Two paddlers stick with their canoe after capsizing at rapids off the Ghent Road during the 39th annual St. George River Race in Searsmont on Saturday, March 31, 2018. Credit: John Holyoke

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Tuesday’s news that this year’s Kenduskeag Stream Canoe race won’t be staged came as no surprise, and in fact, most of the races scheduled for the next six weeks have also been scrapped as efforts to enforce social distancing to slow the spread of the COVID-19 ramp up.

But to many, spring means whitewater paddling. And according to one veteran racer, racers will likely still hit the water on their own. He shared some thoughts on the current state of canoeing and kayaking, and what people can expect.

Clayton Cole of Corinth, who is an active member of four different paddling organizations, said the groups are trying to balance a desire to get out and exercise with the realities of the world as a pandemic spreads.

“[We] are struggling with how to deal with the threats to health from the virus and the need to paddle,” Cole said.

He said members of the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society and the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization are looking for safe ways to enjoy their favorite spring activity.

“PPCS has not cancelled any runs yet but are discussing how to do so in the safest manner by maximizing social distancing,” Cole said. “Once on the water there is plenty of six feet or more separation possible even for people in the same boat. Close contact is most challenging on shore and then on shuttles [to and from put-in and take-out points].”

Paddlers often share rides from point to point, putting a shuttle vehicle at the end of a river run and then carpooling upriver to the put-in spot. At the end of the run, they hop into that vehicle and return paddlers to their own cars.

Even that process demands some extra thought under the new health situation, Cole said.

“PPCS is advocating open windows in cars, separating drivers and passengers in front seats and back as well as the standard measures of hand washing and sanitizing, avoiding contact or sharing stuff,” he said.

The Center for Disease Control recommends people avoid large gatherings, and that individuals keep a six-foot buffer between them and others in order to avoid spreading the disease. Here in Maine, gatherings of 10 people or larger have been prohibited per order of Gov. Janet Mills.

In addition, people are advised to wash hands and surfaces with disinfectant or soap and water, avoid shaking hands, and cover one’s mouth when sneezing or coughing.

There has been some talk about staging low-key river events in lieu of competitions, he said.

“Some MaCKRO members are discussing ways to enjoy river runs on or about the days these cancelled events would have been held. Maybe even self-timing, while avoiding unnecessary contact,” Cole said. “Any whitewater enthusiast will find their own way to get on the water.”

Cole said he has been on the water two or three times a week for the last several weeks, paddling on flatwater with one other person. Wearing dry suits keeps him warm and safe should he capsize, but having another paddler with him is also important.

Balancing social distancing concerns with best paddling safety practices creates a bit of a dilemma, he said: Paddling alone isn’t safe. And being close to other people isn’t, either.

“Therein lies the other conundrum,” Cole said. “One of the primary river-running safety rules is not running whitewater alone, to have a small group of at least two or three, more if the water is more difficult or the group less experienced.”

With that said, Cole said he’ll be out there, being as safe as he can.

“Spending time outside should be encouraged for healthy people. [It’s] good for the body, soul and spirit,” he said. “I will be paddling, probably not with groups greater than three to six, and will be extra thoughtful about the shuttles and on shore contact.”

The races that have been cancelled thus far:

— St. George River Race, March 28.

— Passagassawakeag River Race, April 4.

— Eliot Lamb Memorial Souadabscook Stream Race, April 11.

— Marsh Stream sprints and downriver races, April 12.

— Kenduskeag Sprints, April 17.

— Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, April 18.

— Machias River Race, April 26.

Dale Cross is the longtime director of the St. George and the Passagassawakeag races, which were saved earlier this year when Operation Game Thief stepped in to help organize them. He’s saddened by the cancellations, but understands why they’re necessary.

“I do want to say that we had incredible enthusiasm. I think that this year’s races would have been big, as big as any races that we’ve had in the past,” Cross said. “A lot of folks were very excited about what was going on and but obviously you can’t do it because of the virus.”


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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...