BANGOR, Maine — One of Maine’s rites of spring came face-to-face with mid-summer water conditions Saturday.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Don Grant of Georgetown, who has served as the race starter for the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race for the past 43 years. “I’ve never seen it even close to being this low.”
And while the finishing times for this 46th annual event suggests Mother Nature was the ultimate winner, the competitors who ventured the 16.5 miles from Kenduskeag village to downtown Bangor — albeit perhaps more fatigued than in other years when rushing water provided much of their acceleration — made the best of the situation.
“You’ve just got to keep going with it,” said Bruce Weik of Freedom. “It’s still a great way to get in shape.”
A field of 310 watercraft and 573 paddlers registered for the race, but of those that registered only 278 watercraft started the race and just 227 finished.
But at least one thing was no different than in recent times, as Trevor MacLean of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, won for the fifth consecutive year and eighth time overall.
The 35-year-old MacLean completed his run in 3 hours, 6 minutes and 2 seconds, well ahead of the two-man canoe tandem of Doug Archibald of Enfield and Gary Stellpflug of Southwest Harbor (3:27:51).
“We had an early spring, the thaw came early and we haven’t had any rain for a long time so the handwriting was kind of on the wall,” said MacLean. You’re optimistic and think there will be enough water and it won’t be that bad, but it was pretty bad.”
Evidence of just how slow this year’s course proved to be was that MacLean’s time was more than an hour slower than his 2011 winning time of 1:59:35, and 1:15:54 slower than the race record of 1:50:08 set by Robert Lang in 1997.
“It was very challenging,” said MacLean. “Usually the upper 10 miles is very smooth with a couple of rapids but with no rocks, and it isn’t until from Six Mile Falls down that you have to worry.
“This year there were rocks everywhere. It was slow right from the get-go, people were hitting rocks right under the bridge at the start line. There were obstacles all over, and I was probably 45 minutes slower than any other year I’ve done it.”
MacLean’s time also is believed to be the slowest overall winning time in race history, topping the 2:52:53 set by the team of Sam Stoddard and Jim Robbins in 1967 — the inaugural year of the event.
“Every race is going to be different. Ideally with perfect conditions you’d be going for the fastest time and the record,” said MacLean. “Today was just about making it down the river.”
MacLean and many of the other starters had to contend with an early traffic jam as racers ran aground just after leaving the starting line at the Mystic Tie Grange.
“It gave you a pretty good idea of what to expect when you’d see people get hung up at the starting line,” said veteran paddler Clayton Cole of Corinth, who described the water as the lowest he’s seen in more than 20 years as a participant in the crown jewel of the state’s downriver racing season.
“About 200 yards down the river there was a river-wide ledge, and we got to that and there were probably 10 or 12 boats hung up on it. We knew that was going to happen so we had a plan. We just got near the shore, jumped out and ran past it.”
MacLean wasn’t as fortunate.
“The first couple of corners were really shallow and the boats were getting bunched up quite early on so that creates quite a bit of traffic,” he said. “I think on the second or third corner someone came right over the back of my boat so I thought, ‘That’s different.’
“It was a bit of bumper boats with some other people in traffic early on, but you get through it and then I was on my own for most of the way down.”
MacLean had to get out of his kayak occasionally after taking on water due to leaks caused by that early collision as well as subsequent scrapes with the rocks.
He also left his kayak to portage at Six Mile Falls and two subsequent mandatory portages as well as a few times along the latter stages of the course after his watercraft touched bottom.
“The boat definitely took some damage, I had to stop and empty it a couple of times,” said MacLean. “I’m sure I’ve got some holes in it. She’s pretty beat up and I think I am, too.”
The two-man canoe team of Cole and Justin Wardwell of Hampden finished third overall in 3:29:39.
“I thought if we could finish in about three hours I’d be happy, and we finished in 3:29,” said Cole. “We actually got to Six Mile Falls in two hours and five minutes and I thought maybe we could be close to three hours, but the last six miles took a while.”
Kayakers Weik (3:32.06) and Ray Wirth of Belfast (3:36:47) rounded out the top five.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of members of the Oleksyk family in a photo.