June 23, 2018
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Owen, Stearns families celebrate paddling tradition

Michele Barker Photography, www.mbarkerphotos.com | BDN
Michele Barker Photography, www.mbarkerphotos.com | BDN
Paddlers representing two families of avid canoeists participate in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race on April 19. The Owen and Stearns families have been paddling together for nearly half a century, and this 10-person war canoe held racers age 17 to 80.Michele Barker Photography, www.mbarkerphotos.com
By Bucky Owen, Special to the BDN

This year’s Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race marked a special event for two ardent canoeing families in central Maine, the Owens and the Stearnses. We met almost 50 years ago in 1968 when our children ranged from 1 to 8. We paddled together that summer with the youngest napping in the bow!

Bill and Fern Stearns attended the first Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race in 1967, where Bill was the unofficial safety crew of one below Flour Mill (now a mandatory portage), which earned him a place on the Race Committee for 40 years until his untimely passing four years ago.

During the winter of 1969 both families were part of a small group to begin the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society, of which they are still members. Over the winters of 1970 and ’71, Bill located a canoe mold in Boston, moved it to the Owen barn in Orono and club members built some 25 “club” canoes. We had help from Lou Gilman, from Rivers and Gilman, and Irma Parent, from Old Town Canoe, during the construction. Some of those canoes are still plying Maine waters!

Over the years, the two families went on scores of canoe trips across the state, from the Saco, Androscoggin and Kennebec to the St. John, Allagash and St. Croix to the Machias, Narraguagus and Union, to the Upper and Lower Dead, and many more. Some outings were camping trips, others day trips, and many became annual events. We also participated in and helped run years of races around the state and beyond.

Now the second generation has taken over this role and the third generation already has several years of competition under its belt. Next year two will be old enough to compete in the Kenduskeag; so watch out family class, here we come!

The year 2014 was special, as we were able to place 10 members of the two families in a 28-foot war canoe. We borrowed one of Mike and B.J. Mayberry’s “River Keepers” canoes that he uses to initiate school kids to paddling and Penobscot River history. It is not light, weighing in at some 300 pounds. Paddling were Fern Stearns and two of her children, Laurie and David, as well as Mike Sproul, Laurie’s husband. Representing the Owen family were Bucky and Sue; their daughter Robin with her husband, Bruce Hogg, and daughter Jenny; and Bucky and Sue’s daughter-in-law Susannah Owen.

Robin, Bruce and Jenny came down from Ontario to join the team and it was Bruce and Jenny’s first canoe race. Ranging in age from 17 to 80, the paddlers represented a combined total of 560 years!

There was a lot of racing history in that canoe. Bill and Fern were perennial mixed class racers, and winners, not for years but for decades. Bucky and Sue raced against them in the mid-1970s but could do no better than second. Twice they matched stroke for stroke for 10 miles but when Bill and Fern hit the white water, they were gone! Laurie and Robin set the C-2 Women’s course record 32 years ago, a record that still stands today. David Stearns, with his partner John Daigle, still holds a course record in the C-2 Long Beginner’s Class.

Bucky was in his 42nd Kenduskeag race, having participated in nine different classes over the years, and currently holds the Golden Class record. Finally, Laurie and Mike are accomplished war canoe paddlers and took over the bow and stern of our 28-footer.

Robin’s brother, Jeff Owen, with his partner Steve Woodard, won the C-2 Men’s Racing Class this year and hold the course record for canoes for the Kenduskeag Race; they are also National White Water Open Canoe champions. Jeff runs a popular canoeing program, called “Go Active,” in the Orono school system.

For the race, we dressed as pirates, eye patches and all, with a pirate flag hanging over the rear and shark teeth on the bow. We growled and roared at everyone we passed both onshore and in boats; it was a blast. When we reached the portage at Six-Mile Falls, the two matriarchs in the boat proceeded ahead along the marked portage trail. A volunteer stepped forward and said, “You can’t be in here, this path is for the racers,” to which our pair replied, “We are racers and grandmothers don’t have to carry canoes on portages!” whereupon the volunteer gleefully escorted our paddlers down the trail.

It is amazing that of 19 open-class boats in our class, we came in third and were the 18th in the entire race. Only four of us had placed a paddle in the water before the race; think what might have happened if we had practiced. Race conditions were perfect for our boat and crew. We were fortunate not to have had to try the bottom two portages; it is doubtful we could have made it.

But at the race’s end spirits were high and all were talking about coming back again next year for another great Kenduskeag Race.


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