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In a regular year, during a normal April, Bangor would be abuzz this week. After a long, slow slog through fall (cold) and winter (colder) and post-winter (muddy), the Queen City would have finally celebrated an honest-to-goodness spring event on Saturday.
We would have gathered along the 16.5-mile course, cheered, laughed and thoroughly enjoyed the 54th edition of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. Heck, if Mother Nature cooperated, we might even have walked away with our first sunburn of the year.
But it’s not a regular year. It’s not a normal April. The race has been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’re largely homebound, left with nothing but memories of past races, and mental slideshows of the friends we saw and the paddlers we cheered. Today, those memories are worth celebrating.
I’ve covered that race plenty of times and have remained (except on those rainy Saturdays) high and dry. Many have asked when I plan to enter, and I always smile and tell them the truth: Not until I become an expert whitewater paddler … and I haven’t begun my training program yet.
Many of the paddlers I’d meet every year are fantastic athletes, you see, and I respect them all. Many other participants fall into the “eager novice” category, and they’re the group that have provided some of the most interesting column fodder over the years. Like the guy who put his car keys and wallet inside a wet bag (good idea) and tied it to a thwart (bad idea), then wrapped the canoe around a rock at Six Mile Falls. Or the various paddlers-turned-swimmers who told variations of the old “it seemed like a good idea at the time” saga that makes this race so special.
The paddlers and the organizers have memories, too, and I asked a few to share some thoughts. What makes the race so cool? What do you remember? What will you miss when we spend Saturday without it?
Tracy Willette, the director of Bangor Parks and Recreation, has been involved in staging the race for the past 22 years. He — like me — is a non-participant and prefers to keep his feet dry.
No matter the weather or the water level, he knows he’ll see some familiar faces, and boats.
“One thing that is interesting for each year is to watch the canoes on racks and car tops, and the number of race stickers on some of the canoes,” Willette said. It’s great to see those same individuals on race day each year.”
Greg Dorr of Bangor is a veteran paddler who looks forward to his annual trip from Kenduskeag Village to downtown Bangor. He says he’s feeling the void the race cancellation has left.
“I’ll miss the competition and camaraderie. I’ll miss the pre-race trash talk and post-race excuses,” Dorr said. “Although it seems to end earlier as we grow older, I’ll miss the post-race gathering and cookout with friends. I’ll miss being with my community.”
J.R. Mabee makes the Kenduskeag race — and paddling in general — part of his spring routine. Some years, he has won top awards. One year, he sank at the starting line and had to drop out. No matter what, race day was special.
“To me the Kenduskeag race is special because it is a sure sign of spring,” he said. “Within a couple weeks things will be green and mud season will be drying up. I have so many memories. This year would be the fifth time I’ve missed it in 40 years. It’s kind of hard to believe.”
Brad Coffey has also made a tradition of participating in the race, often with his frequent paddling partner Jeff Wahlstrom.
“I love so much about that race,” Coffey said. “The smoky grange hall [at the start]. The crazy costumes. The large crowd at the start. The countdown to each five-boat start. The spontaneous chats that happen along the river. The anxiety during the approach to Six Mile Falls. The amazing folks cheering along the race course. Shopping Cart [rapids]. Entering downtown Bangor. The celebration at the finish. What an amazing event.”
While the official paddling season has been scrapped, Clayton Cole said he has been making regular stops at the rivers and streams that typically host those races, and making runs alone or with a few pals.
Paddlers paddle, you see. And paddling Kenduskeag is an experience worth savoring.
“The people and personalities and sometimes strange craft are really what make this event so unique in the hundreds of races I have entered over the years: from veteran and elite racers from around New England and Canada to all the local Maine folk who just enjoy this one paddling event each year or maybe just once in a lifetime,” Cole said.
And if you happen to drive past Kenduskeag Stream on what would have been race day, don’t be surprised if you see Cole out there, enjoying another day on the water.
“I plan to run the river Saturday, maybe with a friend or two,” Cole said. “We will all shuttle ourselves [to observe social distancing guidelines]. Then, maybe enjoy a beer from six feet or more [of separation].”
Until next year, that will just have to do.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” a collection of his favorite BDN columns and features, is published by Islandport Press and is available wherever books are sold.
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