ORRINGTON, Maine — Larry Merrill didn’t set out to set any kind of record, nor to establish the streak that he has. In fact, he was about five years into what has become a 25-year habit before he even realized that he’d paddled his kayak each month — in Maine — no matter the conditions.
On Saturday, Merrill, now 73 years old, pushed his personal streak forward another notch, as he headed out on Sedgeunkedunk Stream for a brisk morning paddle. That outing marked the 301st consecutive month that he’d paddled for at least 20 minutes on Maine water.
“You have to be a certain kind of stupid to do what I do,” Merrill joked before plopping his Baldwin Boat Co. kayak into the water.
Merrill said he began his streak in February 1993, and has been regularly paddling each month since. And though some might think he’s a bit odd, he says paddling in the cold is actually pretty pleasant. And as it turns out, he’s actually pretty picky about the kind of weather he’ll tolerate.
“Twenty degrees has become my minimum. I was out when it was 15 once and the boat was icing up pretty fast and the paddle was getting heavier [because of accumulating ice],” Merrill said. “So I said, ‘Nope.’ Twenty is my limit. I’d prefer sun, but it doesn’t have to be. And not too much wind, preferably.”
Sometimes he paddles longer, and at certain times of the year, he’s actually racing in one of the area’s many canoe and kayak events. But during the winter, some folks think he must be suffering out there in the cold. Not so, he says.
“People think that I’m freezing to death, but I’m more likely to get hot than cold when I do it,” Merrill said.
Merrill is an attorney, and says he’s “semi-retired,” meaning that he gets to take Thursdays off. He said that extending the streak has become a focus, and most years, he doesn’t have much trouble finding at least one day a month to head out.
“Last year, there were two days in February that it would have been possible, really, and I was able to get out on one of those days,” he said. “Usually, December is easy. It’s not necessarily frozen everywhere. January and February are the only tough months. I’ve had to go to salt water a few times to do it in January and February.”
Merrill said he got into kayaking the same way many in greater Bangor did: He met a local paddler named Earl Baldwin, who also built and sold kayaks.
“I bought my first kayak in 1970,” he said. “I bought it from Earl. He talked me into it, naturally. He talked a lot of people into paddling.”
Merrill said he began talking about buying a boat, and then Baldwin got serious about adding another kayaker to the growing community of paddlers.
“He threw a couple of boats on the car and said, ‘Let’s go paddling,’” Merrill said. “So we went paddling. And I said, ‘Yeah, I guess [I’ll buy a boat].”
He hasn’t looked back since, and has been a regular fixture in local races and is still very competitive. A year ago, he was second in his class at the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race in his medium kayak.
“I’m not a great athlete. I’m anything but. But I’m persistent, and I don’t many mistakes paddling,” he said. “You see people going where they should not go, and I don’t do that anymore.”
And though he has tried his hand in open boats a few times, he finds that kayaks suit his personality best.
“I don’t have to worry about anybody else in the boat,” he explained. “I’ve done a few races in canoes and I tend to yell a lot. Usually people paddle with me once in a canoe. That’s about it. In a kayak, I don’t have to worry about that.”
His kayak paddle holds a message, though he’s coy about its meaning. One one paddle blade, bold letters read “PADDLE.” On the other, it says, “HARDER.”
People often ask him if the message is designed as inspiration for himself, or as a taunt aimed at fellow competitors that he’s passing.
Merrill remains coy when responding.
“There’s really no clear answer to that,” he said.
And there’s not really a clear answer to when Merrill’s streak of consecutive months paddling in Maine will end.
“Now that I have the streak, I guess I’ll keep it going as long as I can,” Merrill said. “It will end sometime, obviously. I would prefer that it end the month that I die. But we’ll see. That could be this month. Who knows?”
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