Paddlers head down the Meduxnekeag River in Houlton in 2019 during the annual Meduxnekeag River Canoe Race. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Organizers of the 2021 Meduxnekeag River Canoe Race are eager for a return to normalcy on Saturday, May 1, after taking a year off because of COVID-19 constraints.

“We are hoping for business as usual for the canoe race this year,” said Jane Torres, executive director for the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce. “We will have some restrictions this year. Because of COVID-19, this year’s race will be preregistration only.”

No paddlers will be able to show up on race day and sign up for the event, she said. Peter and Carol Blood are once again assisting with the organization of the race.

“I think we can make this method work,” Torres said. “We have already seen registrations start to pour in. We have a good turnout of people who have volunteered to help with the race. I think people just want to get out and do something.”

Pre-race instructions begin at 9:30 a.m. at the home of Linwood and Julia Wellington on Station Road in New Limerick. Paddlers will begin heading downstream at 10 a.m.

The cost to preregister is $15 for adults and $10 for students and children, and includes a complimentary T-shirt and barbecue lunch at the finish line. Guests of racers may purchase lunch for a nominal fee.

Last year was the second time in four years that the race was not held. In 2018, unusually high winds caused whitecaps on the river, prompting race organizers to cancel.

The Meduxnekeag River Canoe Race falls near the beginning of the state’s canoe race schedule, with paddlers coming from around the state to earn points in the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization (MaCKRO) standings.

Houlton’s race typically draws more than 100 participants, but the skill level of those paddlers can vary dramatically. For some, the event is competitive, but for others, it is more of a leisurely stroll down the river.

Some years, the water levels are so low that paddlers have to exit their boats and walk along some of the rockier sections of the river, but that should not be the case this year, as the water levels are at a good level, Torres said.

The Meduxnekeag River got its name from Maliseet Indians in the area. Its name means “rocks at its mouth.” The river is 35 miles long and flows east from Drews Lake to Woodstock, New Brunswick, where it enters the St. John River.

In the beginning, the canoe race was a chance for students at Ricker College to let off some steam before final exams and the end of the school year. A party-oriented event, students often cared less about their finishing time or who won the race.

At some point, the Houlton Rotary Club took over the race and turned it into a more competitive event. Over the years, the race has started at different locations, depending on the water levels.

The course winds from Mill Stream into the Meduxnekeag River and finishes at the Gateway Crossing Bridge in Riverfront Park. The race offers a variety of classes for the competitive paddlers, but also has its fair share of novices participating. Rescue personnel donate their time to assist with patrolling the river, ready to help when needed.

Paddlers can preregister by emailing Torres at People can also register in person at the chamber office or pre-register on race day, starting at 8 a.m. A mandatory safety briefing is held at 9:30 a.m. at the Wellington residence on the Station Road in New Limerick. The eight-mile race starts at 10 a.m.

The finish line will be the Gateway Crossing Bridge at Riverfront Park. Paddlers will continue a short distance to the boat landing on Highland Avenue, where a shuttle service will be available to take people to Riverfront Park.

For information or to preregister, call Torres at 207-694-3414.