Standing on an inflatable board, Christopher Strout dipped a long paddle into the frothing water and pushed his way into Six Mile Falls, a famous white-water section of the Kenduskeag Stream. From his vantage point above the water, he could see the rocks and the line of current he aimed to follow.
“It was hit or miss,” said Strout of Bar Harbor. “I’d make it a couple times [without falling], and then I wouldn’t make it five or six times.”
On Friday, Strout ran Six Mile Falls at least 30 times before calling it a day — all in preparation for the 47th Annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.
Saturday morning, Strout pinned the number six on his lifejacket and became the sole stand-up paddle boarder competing in the largest paddling event in New England, 16.5 miles on the Kenduskeag Stream from the town of Kenduskeag to the heart of downtown Bangor.
“White-water stand-up paddle boarding is new, and it’s not an easy thing to do,” said Strout. “I have scrapes on my knuckles from Friday — like 10 on one hand — but it’s a total thrill.”
The excitement of fighting through rapids wasn’t the only reason Strout chose to enter the open class in the Kenduskeag race. As the owner of the 2-year-old company Acadia SUP, he aims to raise public awareness of stand-up paddle boarding (commonly abbreviated as “SUP”), a sport that has skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade.
“I’m trying to raise the collective consciousness of people that paddle boarding is here, and yeah, it is fun – but that doesn’t mean you have to take a board down the Kenduskeag,” Strout said.
Strout founded Acadia SUP in 2011 and operates out of Bar Harbor, offering lessons and tours on a number of pristine lakes and ponds, as well as the ocean. He also rents and sells SUPs from a space shared with Acadia Mountain Guides at 228 Main Street in Bar Harbor.
A Kenduskeag native, Strout has been paddling canoes and kayaks since he was a teenager; some of his best memories are of river trips with his friends in the north Maine woods.
“The Kenduskeag Race was something I grew up with,” he said. “I remember watching people go down the falls and thinking that’s the coolest thing ever.”
For the Kenduskeag, Strout selected an inflatable paddle board suited for white water because he planned to run the rapids, where crowds gather to watch elaborately-dressed paddlers run (or swamp their boats in) the tumultuous currents.
One of Strout’s biggest challenges was muscling his relatively short paddle board along 10 miles of flat water at the beginning of the race.
“It was cool during the first stretch just chatting with people,” said Strout. “People would say things like, ‘Wow I’ve never seen that before,’ ‘That’s so cool,’ or ‘That’s crazy.’”
Strout was first introduced to SUP in 2008 while working at a kayak shop in Hawaii. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2011, while he was working for a kayaking company in Washington, D.C., that he got hooked and became friends with a group of people involved in white-water SUP.
“I got on a board, and for some reason, it connected with me different than kayaking,” he said. “I think what I love about it is that it’s pretty easy to learn. Most people can be up and standing on a board in less than 20 minutes and doing OK.”
“A lot of people have the misconception that they’re going to fall a lot,” he said. “I generally try to get people to fall into the water for the fun of it. It you fall in, it’s really easy to get back on the board.”
SUP appeals to different people for different reasons, Strout explained, and the white-water SUP crowd is small. On Mount Desert Island, he brings his clients to calm water and has noticed that many are interested in the fitness aspect of the sport.
“If it’s an activity that gets people turned on to being fit, in shape and outside, I think it’s a really positive thing,” Strout said. “Paddle boarding has turned me on to getting out more than I already did.”
A Maine Master Guide in sea kayaking and recreation, Strout has been guiding since 2002 and is also an ACA Level II SUP Instructor and a Wilderness First Responder.
This is the first year he has entered any of Maine’s white-water races. He considered it last year, but decided the water level was too low to safely run a board through rapids.
“A lot of it has to do with water levels, but also just the nature of paddle boards,” said Strout. “They have the fins on the bottom of them, and when you hit a rock, they get caught up. They don’t just slide over like a boat.”
Earlier this spring, Strout competed in the shorter Passagassawakeag River Race in Waldo to test his skills on Class I-III rapids.
Despite all his preparation, Strout ran into trouble at Six Mile Falls on Saturday.
“I went over the falls, and I gave the river vultures a show,” Strout said.
The fin of his board broke at the top of the falls, then caught a rock farther along, spinning his board to the side. Strout was flung into the frigid water, but he soon retrieved his board by the leash tied around his waist. Minutes later, he was standing up and paddling downstream.
He finished the race in the middle of the pack, with a time of 3 hours, 53 minutes and 43 seconds.
“A lot of the excitement for me was not to compete and win, but to give a little bit of a show and introduce people to something new,” Strout said.
Spectators may see him paddling at other Maine river races held throughout the spring, depending on water conditions, but soon, he plans to be busy with SUP lessons and tours.
“Paddle boarding is in that really crazy growth stage where you don’t really know where it’s going to go yet,” Strout said.
In addition to two-hour introductory lessons for small groups, he leads SUP yoga, advanced coaching, downwinders and extended tours. Clients can book lessons through an online calendar at www.acadiasup.com or by calling 610-2970.
“I’d be happy to return your phone call when I get off the water,” he said.