WALDO, Maine — There was an unpredictable flavor to Saturday’s 39th annual Passagassawakeag River Race.
Never before had what normally is a downriver trek from Waldo to Belfast also included some upstream paddling, but the need for race director Dale Cross to both shorten the route and make it an out-and-back course due to low water levels gave competitors the rare chance to pass each other while heading in opposite directions and have to deal with an occasional traffic jam while searching for the shortest, quickest path to the finish line.
For the most part it was all in good fun, as 134 paddlers navigating 81 watercraft made the best of a spring day in the outdoors amid the unusual racing circumstances.
“We were fairly fortunate,” said Dan Merrill of Sandy Point, who teamed with Bucksport’s Al Beeson to finish second in the two-person century recreational canoe class. “We were early going down river and coming back people stayed to the right and we were on our right and I thought it went very smoothly.
“Kudos to Dale Cross for setting up a quick-thinking run for us today because of the low water situation. It really was thinking outside the box and I think we all had fun.”
Solo kayaker Jeff Sands of Bangor turned in the day’s fastest time of 32 minutes, 45 seconds on the revised course, which was approximately 4 miles long and required a mandatory portage midway through the return trip to the finish line at the Poors Mill Road bridge.
The father-and-son canoe team of Jeff and Tommy Owen of Orono finished second in 34:38, edging third-place kayaker Ray Wirth of Belfast by five seconds.
“There was traffic both ways and that made it kind of fun,” said Wirth. “There was one area where I did lose some time. It was a set of riffles and I had gathered up speed to come through it and all of a sudden three canoes were coming down the other way so I had to stop, drift backward and get out of my boat so I lost some time.”
The canoe tandem of Gary Martin of Hampden and Matt Morin of Orrington placed fourth overall in 35:08, while two teams of Orono High School paddlers, Christopher Introne and Dan Perry and Ben Koehler and Schuyler Collett, tied for fifth in 35:13.
“We hoped we would get a lot of crafts and we did have a lot for a day like today with the low water the way it is,” said Cross, executive director of the race-hosting Waldo County YMCA.
“We had plenty of paddlers and the course was awesome. Everybody passed each other on the right side, or they tried to. Going downstream was really cool, with the water we let out (via a temporary dam) the drop was not crazy great but there was enough water to get down over it, and then coming back up stream was a real challenge. It was really hard work, the portage was hard work, and overall I think the racers were very pleased with what happened.”
Few — if any — of the participants had previous experience on such an out-and-back course.
“Pacing yourself was a challenge because usually you can work really hard on the flat water and catch your breath a little in the white water,” said Wirth. “I worked the downstream course really hard, but when I turned around there was even a little more current than there was (Friday). I was surprised at the difficulty of coming back up stream.”
And while there was an occasional clash for a particular spot on the course, the paddlers quickly adapted to cope with the congestion before much time was lost.
“We thought we were going to run into people but in all the tight areas we were alone so we were lucky,” said Beeson. “Plus with the people in front of us, what they did we did.
“It was a lot of hard work, but of course that’s why we come out here, to get a little exercise and enjoy the weather.”