Jeff Owen of Orono has spent thousands of hours in canoes in his lifetime, and figures he has participated in 35 Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Races over the years, since first racing with his mom in 1978. This year, the 53-year-old Owen will be back at it, competing in the race’s 53rd edition.
On Tuesday, the BDN asked Owen a series of questions designed to shed a little light on the venerable race, in hopes that both non-paddling spectators and first-time racers might learn a few valuable lessons they can use on race day.
Owen serves as the youth coordinator for the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization, is coach of the Orono High School canoe racing team, and is president of Orono Paddlers. Here’s what he had to say, edited for clarity and space:
BDN: Let’s start off by talking about issues that apply to participants of the race. What are a couple of things you wish you’d known when you started paddling the Kenduskeag?
Owen: Add floatation bags to your boat, and make sure they’re securely attached so they can’t possibly “billow up” when water gets into the boat.
Second, make sure to have safety ropes attached to both your bow and stern. Make them eight or 10 feet long. Make sure they don’t have any knots in them. And loosely coil them and loosely tape them to the inside of the hull. This makes them readily accessible if they’re needed while also preventing them from being tangled around your feet in the boat.
Third, learn to use your paddle to keep the boat upright. Keep your hands on the paddle, and use it to keep your balance.
BDN: Are there ways for paddlers to address particularly troublesome spots that they may not be familiar with?
Owen: Practice Six Mile Falls ahead of time, in particular to explore more than one route through it. Often the route you chose ahead of time has a boat in it when you get there in the race and having alternate routes can save your day.
Also, participate in the Kenduskeag Sprints through Shopping Cart [rapids] on Friday afternoon. Shopping Cart comes very near the end of the race, after 15 miles of paddling and two portages. Your arms are toast by the time you get to Shopping Cart. Use the sprints the day before to learn the lines when there is safety [personnel] present. Your day on Saturday may well go better as a consequence, and you will have supported the students of the Orono High School canoe racing team, [which organizes the sprints].
BDN: Big question: Eat breakfast at the Mystic Tie Grange before the race, or not? (As it turns out, this year’s breakfast will be held across the road from the grange hall, at a church)
Owen: It’s tradition for a lot of people to eat at the grange, but I don’t. I use that time to scout and prep the boat.
BDN: What do you expect for water conditions this year? How does the race change, or should paddlers change their plans, when water is at this level?
Owen: I think we’ll have pretty good water this year. It’s high right now with the race only four days away. Even if it drops a foot each day it will still be a nice, medium level.
If I’m right about the level, it makes for nearly ideal conditions for the general public to participate — enough water to cover up many of the rocks and make more routes available through the rapids, but not high enough to get those really big, pushy and wet wave trains.
BDN: If I was a first-time paddler, what would be the worst thing I could do while competing in the race?
Owen: The worst thing is to underestimate how cold you can get this time of year if and when you take a swim and/or get a lot of splash. It is essential to plan ahead for getting warm and dry. Be sure to leave lots of warm clothes in a vehicle at the finish. Be sure to dress properly for the race, as shorts and a T-shirt are never the right idea, even if it is sunny and warm. And maybe even put some clothes in a dry bag and bring them in the boat with you.
BDN: Conversely, what would be the first-time paddler’s best move?
Owen: Pay attention. In many ways, your day can be made more likely to go well if you pay attention to details.
BDN: Now, let’s ask some questions that will help spectators. What’s the best “least-known” place for spectators to watch the race?
Owen: Probably Shopping Cart.
BDN: You’ve probably had spectators yell all kinds of things to you during the race. What should we avoid saying? What would you rather we say?
Owen: Just cheer. Cheer when we swim. Cheer when we almost swim. Cheer when we make it cleanly. Just cheer!
BDN: If you were to play the role of a spectator rather than a paddler, how would you go about watching the race?
Owen: I’d watch at Shopping Cart, from right down by the water. There’s lots to be learned there by noticing what things tend to lead to success through rapids, and what things tend to lead to swims.
BDN: Finally, for you personally, what’s your favorite part of this race, and what keeps you coming back?
Owen: It’s a big event, with the sheer number of paddlers and spectators making it very special.
It’s a long race, with endurance beginning to make a difference.
It has it all — flatwater, whitewater and portages — and to be successful a paddler has to be good at it all.
It has traditions, and I love traditions.
No single thing makes this race special. It’s just an awesome package!