Back in 1985, two young friends teamed up on a lark, entered the area’s biggest canoe race, and had nothing but trouble.
“[Larry Doucette and I] did it in an aluminum canoe, and we had zero canoeing experience,” one of those men, Daryl Boyington, recalled. “We started going, and we zig-zagged all over the place. We had no idea that if you hit a rock in an aluminum canoe, it sticks to it. So we must have dumped four or five times, anyway.”
But Boyington and Doucette didn’t get discouraged by their first Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. They laughed all the way down the stream.
The next year, they made that fun-loving attitude an official part of what would become a yearly tradition.
“The next year rolls around and we said, ‘If you can’t be fast, be funny,'” Boyington said. “We went to Spencer Gift and found a six-foot blowup Gumby doll, and that’s what landed in the canoe.”
Over the last 35 years, thanks to Doucette, Boyington and a constantly changing cast of paddling partners, the Gumby boat has become one of the most popular in the classic spring event. Fans gather at spots along the course, crane their necks upstream and start hollering as soon as they see the big green inflatable Gumby show up.
When the 54th edition of the race is staged on Saturday, things will be different in a lot of ways. Six Mile Falls — the scene of plenty of thrills and spills — is closed to the public. All along the course, spectators are being encouraged to remain socially distant from others.
And this year, Doucette won’t be among the crew members of the Gumby boat — the team he helped found.
Doucette died on March 12 after a two-year battle with brain cancer. He was 55.
“I don’t know of anybody who met Larry who didn’t become friends with him,” Boyington said. “I don’t know of anybody that didn’t like him.”
Boyington remembers meeting his longtime friend when both of them were motorcycle-loving teenagers. They became pals instantly, and remained so for decades.
“He was from Orono and I was from Old Town, and we just happened to take motorcycle driver’s ed down in Brewer at the same time,” Boyington said. “I think he had a dirt bike and I had a really loud street bike, and we just hit it off as motorheads.”
Later they worked together at a motorsports shop in Milford, where they dreamt up that first ill-fated trip down the Kenduskeag.
Now, nearly four decades later, Boyington admits that he still doesn’t know a whole lot about whitewater paddling, except that it can be a lot of fun.
The cast of characters has changed over the years, with other friends filling holes in the roster when one or another of the founders was unable to participate.
“Still, the only canoeing experience that I have is doing that race with those guys,” he said.
Through it all, Doucette was a constant motivator.
“I would say that Larry was more of a driving force than I have been, in continuing to do it,” Boyington said. “It’s been so many years, and so many things have happened, with marriage and kids and being out of state on vacation. There came a point in time when other people would stand in for one of us or the other.”
Some years, just two paddlers would escort Gumby downstream. Other years, there would be as many as seven paddlers packed into the canoe. But each year, Gumby prevailed. Kind of.
Gumby itself — the inflatable doll — took a beating over more than 30 trips down the Kenduskeag, and was patched with tape and silicon. About five years ago, the original Gumby was ready for retirement, and a new inflatable, which had been given to the crew, took its place.
Boyington said that two years ago, at just about this time of year, Doucette began to feel different. Off. Weak.
“We dumped very early in the race, and I was frozen. I ended up getting out of the boat, so Larry and Toby [Day] continued the race,” Boyington said. “During a portage, Larry said, ‘I just don’t have any gas. I don’t have any strength. I can’t really go.’ He went to the doctor shortly after that and they diagnosed him with a glioblastoma.”
Last year, the race was canceled due to the pandemic. Longtime crew member Dan Pelletier didn’t let that stop Gumby, though: He and Gumby paddled the course alone. No fanfare, no cheering children. Just them. Alone.
This year, Doucette won’t be paddling, but that doesn’t mean his presence won’t be felt. This was, after all, one of his favorite days of the year.
“We’ll make a slow pass through,” Boyington said. “Over the years Gumby has always worn some form of controversial shirt, but this year it will be a ‘Larry’ shirt. We’re going to stop at Six Mile Falls and present his mother some flowers, as a tribute to Larry.”
And fittingly, Doucette’s adult daughter, Madison, will be riding alongside Gumby for this trip downstream.
It’ll be a tough trip, Boyington said. He’ll miss his friend. But he’ll honor his pal by putting a smile on a spectator’s face. Waving to the crowd. Celebrating the long tradition of being funny, not fast.