APPLETON, Maine — The St. George River Race marks the start of a new canoe and kayaking season in Maine each year.
The 32nd annual edition of the six-mile journey from Searsmont Village to the Route 105 bridge in Appleton also marked evidence that a new generation of paddlers is finding its way to the sport.
Veteran kayaker Fred Ludwig of Houlton turned in the fastest time from among 110 watercraft and nearly 180 paddlers that finished the race, but at least 20 entries had at least one competitor of high school age or younger.
Twelve participated in the junior-senior 13-16 class in which one of the paddlers was between 13 and 16 years old. Seven others were in the junior-senior 12 and under, while another entry from Orono competed in a separate high school class.
“A lot of us are starting to age out, and we’re just trying to get new, young people into it,” said Dan Merrill of Sandy Point, a drafting and graphic arts teacher at Brewer High School who has helped to promote paddling at his school. “It’s pretty exciting and a lot of fun, better than Wi. It’s a lifetime sport.”
No one in the race was younger than 7-year-old J.D. Burke of Newburgh, who paddled in the bow of his two-person canoe while his father, Jack, worked the stern.
“It was our first race together, though I’ve been doing it since I was 15 so it’s been 20 years for me,” said Jack. “[J.D.] was a little nervous at the beginning and last night he couldn’t sleep. But the first three miles of flat water kind of calmed him down, and then he was all set going through the white water.
“He took one little wave in and said he was a little cold, and he had to take a [bathroom portage], but overall it was as good as we could have expected.”
J.D. was joined in the race by his 9-year-old brother Brady, who teamed up with veteran Clayton Cole of Corinth in the junior-senior 12-and-under class..
“It’s very important for them to be in the outdoors,” said Jack. “As it is now we have a Wi at home but very rarely do they use it. They’re outside playing, they go snowmobiling, they’re going fishing or ice fishing or going down to camp. It’s important for them to do that.”
Ludwig, a multi-time St. George champion who last won the event in 2009 but did not compete here a year ago, was timed in 42 minutes, 3 seconds to finish 14 seconds ahead of defending race champion Ryan Linehan of Westport Island, whose kayak was timed in 42:17.
Third place went to the two-man canoe tandem of Dan Wagner of Belfast and Aaron Cross of Morrill, followed by solo canoeist Barry Dana of Solon (46:39) and the fifth-place canoe team of Dick and Brian Kelley of Brewer (46:50).
Racers had to contend with temperatures in the low- to mid-30s and breezy conditions amid intermittent sunshine, but those were small challenges the paddlers endure for the opportunity to push spring’s meteorological envelope.
“It went great, in fact,” said Al Beeson, a longtime paddler from Bucksport who teamed with Merrill in the two-man recreational canoe class. “Dan and I looked the whole river over, and when we went down the river we didn’t take any lines we thought we’d take. He was going right and I was going left.”
The river’s water level was somewhat low but still provided for fairly forgiving conditions in the rapids, much to the chagrin of river vultures watching near the Ghent Road bridge about midway along the course.
“The water was low so it was a technical run, you really had to look where you were going and pick your spots and try to scoot here and cut back there,” said Merrill.
“But this is our rite of spring,” he added. “This is about our 30th year of doing this, and we wouldn’t miss it for the world. It’s delightful.”