Silas Hagerty and Josh Prokey celebrate after successfully navigating Six Mile Falls on the Kenduskeag Stream during the 50th annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race in 2016. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

The first running of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race came about because two friends thought it might be a fun idea to race canoes and kayaks in the spring of 1967.

Little did founders Sonny Colburn and Lew Gilman know that 55 years later, the race would still be going strong. After years of high water and low, through sunny days and freak snowstorms, and even after 2020, when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the event for the first time in its history, the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race will be run for the 55th time this Saturday.

The 1967 race, which to this day is officially organized by the Bangor Parks and Recreation Department, saw 51 people brave the chilly waters to paddle from the town of Kenduskeag to downtown Bangor. The best overall time that first year belonged to the two-man canoe team of Sam Stoddard and Jim Robbins, who clocked in at 2:52:53.

The following year, the number of racers more than doubled. The number of spectators dwarfed those actually in the race, as each year more and more people crowded along the stream to watch paddlers try to navigate the rapids, and people with houses along the bank hosted brunches and parties.

Spectators have long been dubbed “river vultures,” since they perch on the sides of the stream, eagerly watching paddlers either make it through rapids — or even better, memorably capsize. Though BDN reporter Larry Mahoney alluded to the term  in his vivid personal recollection of running the race in 1977, it was WLBZ broadcaster Bill Green who popularized it in the 1980s.

Clockwise from left: Bonnie Mayo gives a squirt of water to Jeff Sands at the Six Mile Falls portage in 2000; Cheering Section Ten-year-old Devan Ewer of Old Town (front, left) cheers with brother Dustin, 7, and 7-year-old Gage Dunham of Bangor as racers pass Six Mile Falls in 2002. Canoes make their way through the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, in these undated BDN file photos from the early 1970s. Credit: Michael York, Leslie Barbaro and BDN file

In those early years, the race was a pretty laid-back affair.

In 1977, longtime racer Tony Trafton attempted to run the race in a bathtub, though it was too cumbersome to make it to the finish line. In 1974, two paddlers managed to take off all their clothes and make their way down Six Mile Falls completely naked, before somehow getting their clothes back on before the finish line. 

By the late 1980s, the race had graduated from being a homegrown and mostly locally attended sporting event to the largest canoe and kayak race in New England, and one of the largest in the country. It routinely attracts paddlers from all over the East Coast and Atlantic Canada, and it’s an official American Canoe Association whitewater open canoe downriver competition.

The spirit of fun has never left, though, with reliable characters like the Gumby canoe, which features an inflatable Gumby in the boat alongside paddlers, and longtime participant and race legend Zip Kellogg, who wears white dress clothes and a bow tie, and stands in his canoe for the entirety of the race. In a given year, you might see someone dressed in costumes like a banana, a hot dog or Frankenstein’s monster, or an entire team themed to a particular concept, like Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach.

Clockwise from left: A banana, a penguin and the Incredible Hulk celebrate getting through Six Mile Falls in Bangor during the 52nd Kenduskeag Stream Canoe race in 2018; Kevin Stuckey tapes a few last minute ducks to his canoe before the start of the the 50th annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe in 2016; Shannon Fitzpatrick (from left), Brian O’Leary and Andrew Krause watch racers make their way down Six Mile Falls in 2015; A canoe with a giant, inflatable Gumby shoots the rapids at Six Mile Falls in Bangor in 2018. Credit: Troy R. Bennett and Ashley L. Conti / BDN

During the 25th running of the race in 1991, an entire weekend of activities was planned, including the Kenduskeag race on Saturday, two additional canoe races on the Penobscot River on Sunday, and an outdoor sports exhibition, community meals, live music, an Earth Day panel and a carnival on the Bangor Waterfront.

The 50th contest in 2016 was a more muted affair, however, with the race running in its usual fashion without any additional programming. The traditional pre-race breakfast and post-race chili and chowder meal haven’t happened in several years, though there’s no shortage of celebrating with a beer and a burger in downtown Bangor after paddlers finish a grueling, hours-long run of the race.

Robert Lang of New Brunswick still holds the record for fastest time ever, at just 1:50:08, set in 1997. He’s part of an elite group of racers in the Sub-2 Hour Club, which includes other champions including 11-time winner Trevor MacLean of Nova Scotia, and winning pairs like Fred Ludwig and Steve Moser, and Jeff Owen and Steve Woodward.

The highest number of racers ever was in 1994, when 1,529 paddlers participated. Today, the race averages around 800 — a number race organizers expect to hit this year, after the first-ever cancellation of the race in 2020 due to the pandemic, and a pandemic-reduced number of registrations allowed in 2021.

With a bit more rain set for the end of the week, and temperatures in the 50s and partly cloudy skies forecast for Saturday morning, it’s shaping up to be another great year for the race, come hell or high — though hopefully not too high — water.

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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.