Bob Martin and Terry Wescott paddle along the Meduxnekeag river as part of the annual canoe race in Houlton on May 1st. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — A healthy dose of rain in recent weeks has organizers of the 2022 Meduxnekeag River Canoe Race excited for how many people next weekend’s annual race might draw to Aroostook County.

The Meduxnekeag River Canoe Race returns Saturday, April 30, and falls near the beginning of the state’s canoe race schedule. The event was not held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but returned to prominence in 2021. Paddlers come from around the state to earn points in the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization standings.

More than a third of the participants hail from outside of Aroostook County, according to Jane Torres, executive director for the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce. Some travel nearly 300 miles from southern Maine to take part.

So why is the event so popular with those who live in other places?

“They come for the potatoes,” Torres said.

Along with the category winners, every paddler who does not reside in Aroostook County is presented with a bag of County potatoes to take home with them. In some years, that means more than 50 bags of County spuds are distributed.

“The river is a little bit high at the moment, but I think we should be just fine,” Torres said. “The enthusiasm is certainly out there for this year’s race.”

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.

Last year, a slightly smaller turnout of about 80 paddlers participated in the race. The tandem of

Jeff Owen and Anna Drinkert were the fastest to cross the finish line. The duo completed the course in one hour, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.

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 pre-register 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 a meal for a nominal fee. Several vendors will also be set up in Riverside Park this year.

Some years, the water levels are so low that paddlers have to exit their boats and walk along the rockier sections of the river. That should not be the case this year, as the water levels are more than adequate, Torres said.

Houlton native Peter Blood, a longtime canoeist who returns to Houlton each year to assist with the race, will review the water conditions to make sure it is safe for everyone, Torres said.

In addition, Al Cowperthwaite and Jimmy McParland have volunteered to be the race “sweepers,” making sure that no paddler gets left behind.

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 an opportunity for students at the now-defunct 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.

Another race in the series — the Kenduskeag Stream canoe and kayak race — was just held on Saturday, April 16, and the 48th annual Kiwanis Piscataquis River Race will be held Saturday, April 23, in Guilford.

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