Donnie Olsen, a volunteer with Lincoln Search and Rescue, swims after paddlers to rescue them from the current and cold waters of Six Mile Falls on April 25, 2015, at the annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

There can be some scary moments for volunteers working search and rescue for the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.

Most efforts by groups such at the Lincoln Fire Department and Dirigo Search and Rescue involve throwing a capsized paddler a line and pulling them to shore to get warm.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t occasionally some scary moments.

“It does get a little hairy when you start seeing people going under boats,” said Matt Lint, the president of Dirigo Search and Rescue and Highlands Search and Rescue, who will be working his 22nd Kenduskeag Stream race on Saturday.

“I’ve watched some people go down over the Maxfield Dam. That can get intense for the first 30 seconds,” Lint added, noting that the location is a mandatory portage.

A member of the rescue team hauls in a pair of canoeists at Six Mile Falls in Bangor in 2018 during the 52nd Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The Kenduskeag Stream race can be a dangerous undertaking, regardless of the water level. With the water temperature hovering around 43 degrees and temperatures on race day usually ranging in the 40s and 50s, falling into the water could be life-threatening.

Safety is the top priority for the Bangor Parks and Recreation Department, which on Saturday will put on the 55th edition of the race that runs 16.5 miles from Kenduskeag Village to downtown Bangor.

The department relies on a large group of professionals and volunteers to make the race safe, said assistant director Debbie Gendreau, the race organizer.

“We take every measure we possibly can to make sure everybody’s safe in this race,” said Gendreau, who has again enlisted the services of the Bangor and Kenduskeag fire departments and officers from the Bangor Police Department and Maine State Police.

When it comes to assisting paddlers in trouble, search and rescue teams provide critical services at key spots along the stream. Those groups include the Lincoln Fire Department, Dirigo Search and Rescue and newcomer Highlands Search and Rescue.

Those entities will have upwards of 60 volunteers positioned at potential problem areas along the stream, including Six Mile Falls, Valley Avenue and Shopping Cart rapids.

“It depends on the water,” Gendreau said of how often help might be needed. “Even the experienced paddlers will need rescuing sometimes, depending on the water level.”

With more than 640 people scheduled to paddle in 340-plus canoes and kayaks through some tricky whitewater sections, spills can occur often.

Safety personnel haul man out of the cold water at Six Mile Falls in Bangor in 2018 during the 52nd Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Robert Bean, the president of search and rescue for the Lincoln Fire Department, has been working the race since 1982. He has seen a change in the approach by paddlers to competing in the race.

“We used to see no boat seats, seat cushions and no life jackets, no flotation in the boats,” Bean said. “Now you see people in drysuits or wetsuits, flotation in the boat, wearing life jackets.”

Search and rescue personnel, who train for water rescues, know they can’t let their guard down for even a second.

His team is stationed both in the water and on each shore at Six Mile Falls.

“The worst we’ve had at Six Mile Falls has been a dislocated shoulder,” Bean said. “We only [back]-boarded one person in the water and that was just as a precaution.”

The potential for hypothermia is the most common concern for paddlers who fall into the water. Rescue personnel strive to get the competitors quickly to shore and into one of the warming tents.

“They’ve paddled 10 miles to get to Six Mile Falls and that’s pretty much all flatwater,” Bean said, noting that racers get quite warm in doing so. “And then when they hit the falls, if they’re in the water, it kind of stuns them for a few minutes, which is why I’ve got guys out in the water.”

Lincoln Fire also has EMTs in both warming tents.

Hypothermia even was an issue in 2021, when the water level was among the lowest in the history of the race and paddlers encountered fewer areas of high, fast water.

“Last year we dealt with quite a few hypothermic people. It was overcast and rainy and damp,” said Lint, whose team wound up shuttling some frigid competitors directly to the finish line warming tent.

Regardless of how many paddlers the search and rescue teams assist, it’s a job that is both important and appreciated.

“We get a lot of “thank you” and a lot of “thanks for being here” and “we appreciate it” and stuff like that,” Lint said.

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...