"River vultures" await the appearance of the first paddlers of the 2018 Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race to navigate Six Mile Falls in Bangor. Credit: Emily Burnham

John Cassidy and Dana Dickson have a name for the section of the Kenduskeag Stream that runs next to their Bangor house, about a mile south of Six Mile Falls.

“We call it the relationship tester, because it’s at that point in the [Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race] that relationships start to go south,” said Cassidy, a Bangor native who has thrown a race-watching party at his home since he bought it five years ago. “There are people that think, ‘Let’s just buy a canoe, and do the race! It’ll be fun!’ By the time they get to our house, they are done. They want out.”

For 51 years, both novices and old pros have braved the chilly waters and 16.5-mile course of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. Many thousands more have watched the race from the comfort of dry land — whether they’re “river vultures” perched along the riverbanks, parks and bridges along the stream, or folks with property adjacent to the Kenduskeag that throw a party.

Race-watching hotspots include the start of the course, in Kenduskeag, where paddlers launch beginning at 8:30 a.m. sharp. Another favorite spot is the bridge over Six Mile Falls in Bangor, where Bangor police reroute traffic to accommodate the many hundreds of people that gather to watch racers attempt to make it over the rapids. In Bangor, the streamside trails are ground zero for race-watching, as exhausted paddlers make the final stretch to the finish line in downtown Bangor.

For folks that are lucky enough to have streamside property, the ability to throw a race party is a plus when moving in. The proximity to the stream was a bonus for Cassidy and Dickson when they moved in, just as it was for Glenburn residents Nicole Brown and Rob Glover when they moved last year into their home.

“We had a housewarming party last summer, and we realized then, duh, of course, we should definitely have a canoe race party,” said Brown, who got up with Glover at the crack of dawn Saturday to bake eight quiches they’d assembled the night prior, and to begin constructing an elaborate bloody mary bar.

For those that watch along the stream before Six Mile Falls in Glenburn, spectators are treated to relatively calm waters — the current is much less rapid in the first legs of the course, with no perilous white water to navigate. That’s where Glover and Brown’s home is, and where their friend Chris Urquhart and his wife, Morgan, and two children showed up at 9:30 Saturday morning to watch the first racers pass by.

Urquhart grew up in East Machias, watching the race broadcast on WABI, and has since competed in it several times. This year, he just wanted to watch.

“Upstream, paddlers start to get bored right before Six Mile Falls. They want those rapids,” Urquhart said. “You can relax a little bit, and get ready for the falls.”

Cassidy and Dickson live a mile or so downstream from the falls, and racers are in a decidedly different mood by the time they reach their house. The couple generally expect close to 100 people to show up to their house, to feast on an array of breakfast sandwiches, waffles, baked goods, barbecue and steamed seafood, and enjoy a keg of local craft brew. Most guests hang out down by the stream’s edge, ringing cowbells and shouting to paddlers as they pass by.

“We do it every year,” Dickson said. “It’s just the perfect chance to see everybody. It’s something we really look forward to every year. We love to watch the crazy people and the serious racers. We have paddlers stop here. It’s a blast.”

Dickson, a nurse with St. Joseph Healthcare, says she has elderly patients that talk about gathering to watch the race when it first started 51 years ago.

“They loved it then, and we love it now,” she said. “If anything, it’s only gotten better.”

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.