During the spring and summer months, it’s virtually impossible to drive down a highway in Maine and travel more than 10 miles without passing a vehicle with a kayak or two on the roof rack.

Earl H. Baldwin Jr. got into kayaking in an era when people would joke that they didn’t even know what the pointy little boats were. He began building kayaks before anyone really wanted to buy them. And on Tuesday, Baldwin was remembered by fellow paddlers as a kind-hearted visionary who helped introduce the sport to generations of participants in the Bangor area.

Baldwin, who lived in Orrington, died Monday at the home of his daughter, Ellen. He was 87.

He competed in local and national competitions — faring well against athletes much younger than he — until after his 86th birthday.

“He literally was a legend in his own time,” said longtime friend and fellow paddler Dick Hansen of Orrington. “You hear that and it may be kind of trite, but he was known through eastern and northern Maine and even down into New Hampshire, into where they used to race years ago. His name was recognized for a lot of years. It’s the end of an era.”

Baldwin was born May 10, 1924, in Connecticut, and graduated from Maine’s Lincoln Academy in 1941. According to his obituary, which ran in Tuesday’s edition of the Bangor Daily News, he was a World War II veteran who served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific.

Hansen’s description of his friend: “He was very focused. Very generous. Very caring. He could be very set in his ways in some things. But he was very willing to help anybody with anything they needed help with. He was a tireless worker, just an all-around top-notch person.”

Baldwin held several jobs after World War II, but eventually wound up building fiberglass products for industrial applications. That spurred him into trying his hand at building fiberglass boats.

The result: The Baldwin Boat Co., which has been described as an early pioneer in making durable, well-designed boats.

Hansen said he met with Baldwin in 1976 after deciding that he needed to add an upper-body component to his workout regimen. Kayaking might fill the bill, Hansen figured. So he called the man who had been building those boats in an Orrington shop for a decade.

“I said, ‘Do you ever let people paddle those boats?’” the 65-year-old Hansen said. “He said, ‘I’ll meet you at Swetts Pond in an hour.’”

Once at the pond, Hansen took a leisurely paddle with Baldwin, returned to shore, and learned that the day’s activities weren’t finished: Baldwin, some 22 years older than Hansen, challenged him to a race.

Baldwin won, but Hansen was hooked on paddling. And for years, the duo lined up beside each other at local races in Baldwin Downriver kayaks.

Hansen chuckles at the memory.

“It was several years [before I beat him in a race],” Hansen said. “He was very good at reading the water and very good at pacing himself. And he was very good at encouraging others to come out there.”

Hansen said at one point more than 20 years ago, he and some other paddlers joined forces (without the boat maker’s knowledge) and formed “Team Baldwin.” They did some planning, visited a local screen printer, and had sweatshirts made up. Then, on the morning of that year’s Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, they unveiled the shirts to their mentor.

He loved them.

“So anybody who bought a Baldwin boat, if they purchased one from him or anyone else, any time they ever beat Earl Baldwin he would buy and present them a Team Baldwin sweatshirt,” Hansen said.

While known as a paddler, he gained notice early on as a boat maker, Hansen said. The kayak that folks talked about, he said, was the same model that he had shown to Hansen that day on Swetts Pond.

“The Baldwin Downriver was his real claim to fame,” Hansen said. “It was just a great boat. It’s short, so it’s maneuverable. It’s got a shallow V-hull, so it’s stable. It’s got a fairly flat keel-line, so it travels through the water fairly straight. Stability, speed, comfort. And speed translates into ease of paddling.”

Fred Ludwig of Houlton is a competitive kayaker who has been one of the state’s best for years. Ludwig has said he learned years later that his first time in a kayak — at a western Maine summer camp when he was 14 — he paddled what he now calls “an Earl boat.” He said Baldwin’s longevity in the sport was amazing.

“Aging didn’t seem to affect Earl,” Ludwig said. “I’m getting a little older here — I’m 51 — and I’ve got all these aches and pains and I wonder, ‘Am I going to be able to paddle hard this upcoming season in my 50s? But we always look at Earl and he was the same every year, whether he was 50 or 60 or 70 or 82.”

Ludwig said Baldwin was generous with other paddlers. Baldwin put up Ludwig and his wife when they couldn’t find lodging on one trip to Bangor, and was eager to offer helpful advice to anyone who sought it.

“He was a great one for answering questions. If you wanted to know anything about boats, he would take as much time as it took to answer your questions,” Ludwig said. “He was certainly a great ambassador for the sport.”

Tracy Willette, director of the Bangor Parks and Recreation Department, met Baldwin several years ago, as the department directed the annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. Baldwin was on the race’s organizing committee, and Willette said others held him in high esteem.

“Earl had a tremendous impact on the paddling community, just from the work that I knew that he did as part of his association with the canoe race,” Willette said. “[He was] quiet, but certainly when the time came to offer an opinion, he was there with it.”

Family and friends may visit 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, at Kiley & Foley Funeral Services, 69 State Street, Brewer. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 27, at Orrington Center Church, 468 Dow Road, Orrington. Burial will be in the spring at Hall Descendants Family Burial Ground, Nobleboro. Instead of flowers, donations are encouraged to be made to Hall Descendants, Inc., Endowment Fund, 280 Lower Dedham Road, Holden, 04429.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...