ORONO, Maine — Eric Gallandt didn’t grow up paddling through whitewater rapids like some local canoe enthusiasts did. In fact, his introduction to the sport came only by chance.

“I got into this because I’m neighbors [in Orono] with Jeff Owen,” Gallandt said. “I would see them out paddling, and he was always like, ‘Hey, you want to come out and do this?’”

Owen is one of those paddlers who did grow up in a boat, racing with his dad. Today, he’s among the state’s top canoeists and teaches the sport to Orono school students. Gallandt quickly learned there was really no polite way to say, “no thanks.”

“It doesn’t matter that you don’t have a boat. That’s not a legitimate excuse,” Gallandt said. “Jeff or [other paddlers] will say, ‘Use this boat. Use my boat.’”

Gallandt took his neighbor up on the offer, discovered he enjoyed paddling flatwater and bought his own boat the next year. Still, he avoided the big rapids.

“[Owen] kept bugging me, telling me, ‘You’re missing the best paddling of the year, the whitewater series,’” Gallandt said.

Eventually, Owen wore down his neighbor on that front, too, and Gallandt tried his hand at whitewater. Since then, he has become a fixture at local races and came to love paddling with other members of the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization.

Now, he’s MaCKRO’s new president, leading the organization that has about 60 paddle-mad members.

He still remembers that first whitewater run, five or six years ago.

“Within 10 minutes, we came across a submerged rock and tipped over, right in the middle of nothing. [I] realized, ‘That’s a bit chilly, but really no big deal,’” Gallandt said. “We dumped out, got going and had an absolute blast.”

This weekend, Gallandt and fellow paddlers will head to the midcoast for the much-anticipated opening races of the MaCKRO race series. Last week’s scheduled opener on the St. George River in Searsmont was postponed after unseasonably cold nighttime temperatures iced the river over.

That has led to some rescheduling, and the season’s first race will now take place on the Passagassawakeag River at 11 a.m. Saturday. On Sunday, racers will turn their attention to the St. George. That race will begin at 1 p.m. From there, the series will move to the Souadabscook Stream and Marsh Stream next weekend before the 51st Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race is staged on April 15.

Gallandt explained that local organizations plan and stage the races, while MaCKRO serves as an informational clearinghouse, letting members know what’s on tap and notifying them via email blasts if the schedule changes.

“If you want to keep connected, MaCKRO is your one-stop place to go to find out when the races are, where the races are and get any kind of updates,” Gallandt said. “And one thing I’m going to try to do over the next year is to add some information for beginners. For example, we’re making a set of maps that would show the actual whitewater courses [and where rapids are].”

MaCKRO members can also use the club’s equipment, which includes a vast array of boats, so long as they agree to help repair anything they may damage.

And while some of the races — the Souadabscook, for instance — are best for experienced paddlers, others can be enjoyed by more novice racers.

“The Piscataquis [River] race [on April 22] is one of the first that you can really feel good about putting your kids in a boat and saying, ‘All right. Head to [Dover-Foxcroft],’” Gallandt said. “You don’t have to worry about them, and the whitewater’s pretty mellow.”

And for those who might be considering taking up the sport, Gallandt said MaCKRO members are always available to mentor and help prospective paddlers.

A few basic skills are necessary, and they can be practiced on flatwater.

“You make sure you can make [a canoe] go straight. You make sure you can turn it in the direction you want,” Gallandt said. “Make sure the bow paddler can do a draw or something to get the bow around a rock or take a glancing blow off a rock.”

Making sure your boat is properly equipped with an airbag that is securely attached is also important, he said.

Then, he said, there’s just one fundamental rule.

“That is, paddle. Keep your paddle in the water,” Gallandt said. “People want to grab the side of the boat, and the moment you do that your boat is just this super-tippy thing. But if you’ve got a paddle in the water and your butt’s in the seat, it’s like an outrigger.”

Even though Gallandt knows that key rule, that doesn’t mean he has always obeyed it, he admits.

“All of us have photos of us with our hands on the gunnel,” he said. “You just want to make sure that doesn’t happen at Six Mile Falls [during the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race], because it will be well-documented there.”

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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...