Ruth White (front) and her sister, Clara White, both of Orono, paddle their shark-themed cardboard canoe to victory during an Orono Paddlers event on the Stillwater River in Orono on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. Credit: John Holyoke

ORONO, Maine — Clara White stood proudly beside a gleaming cardboard creation Thursday evening, eager to answer a question that hadn’t really been addressed as she, her sisters and her neighbors built the shark-themed canoe.

Will it float?

“I hope so,” the Orono 10-year-old said with a smile.

Only time would tell.

“How many rolls of duct tape?” local paddler Kellen Doyle asked as he walked past, checking out the 11 boats local children had created.

“About six,” Clara White said.

Doyle nodded in appreciation. “That’s commitment,” he said.

All around Brownie’s Park, creations sat high and dry as the young inventors waited to be summoned to the edge of the Stillwater River for a short race and subsequent buoyancy test.

The entrants in the cardboard canoe race had simple rules to abide by: The boat’s structural pieces could only be made of cardboard or duct tape. According to parents who showed up for the event, the local supply of duct tape had been pretty well picked over by Wednesday night, and the local bike shop had been busy handing out used bike boxes that would be turned into cardboard canoes.

Credit: John Holyoke

The Cardboard Canoe Festival was the culminating event of the six-week summer schedule for Orono Paddlers. In addition to that fun activity, veteran paddlers gathered for their final weekly flatwater race on the Stillwater River, and the Penobscot Riverkeepers brought six of the group’s 28-foot war canoes for a race that would cap the evening.

Jeff Owen of Orono said the weekly events began six or eight years ago under the organizational umbrella of the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization (MaCKRO), and have since been taken over by Orono Paddlers. And judging from the group of nearly 100 youths, parents and veteran paddlers, the effort has been a success.

“It occured to a small group of us a few years ago that there are enough paddlers centered in this area that we might have critical mass to create something that would then benefit paddlesports in a broader sense,” Owen said. “In part [this] is education and safety. In part it’s creating opportunities that increase participation. In part it’s stewardship of our waterfront areas and rivers.”

And in large part — especially on Thursday — it’s fun.

Owen Beane, an 11-year-old who spent the past week in a paddling camp that Jeff Owen organized, showed up with his own shark-themed cardboard canoe to race Thursday.

“I hope it will float,” Beane admitted as he looked at some of the other cardboard canoes assembled around the park. “It’s pretty small and aerodynamic. But the more boats that come down [the path], the scareder I get. There are some good boats here.”

But Beane had a not-so-secret weapon: The boat he and his sister, 9-year-old Ruby Beane, built had been engineered to do something pretty essentially in an out-and-back race.

“One of the things that we did that I don’t think anyone else did is we put a keel on ours,” Owen Beane told anyone who’d stop and listen to his spiel. “Hopefully, it helps [our boat] turn better.”

It did.

Owen Beane paddled the boat to victory in the one-paddler race, surviving a bit of a midrace joust with another competitor as they vied for space, then punctuating the win with a celebratory shout.

Credit: John Holyoke

Meanwhile, the White team waited for the chance to see if its own shark-shaped boat would float.

Clara White and her sister, 12-year-old Ruth White, gingerly climbed into the boat, while fellow team members Nora White, 14, and Kase Walston stood by.

Walston spoke — again — for virtually all of the paddlers, echoing the thought of the day.

“I just hope it will float,” he said.

It did.

Clara and Ruth White paddled it safely around the course, reaching shore first in the multiple-paddler race.

And when the boats were tested for buoyancy, the shark boat proved virtually unsinkable.

Jeff Owen’s plan for that test: Take the smallest children he could find, hoist them into a boat one by one and count how many kids a boat could hold before it sank.

On the Whites’ boat, the race director never got an answer: A full load of 12 children filled the shark’s innards, but didn’t swamp the still-floating boat.

“[That was] a hoot,” Jeff Owen said after the cardboard festival had finished and the adult racers took to the river. “This is only the second time we’ve done that [festival], and I think it will be annual. Very fun.”

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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...