OLD TOWN, Maine — At just 11 years old, Ashton Mabee knows how to get his canoe to go where it ought to go. He knows the strokes, and he knows just what to do when confronted with whitewater and waves as tall as he is.
“Look for the open flat spots,” he said Thursday, while preparing to make his debut at the Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta.
Ashton also is learning that sometimes just getting to the water can be a major struggle. Their canoe isn’t light — and it’s awkward to carry.
“This is the hardest part,” his father, J.R. Mabee of Bangor, said, chuckling as the pair took yet another rest break while carrying their canoe from the parking lot to the river.
Ashton nodded his agreement, reached for a sports drink and took a quick swig before grabbing a rope and continuing the task at hand.
Race time was looming, after all, and it was time to get to work.
This isn’t just a national championship, though. For many — like the Mabees and others — this is a family affair. They travel together and paddle together. This year, it’s Old Town, Maine. Last year, the American Canoe Association staged the nationals on the Nantahala River in North Carolina.
With more than 130 competitors registered for the regatta, which runs through Sunday, several names kept cropping up. There were plenty of McDuffies and Owens and Havens — and Mabees.
On Thursday, J.R. Mabee joined Ashton to take on the 9.5-mile downriver course. That afternoon, Ashton and his 13-year-old brother, Nolan, would compete against other junior paddlers in a shorter race. On the riverbank, J.R.’s wife, Leslie Winchester-Mabee and their daughters — Rheannon, 7, and Adella, 9 — gathered to see their favorite paddlers off.
Leslie also is a top-level paddler, and Rheannon starting racing whitewater with her dad this spring. Her sister paddles in flatwater races at the family’s summer home in Grand Lake Stream.
J.R. Mabee loves the sport and came by his passion the hard way: He survived a chilly introduction to paddling and has never looked back.
“My father said it was pure child abuse,” J.R. Mabee said. “We did the Kenduskeag [Stream Canoe Race] when I was 7 years old, like in 1978. Swam at the end of Pushaw Road, and I remember that it was cold and it didn’t really get me too excited about paddling whitewater.”
A few years later, his dad took J.R. to the Dead River for some paddling, and the then 12-year-old saw the light.
“[It was] summer, when the water was warm … and I was hooked,” he said.
Leslie Winchester-Mabee said the sport has something to offer anyone. If you want to race hard and compete with others, you can do that. If you want to set smaller personal goals, that’s OK. And if you just want to have some fun and get some exercise, that’s an acceptable option.
“It’s a great lifetime activity. You can start at a young age and go through until you’re 100 or older,” she said. “It’s just a great all-around sport for the family.”
She said the family aspect is reflected in the participants at races all year and at the ongoing nationals in Old Town.
“We have great friendships [with other paddlers] that have lasted decades,” she said. “Everybody looks out for each other, and it’s just a great family — a great canoeing family.”
On Thursday, Ashton admitted he didn’t know what to expect in his first national championship race.
“I’m a little nervous, to be honest. Just all the big waves,” he said, holding his hand at shoulder level to show how high some of the waves looked during pre-competition runs down the river.
Although he was nervous, Ashton said the unexpected challenges of a river are part of what appeals to him.
“The chance,” Ashton said. “The balance. There’s a chance that you’ll tip over, and a chance [that you won’t]. You’re taking a risk.”
His older brother also seems to like the riskier side of the sport.
“Basically, what I do is, when I see big waves and I don’t know what to do, sometimes I plunge right in and see what happens. Usually it’s fun. I’ve only tipped over once,” Nolan said.
On Thursday afternoon, his paddling partner might not have appreciated that approach. That partner was Ashton.
Ashton, though younger, would be paddling in the stern of the boat and — according to the plan, at least — would be in charge of the team.
Sometimes that’s the case, Nolan said. And sometimes it’s not.
“[We get along] pretty nicely,” Nolan said. “I’m usually the person in the bow, which means I have to draw [stroke] and stuff like that, to control [the canoe]. If he tells me to do something, I usually listen.”
“What I should say is, when I think it’s going to be wrong, I don’t do it,” Nolan said with a sly grin.
That tactic worked out just fine later Thursday, as the brothers teamed up to finish second among five boats in their youth downriver race.
Leslie Winchester-Mabee said allowing Ashton to run the show from the stern was a natural decision. Even though he’s two years younger, he has more whitewater experience than his brother. That doesn’t mean the change in pecking order is easy for either one.
“It’s really hard, I think, for my older son being in the bow, to give up that control to his younger brother,” she said. “It will be interesting to see.”
Before that afternoon race, J.R. Mabee and Ashton had to complete their own race. Nolan wished them well, then hopped into a raft to help out on one of the race’s safety crews.
A little more than an hour later, the racing Mabees met back up with their own support crew at the finish line. Mom was on hand to give Ashton a quick shoulder massage. The duo accepted congratulations of others and gave them right back to the other paddlers. The Mabees finished second among seven boats in their junior-senior division, just 44 seconds behind William and River McDuffie.
After helping to carry the boat up from the river — a paddler’s work is never done — Ashton said the race had taken a toll.
“Sore. Tired. My hands hurt,” he said, smiling nonetheless.
This is just what Mabees do, you see. And Havens. And Owens. And McDuffies.
They paddle. Together.
And how does participating in the events like this make Ashton feel?
“[Like] part of the family,” Ashton said.