Kellen Doyle (left), pictured taking part in the 2017 St. George River Race, is a member of the Orono High School canoe racing team that is helping organize two canoe and kayak racing events this spring. Credit: Micky Bedell

ORONO, Maine — When word came that the Machias River Canoe Race needed a new director a few years back, Orono’s Jeff Owen knew what he and the Orono High School canoe racing team that he coaches had to do.

“It’s just such a special place that I said, ‘We’ll do it,’ just so we didn’t lose it,” Owen said. “It’s a beautiful experience.”

And during that same time period, when another race fell by the wayside, he had the same response.

“Sprint racing is really fun, and most of the time, there have traditionally only been two opportunities to sprint race on rivers in Maine — on the Souadabscook and Marsh Stream,” Owen explained. “They started cancelling the sprints on the Sou, so we lost one of those opportunities … so I got the team interested in using the Shopping Cart rapid [on Kenduskeag Stream] in Bangor [to stage another sprint race].”

Neither of those races, mind you, are in Orono, and both require plenty of advance planning by team members and their parents. But for Owen, teaching young paddlers how to plan events of their own is a good way to show them how much work is involved in any big event.

“I want the kids to understand what it takes to put on an event, and what kind of consideration you have to make. And just how labor-intensive it is, because when they go to some other races, I want them to walk up to the race director and shake hands and say, ‘Thank you,’” Owen said. “I want them to know how hard it is to put on events, and to show their appreciation. By doing it themselves and having other people thank them, that’s important.”

Owen’s team, which has 12 participants this year, has special standing: At Orono, canoe racing is recognized as an official varsity sport.

“Two years ago the school administration decided that canoe racing was a legitimate sport and awarded it varsity status,” Owen said. “So we defined criteria associated with how many practices you need to attend, and how many races you need to go to, and that you have to do a certain number of them solo, and a certain number of them with a partner.”

Kellen Doyle, an Orono High senior who has been paddling on the team for four years, said learning to paddle and helping to organize races helps foster an appreciation of a sport he hopes to participate in for the rest of his life.

“It’s laying the foundation, and at least in some of us, a passion that will follow up through as long as we can,” Doyle said. “Any other sport — football, that stops. Baseball, that stops — but paddling you can always just grab a boat and go.”

Sophomore Nolan Mabee, who began paddling when he was 6 and started racing when he was 7, said he likes helping organize races, but does plan on paddling in those races that the team organizes.

“We will have some fun on those races,” Mabee said. “Just watching from the sideline [over the years] I’ve learned to appreciate the people who do the logistics, the timing, a lot. It’s a fairly hard job.”

This year’s team-organized races kick off this week with Friday’s Kenduskeag Sprint in Bangor. The races will take place from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m., and registration will run from noon to 4:30 p.m. The Shopping Cart rapids are located off Harlow Street.

Owen said the timing of the races — a day before the 16-mile Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race — is perfect for offering participants of the longer race a way to gain valuable info about a tricky part of the course.

“The thing we’re really trying to incentivize this year is, a lot of people tip over there on Saturday. If we can say, ‘Hey, come out Friday afternoon, watch a bunch of people do it, figure out what seems to work and what doesn’t, and try it a few times,’” Owen said. “We’ll provide the safety. We’ll time you, if you give a little donation, and we’ll give you a little commemorative race mug. Maybe that will help your Saturday go a little better.”

And on Sunday, April 29, the team will shift its attention to the Machias River Race, which runs from First Machias Lake down to the Route 9 bridge.

“It’s a wilderness experience. You cross under one bridge, Route 9, right at the end. You pass a few fishing camps, but basically it’s a wilderness experience,” Owen said. “You start by going down First Machias Lake, a mile long, then you enter the river and it’s just beautifully wooded, deep, dark, almost black water. You see tons of wildlife, and half an hour into it you get to Carrick Pitch and the adrenaline goes up a little bit. How high depends on the water level.”

An added fringe benefit of the Machias River Race: A post-race cookout, thanks to the generosity of Randy Wadleigh of Governor’s restaurant, who donates much of the food.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...