HAMPDEN, Maine — As class projects go, this one is pretty hard to beat.
Orono High School senior Daniel Lesser and teacher Jeff Owen paddled together in the 34th annual Souadabscook Stream Canoe Race as part of an outdoor club excursion and wound up winning it.
That should earn Lesser a gold star, at the very least.
The pair paddled a medium, two-man canoe entered in the recreational experienced class to an overall best time of 58 minutes, 1 second in the 8-mile race.
Friday’s late rains seemed to help the water level as some paddlers estimated it had risen an inch and a half in less than 24 hours.
“This was a good water level,” said Owen, a longtime river race enthusiast. “It was enough that you could run all the lines we usually run, but not high enough that it was pushy so it was a good day for Dan to learn this course.”
Lesser certainly made the most of his first time on the Souadabscook.
“I had kind of a hectic day,” the 17-year-old Orono resident said. “I did a sprint race with Mr. Owen and got to see the whitewater before doing it, and then we did the short race before the actual canoe race, and we’re also doing the Marsh race Sunday.”
Saturday’s Souadabscook drew 65 entries, up from last year’s field of 56. Overall runner-up status went to Justin Wardwell of Dedham and Clayton Cole of Corinth, who paddled 59:33. The rest of the top five included Sarah and Matt Dingle of Carmel (1:02:16), Bob Martin and Eric Taylor of Dedham (1:02:53) and Laurie Stearns of Brunswick and Mike Sproul of Holden (1:02:59). All of the top five were in canoes.
The annual Souadabscook Sprint races attracted 23 entrants in the morning and 42 more competed in the 8-mile race. Eight entries took part in a special high school-age “short” race in between.
The short race is part of organizers’ efforts to attract younger participants to the annual river races. Owen, a science teacher, is doing his part with his “Go Active” after school club at Orono High.
“We have 15 kids in the club and 10 of them came over to do this today,” he said. “We’ll have 10 more come over and compete in the Marsh race [Sunday] from East Grand High School and we’re hoping to get Brewer High involved, so I think we have momentum going in getting younger people into racing.”
Young and old alike took on the course. It’s a time-honored tradition for many, like longtime friends Ander Thebaud, 44, of Mount Desert and longtime friend Tammy Kelley, 47, of Lamoine.
“Tammy and two old friends kind of got me into it maybe 12 years ago,” said Thebaud. “Now I do most of these races, probably about a dozen or so a year.”
It’s a rite of spring for the pair, who paddle in two or three races a year together.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s fun and the courses change all the time,” said Kelley.
So does the weather.
“Last week we were roasting in the heat, but I do miss the sun. Although today I was still a little overheated,” Kelley added. “When we did the St. George, it was freezing. We even had a little ice on the edges of the paddles.”
Eric Erskine has been paddling in competitive races like the Souadabscook for four years, but only does a couple a year. The 51-year-old from Sidney came up to paddle the sprint races with son Michael, but ended up putting in a lot more time in the stream — figuratively and literally — than he planned.
“I’d never done this race before and I wasn’t planning on it today, but Lisa was looking for someone to paddle with, so I did it,” said Erskine.
Erskine and Lisa Bates, a biologist for the state from Belfast, decided to do the race for the first time, but she didn’t want to go solo.
“My boyfriend, Dan Wagner, is pretty involved in the racing scene. He’s not here today so I thought I’d do one when he couldn’t for a change,” Bates explained. “The flatwater is so long and boring, it’s hard to maintain a cadence or rhythm without getting worn out, but as the river narrows and the rapids come in, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing as much work. I had a blast.”
Bates didn’t even mind the plunge into the river just above Emerson Mill Bridge. Neither did Erskine.
“It wasn’t that bad, but Lisa lost her balance and I went right in behind her,” he said. “That cooled us off. We were totally hot after that long flatwater paddle. I was drenched, but that felt pretty good.”
What didn’t feel good was a low-hanging branch that smacked him square in the face, leaving a vertical stripe of blood on his nose that was clearly visible even after the race was over.
“Guess it’s a battle scar,” he said with a laugh.
The duo would remain in their canoe and away from branches the rest of the way and finish fourth in the OC2 rec-experienced mix class with a time of 1:20:31.
Paddlers navigated the stream in solo canoes, two-person canoes, and kayaks.
Wildlife biologist Kelsey Sullivan used the race to break in a new kayak he bought at Old Town Canoe’s annual sale this week.
“I’ve been paddling off and on for about 20 years, but this is my first race this year,” said Sullivan, who moved to Winterport from Alaska. “I have a 5-year-old and a newborn at home, so I don’t get out to do these too often.”