video of race competitor Aaron Cross for an episode of the show based on the Maine Warden Service that is set to begin its new season May 29.
Cross, a game warden and the son of the race director, has been a regular participant in the St. George race and was competing this year with his cousin Andrew.
“There was a little extra incentive to keep the [two] GoPro cameras in the boat relatively dry,” he said. “I’m probably not worth enough to replace those cameras, and we did OK at keeping them dry.
“The water was unbelieveable. The rocks are covered up, the waves weren’t gigantic so it was relatively safe for everyone. It was perfect, I think.”