SEARSMONT, Maine — In their years of paddling together, Barry and Lori Dana of Solon have overcome plenty of obstacles, and have established themselves as perennial favorites on the local whitewater racing scene.
But the veteran canoeists were in for a surprise shortly after beginning the 37th annual St. George River Race — the first of the racing season — on Saturday.
“We found a beaver dam, and we got quite hung up on it and we wasted about a minute and a half trying to paddle backward into the current,” Lori Dana explained. “We got out of it by grabbing the beaver sticks and alders along the side and pushing off the bottom to get backwards enough to get our bow around it.”
Barry Dana said he’d heard some chatter about the beaver dam just before the start, but didn’t realize how much of an obstacle it would present.
“[Nobody said] that right around the next corner, a 90-degree corner, you’re going to be facing a 3-foot opening [in a beaver dam], but all of the current’s going hard right,” Barry Dana said.
The Danas recovered after that, finishing the six-mile course in 50 minutes, 36 seconds. Rod McLain was the speediest canoeist, finishing the course in 50:15, while Paul Cole and Clayton Cole, who also encountered some trouble when they became stuck on a rock at one point, finished in 52:05.
Ben Randall posted the fastest kayak time of the day, 46:22, while Hank Thorburn was the second kayaker across in 46:51, and Ray Wirth posted a time of 47:54. In all, 86 boats started the race.
Race director Dale Cross was among those chuckling about the beaver dam after the race.
“I’ve been working against the beaver all week, but the beaver, I think, won,” Cross said. “We try not to disturb the river too much. We try to make it so you can get down through. But this beaver, … is working very hard. Harder than I was.”
The Danas said other paddlers were considerate as they passed, recognizing that the duo was struggling to get back upstream so that they could swing their bow into the correct position.
Cross said that while a nuisance to some, he didn’t think the dam was enough of an impediment to actually remove because of safety considerations.
“We had a couple people caught up in that spot, but it wasn’t dangerous, So I left it alone,” Cross said.
Barry Dana was still smiling after a race, and said he takes a philosophical approach to the sport. Good, clean competition is what paddling is all about. And he said it’s all he’s ever known.
“I grew up on Indian Island, Penobscot Nation, and canoeing was life, Barry Dana said. “Canoeing was a religion, and you got started young. If you had a two-by-four, that was your paddle. It didn’t matter. You can’t put two boats in the water without, all of a sudden, there’s a race.
“So having been brought up in that culture, we look at it like this: You give it 100 percent to honor the sport, to honor yourself, and your competitors. If they beat you, that’s great, because they made you go better,” he said.
A year ago, the St. George River Race was postponed a week because on its scheduled date, the river was still frozen.
This year, there was no ice, and the river was lower than average. A weather forecast that called for temperatures near 50 came up about 10 degrees short, but the sun was shining for most of the race.
Cross will take that kind of weather.
“It’s definitely a canoe day in March: You never know what you’re going to get,” Cross said. “You could get snow and rain. Rain’s really bad. At least it’s sunny out.”
Brian Foley of Orono headed to Searsmont early on Saturday to scout the river, and had a full day planned. After the race, the avid fly fisherman said he’d spend the rest of the day on the water, both on the St. George and in other top secret haunts, in search of trout.
“Once I get dried out and changed and maybe have a snack, I’m gonna start fishing,” Foley said.
During most years, the St. George River is one of few in the state that is legally open for fishing in late March, and Foley often fishes after participating in the race. This year, because the start of fishing season was moved forward two weeks due to mild weather, Foley has many more options.
“Now that the season’s open, I can fish any stream in the neighborhood, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Foley said. “There’s a lot of streams between here and Orono, and I’m going to hit two or three of them and see if I can’t pick up some wild trout. I won’t make it home until dark-thirty tonight.”