APPLETON, Maine — Two related topics dominated the post-race talk at Saturday’s 33rd St. George River Race.

One was what the paddlers described as “bony” conditions, which describes a paucity of water in what normally are rapids that forces canoeists and kayakers into a lot of maneuvering to avoid uncovered rocks or to prevent the boat from grounding itself to a stop.

The second topic resulted from unsuccessful attempts to overcome the first — leaving the canoe or kayak’s paint behind on those pesky rocks.

“Most of the time the rocks stuck out enough,” said 18-year-old Elijah Hughes, who was making his competitive canoeing debut along with partner Mike Risinger of Newburgh, a veteran of previous St. George races. “but some of them caught us by surprise.”

“We made quite a few of those rocks green.”

That Hughes, an 18-year-old senior at Bangor High School, was able to make that statement with a hearty laugh was symbolic of the mood of the day, a lighthearted acceptance of the low water levels amid otherwise sunsplashed conditions with temperatures in the 40s.

That low water, the result of an early snow melt and little recent precipitation, did not deter paddlers from participating in the region’s first downriver race of the season, as the field of 111 watercraft and 190 competitors topped last year’s turnout, according to race director Dale Cross of the Waldo County YMCA.

“It was really rough because it was so shallow, but other than that it was fun,” said Zach Murray, a 15-year-old Orono High School freshman who typified a large contingent of younger paddlers that turned out for the 6-mile journey from Searsmont Village to the Route 105 bridge in Appleton.

Veteran kayaker Fred Ludwig of Houlton scored his 10th career victory in the race with a time of 47 minutes and 29 seconds. But even that time was a reflection of the conditions, for while Ludwig said he thought he was in better physical condition than when he raced here a year ago his time was 5:26 slower than last spring’s 42:03 winning effort.

“I heard some other folks saying it was the lowest they had ever seen it, and I guess I could agree with that,” said Ludwig.

Another solo kayaker, Ray Wirth of Belfast, finished second overall in 50:25, followed by the two-person mixed canoe tandem of Jeff and Katie Owen of Orono in 53:38. Aaron Cross and Cliff Littlefield of Morrill, competing in the two-man recreational canoe class, were fourth overall in 53:42, while Barry and Lori Dana of Solon were fifth in 54:03 while winning in the two-person mixed recreational class.

Ludwig acknowledged he had an advantage over his rivals because he was the first racer to leave the starting line under the Route 131 bridge in Searsmont, thus he didn’t have to deal with any traffic in front of him that might have been struggling with the rocky rapids.

“It makes it a whole lot easier with this water level because at least if you see a place that looks decent you know nobody’s already going to be there plugging the way, while some of my competition who started a little later had to work their way around people,” said Ludwig.

“This year there were really no options, you just had to bide your time until the water was deep enough or wide enough to sneak past somebody.”

Even Ludwig found himself stuck briefly between rocks just south of the Ghent Road bridge near Robbins Lumber Inc. that serves as a prime vantage point for river vultures.

But instead of the usual revelry associated with watching boats overturn amid fast-moving white water at that locale, onlookers had to settle for watching experienced and novice paddlers alike try to avoid getting stuck in the rocks or grounding their boats.

“This is the lowest I’ve ever seen here,” said Risinger. “If you see a rock in the water you’ve got to do everything you can to avoid it, otherwise you’re going to be on it and you’re going to be stopped. That’s the way it was with us.”

The lower and slower water made the race as much a mental challenge as it was a physical test, Ludwig said.

“You can’t relax the whole time down, not because of the water but because there are so many rocks,” he said. “When you got around one rock you couldn’t really say ‘phew,’ because there was another rock five feet ahead and you might have to change direction. You’re zig-zagging the whole time because there just was no going straight ahead.

“It was more of a mind game today. Everybody had trouble, you just tried to have less trouble than everyone else.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...