Long before the first racers arrived at historic Six Mile Falls — the site of many a Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race mishap — race director Debbie Gendreau stood on a bridge overlooking a much smaller set of rapids than paddlers typically encounter.
“They might have to pick up their boats and carry them through,” Gendreau said, describing the lowest water many had ever seen during the race. “We’ll see what they do when they come through.”
The answer, for many of the frontrunners in the 54th edition of the race, was quite simple: Pull your boat out of the water above the falls, follow a designated portage route, and put back in below all of those rocks.
That’s what veteran kayaker Ray Wirth, and many others, chose to do.
“There’s a lot of rocks. Everybody’s gonna hit a dozen or two,” Wirth said as he settled back into his boat after the portage. Later, he said that he saw rocks in places he’s never seen them, like under the bridges in the concrete canal through downtown Bangor. “You had to run the gauntlet, that’s for sure.”
In all, 423 paddlers in 220 boats entered the race. Organizers originally planned to allow just 310 paddlers to compete, but when the state’s pandemic protocols changed about two weeks ago, competitors who had signed up for the wait list were added to the field, Gendreau said.
The stream level rose a bit overnight due to rain and snow, from 153 cubic feet per second on Friday to 209 cubic feet per second as of 1:15 p.m. on Saturday, when many paddlers were still on the course. That’s still five times less water than paddlers typically encounter during the race.
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This year’s overall champ was Ben Randall of Sabattus, who finally took the top spot after finishing second four years in a row. The champ in each of those races was 15-time Kenduskeag winner Trevor MacLean, who lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. MacLean was unable to attend because of the border closure.
Even with that closure, Randall expected to find some way to show up and win again..
“There’s a guy on the [start] list named Trevor McGraw, from New Hampshire. I was wondering if that might have been some sneaky way he got into the country,” Randall said with a laugh. “Four years in a row I’ve been runner-up to Trevor, and then we had the year off. And this year, [MacLean] wasn’t allowed to come into the country, so that was a huge advantage. I’m sure if he was here, I probably would have been runner-up again. He’s that good.”
Randall posted a time of 2 hours, 46 minutes, 26 second for the 16-mile race. He finished well ahead of the second-place overall team — Jerry Madore and Gus Madore — who finished in 2:59:04 in a two-man canoe. Chris Francis and Mark Ranco, who have been racing together for about 30 years, were third in 3:02:19.
Randall said it didn’t take long for him to learn how low the water level was.
“The first bend in the river, you were already scraping. It’s not always the boat. Sometimes it’s the paddle. You hit a rock with a paddle and it’ll almost upset you,” Randall said. “I heard the boat crack a few times going over rocks. I’m sure the guys in bigger boats, heavier boats, are having a time out there.”
Francis and Ranco said the conditions were tough.
“I have never done the race at that level. It made it really challenging,” Francis said. “That suck water — shallow water — just pulls all the energy from you before you ever get to Six Mile Falls. And obviously you’re banging all the way down.”
Ranco explained that “suck water” occurs when the water is so shallow that waves created by the boat bounce back off bottom and create friction that slows the canoe drastically.
“It’s like paddling with the brakes on,” Ranco said.
For some paddlers, the water conditions and cold weather weren’t the only obstacles. For Jeff Sands, a bit of plain old bad luck cost him at least a minute.
Sands had just put his kayak back into the water after portaging around Six Mile Fals, and was getting ready to get into the boat when he discovered he was missing an essential piece of equipment.
He was, quite literally, up the creek without a paddle. It had fallen out of the boat as he dragged it around the falls.
Sands took the miscue in good spirits, jogging 100 yards back along the portage trail and finding the missing paddle.
“It’s a triathlon,” he said as he prepared — finally — to rejoin the race. “Drop your paddle, then go and retrieve it.”
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In a touching moment, Madison Doucette, a new member of the Gumby boat, delivered a bouquet of flowers to her grandmother at Six Mile Falls. Madison’s dad, Larry Doucette, was a founder of the popular Gumby boat. He passed away in March after a two-year battle with brain cancer.
Madison Doucette said she enjoyed the trip downstream with her dad’s buddies, and to honor his memory.
“I’m really glad I got to experience what my dad loved. These guys are awesome,” she said.
One of those pals, Dan Pelletier, said the less-than-ideal conditions weren’t a surprise.
“With this weather forecast, it’s like Larry is blessing us with rain, snow, low water,” Pelletier said. “He’s up there laughing his butt off.”