Chris Merchant (from left) of Kenduskeag helps Robert Scovil of Bangor prepare for the start of the 53rd Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. The race starts in Kenduskeag and finishes in Bangor. Credit: Terry Farren

KENDUSKEAG, Maine — Perry Lebreton of Old Town stood in the rain Saturday morning, looking out at the roiling, murky Kenduskeag Stream, and shared a thought that many paddlers would have been forgiven for uttering.

“Whose idea was this?” he asked his friends, a decorative Burger King crown wrapped around his racing helmet. “I could be home sleeping.”

Instead, he was among 810 paddlers in 430 boats who started the 53rd Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, aimed their boats south and headed to Bangor. And this year, Lebreton vowed to do better than he had during his first effort in 2015.

“We crashed at Six Mile Falls. I had four people in the canoe,” Lebreton said. “It was an older canoe and we hit the rocks pretty bad. We had four people and two paddles left, and we tried to finish it, but we hit the falls and crashed all the way down.”

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Lebreton said that on Saturday, he decided to abandon the four-person and instead entered in a one-man kayak that he thought would enable him to finish the race and erase the bad memories.

One of Lebreton’s friends, Marjorie Morales of Levant, said she has been kayaking the race for a few years, and always struggles at Six Mile Falls. This year, she thought higher-than-normal water conditions would help her out.

“It’s nice and high. I think I’m gonna smooth right over there,” she said.

Trevor MacLean of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, posted the race’s fastest time — 1 hour, 52 minutes, 53 seconds — for the 11th straight year and the 15th year overall, while fellow kayaker Ben Randall was second overall in 1:57:46. Canoeists Mark Ranco and Chris Francis were third in 2:00:00, while the war canoe of Angus Deighan, Andrew Deighan, Anna Leavitt, Justin Wardwell, Abigail Robertson, Nolan Mabee, Patric Deighan, Ashton Mabee, James Mabee and River Robertson took fifth in 2:00:33.

Credit: Terry Ferren

MacLean paddles a kayak that is designed for flatwater, not rapids. That can make a race like the Kenduskeag a bit of a challenge, as the boat’s tippy nature makes it tough to handle. On Saturday, MacLean said he did have a bit of an adventure in the late going.

“I’m always lucky to keep the boat upright. There were some good obstacles to look out for, and I actually ended up crossing the finish line backwards after getting eddied out on Shopping Cart [rapid],” MacLean said. “But as long as I was still upright, wasn’t swimming, I was happy with it.”

The Bangor Parks and Recreation Department, which organizes the race, decided on Thursday to change the finish line of the race after considering the likely water level and a high tide that would occur at 12:10 p.m. Instead of racing all the way into downtown Bangor, the course was stopped at Gateway Park, about a half-mile upstream.

That proved to be a good call, as the water level shortly after high tide was about 4 inches from the bottom of the two downstream bridges just before the finish line. No boat or paddler would have fit under those bridges.

The high water wasted no time taking a toll on the competitors, as one of the most famous craft in the race — the boat featuring an inflatable Gumby figure — capsized about 10 minutes before the race even began at 8:30 a.m. The Gumby crew hauled the boat ashore, emptied out the water and started the race on schedule.

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Jake Feener of Patten, who carried a GoPro camera for the BDN, raced with Mike Erskine of Arundel and Mike Bates, who recently retired from the U.S. Air Force and jokingly lists his Chevy Silverado as his legal residence.

The team finished 16th overall in 2:16:11.

“The race went great. I had a great team, and they pushed me down the river pretty good,” said Feener, who enjoyed the high water level.

“Some of the rapids where you usually have to bob and weave were just blown right out. You just had to stay out of the meat of the waves,” Feener said. “But we were in a 20-foot canoe, so we could hit some of that big stuff and it didn’t bother us as much as some others.”

Among the more popular craft in the race was a monstrous standup paddleboard with four standing paddlers. The paddleboard is 16 feet long, 6 feet wide and weighs about 100 pounds. It takes about an hour to inflate.

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Chris Strout of Bar Harbor, who owns a paddleboard shop there, said hopping on the oversize model is a great way to spend a few hours.

“It’s just a great way for us to get in the mood for paddling season coming up,” Strout said.

Terry Pinkham of Ellsworth, Ben Small of Hancock and Sarah Thibault Hermon joined forces with Strout on the paddleboard. The high water helped them avoid most trouble, but their trip downstream wasn’t without drama.

“One of the biggest challenges in doing a race like this on a paddleboard is the fins that stick down from the bottom,” Strout said. “So any time you have any obstruction — a rock or anything — it [causes] an immediate stop, and you pitch off. We broke a fin off today above the Six Mile Falls rapid.”

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...