Kell Fremouw braces with his paddle during a preparation run on the Kenduskeag Stream Wednesday afternoon. Fremouw, an Orono High School senior, and other members of the school’s canoe racing team made a practice run from Six Mile Falls to the Flour Mill rapid in preparation for Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race that will be held this weekend. Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

Come this time of year in this neck of the woods, you’ll often hear one version or another of a common refrain. With apologies to Johnny Cash, the question of the week goes something like this: “How high’s the water?”

That’s because it’s race week, and on Saturday morning, hundreds of paddlers will line up for the 53rd annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, a 16-mile trip from Kenduskeag Village to downtown Bangor that includes 10 miles of flatwater, some eye-opening rapids, and a visual spectacle for thousands of once-a-year canoe-racing fans.

On Tuesday, the Kenduskeag’s water level peaked at 2,850 cubic feet per second at the U.S. Geological Survey station just downstream from Six Mile Falls. That level is high — above the 75th percentile for levels on that date historically.

The view at Six Mile Falls was intimidating, with few rocks in sight in the heavy flow.

And on Thursday afternoon, concerns about safety at high tide prompted race organizers to change the finish line from its traditional downtown location to a spot off Valley Avenue just below the Shopping Cart rapids.

But the stream can drop rapidly, and as of Wednesday morning, it was running at 2,500 at the station, about six inches lower than it had at its peak.

Jeff Owen, a veteran paddler from Orono who has competed in the race about 35 times, said he expects the water to continue to recede until race day, and doesn’t expect any problems to arise because of water that is too high or too low.

“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,” Owen said. “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.”

Debbie Gendreau, the assistant director of the Bangor Department of Parks and Recreation, said that her crew is busily making final preparations for this year’s version of a race that has become a local tradition for many.

“I’ve been here for 11 years and race director for 11 years. I didn’t know the magnitude [of the race’s popularity] until I got here,” Gendreau said. “It just seems like it’s an icon not only for the city, but for racers from all over … it just seems to be a great thing to be a part of.”

On-line and in-person registration costs $35 per paddler, but the deadline for that rate is 11 a.m. on Friday. After that — including race-day registrations from 6:30 a.m. until 7:45 a.m. — the price increases to $50 per paddler.

The race begins at 8:30 a.m., with five paddlers leaving the starting line per minute until the entire field has started.

Credit: Ioanna Raptis | Seacoast Online

Among the regulars to watch for:

— Zip Kellogg, who typically dons white formal wear for his traditional trip downstream, and who spends much of the time standing up in his canoe — a tactic he says allows him to read the rapids better.

— The Gumby boat, featuring an inflatable version of the cartoon character, along with paddlers wearing green Gumby T-shirts. This year’s running will mark the 34th straight year for the crew at the race. Little known fact: The Gumby inflatable came from Spencer Gifts, and was one of three inflatable figures that were up for consideration. One other option was Superman. The other was more adult-themed, and will remain unnamed.

— Trevor MacLean of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, who has posted the top overall time for 10 straight years, and 14 times overall.

MacLean won last year’s race in 2 hours, 0 minutes, 48 seconds.

Calling MacLean’s win a “win” may be a stretch, however. He paddles a long racing kayak — the fastest craft in the race — while others are in different kinds of boats. In all, competitors will be divided into 23 classes based on style of boat, age and gender, so it’s not an exaggeration to say that at the end of the race, there will be 23 separate “winners.”

Gendreau said she and her crew would keep a close eye on the water level; the main concern would be making sure that paddlers can pass under the downstream bridges at the end of the race.

On Thursday, the decision was made. Those bridges in the concrete canal section of the Kenduskeag are in the tidal zone, and high tide for Saturday is 12:31 p.m. Those factors combined to prompt organizers to move the finish line due to a concern for safety. The fear: The paddlers may not be able to make it under those bridges at high tide.

Another small change for this year: The traditional race-day breakfast that has taken place at the Mystic Tie Grange will be moved to the Kenduskeag Union Church across the street. Gendreau said the grange hall is no longer safe.

The breakfast will be free (donations accepted), and will benefit the Kenduskeag Fire Department and the Kenduskeag Union Church.

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...