Come the third Saturday in April, Mainers have begun to believe that their six-month cold season is really, truly over … maybe.
There have been exceptions, of course. Like the year it snowed on the hundreds of paddlers who were racing down the Kenduskeag Stream. Or the year it rained on race participants. Or the other year it snowed.
Regardless of the weather, however, thousands of people will again head for the water on Saturday for the 44th edition of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.
They’ll cheer the winners. They’ll laugh at the swimmers. And they’ll thoroughly enjoy a day that has come to have special meaning in these parts.
“I think it’s ‘the corner,’” said race director Tracy Willette, explaining what the third Saturday in April means to many race participants, and to the fans who line up in huge throngs at popular rapids. “[It’s] that typical corner that you talk about, of finally getting to spring. This year has been unique, obviously, because of the weather we’ve been having. But typically, the canoe race has marked ‘Finally, spring is on the way.’”
This year’s classic will draw hundreds of paddlers who will challenge the 16½-mile course, which weaves its way from Kenduskeag Village to downtown Bangor.
The race begins at 8:30 a.m., with five boats starting per minute. A year ago, 951 paddlers in 510 boats took part in the race.
Willette, the director of the Bangor Parks & Recreation Department, said applications — both paper and on-line — have begun to pour into his office this week.
That trend of late applicants signing up is nothing new, he said.
“The past few years [some participants] have kind of kept an eye on the weather, they’ve watched the water level, and usually we get our recreation, beginner paddlers this week,” Willette said. “Our experienced paddlers have been in for awhile.”
Those watching the weather or the water flow might remain on the fence for the rest of the week, as the conditions of both variables aren’t expected to be optimal.
“Weather looks kind of uncertain for Saturday, but as you know and we’ve seen over the years, you never know what you’re going to get on that third Saturday in April,” Willette said. “Regardless, I’m sure we’ll get a real good crowd.”
And the water? Well, just call it moderately low.
“It’s a little lower than we’ve seen at this particular point of the year [in recent years], but not so low that I think it’s going to be a real challenge,” Willette said. “We’ve had it lower before.”
Willette recalled the 1999 race, during which high tide on the Kenduskeag coincided with the expected finish of many paddlers.
Afraid that paddlers wouldn’t be able to make it underneath the downtown bridges safely, organizers shortened the race by moving the finish line upstream several hundred yards.
That year, despite the fact that the race was shortened due to high water in the downtown canal, the actual flow was at an extremely low level, Willette said.
“It was probably some of the lowest water we’d seen for quite awhile,” Willette said.
Low water, of course, means slow times … and tired paddlers who have worked much harder to travel 16½ miles.
“I didn’t find a whole lot of people arguing about the finish line getting out,” Willette said. “I think a lot of people were ready to get out.”
Willette encouraged prospective paddlers to register for the race as possible, and to avoid registering on race-day if they can.
“The $18 [per paddler] registration fee goes to $35 the day of the race. And we only take race-day registration from 6:30-7:30 a.m.],” Willette said. “You can still go to www.bangorparksandrec.com to register and do that on-line.”
On-line registrants must sign a release form, and can either sign and fax one to the recreation department, or hand-deliver it to the registration table on Saturday.
Registering before 1 p.m. on Friday is advised, because race officials will begin categorizing competitors on Friday afternoon.
“If you come in on Friday afternoon, we don’t charge you the extra fee, but we do consider you a race-day registration, which means you run the risk of starting at the end of the line on Saturday,” Willette said.
For those looking to check out the level of the Kenduskeag before running the race, Willette said a new tool is now available.
An automated water-level gauge now monitors the flow at Six Mile Falls and is accessible via the Internet at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?01037000.
Willette said he was notified of the gauge’s existence a few weeks ago, but has no information on how the gauge height (4.98 feet, as of 2:15 p.m. on Wednesday) compares with the levels in past years.
It is possible, however, to tinker with the chart and look back as much as 120 days. Using that function, the chart shows the Kenduskeag is running lower now than it has in more than three weeks.
In the future, through comparison with past years, that data would become more valuable.
“It’s going to be interesting to look at,” Willette said. “I think it’s going to be good information to have.”