“Switch,” Travis instructed from the stern and I lifted my paddle to switch sides of the canoe. We were canoeing in the 55th annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. This quintessential event is as “Maine” as Moxie and is one of the largest paddling races in the country.
We paddled using quick, short strokes, because that’s what I had read was the most efficient. A serious looking couple passed us with ease on our left. Though they looked to be in their 50s, it was obvious by their synchronized, strong paddling and timed “hut!” queuing them to switch paddle sides, that this was not their first race.
“Maybe we should say “hut” instead of “switch”?” I teased Travis.
A sea of green and red canoes meandered down river with us, with a few kayaks sprinkled in. The entire event looked like it was sponsored by nearby Old Town Canoe, an iconic canoe company founded just 20 miles east. The dreary day’s forecast had not deterred the nearly 800 paddlers.
Suddenly our canoe rocked from side to side, “Crap, I lost my hat,” Travis said.
“How?” I asked, confused because the waters were calm.
“I hit it with my paddle and knocked it off my head,” he responded, and I laughed.
We were not experienced canoeists and it showed.
Though it was my fourth time paddling the Kenduskeag, the last time I canoed anything other than a calm pond was 2014 when I did the race with my friend Amy. It was Travis’ first time doing the race and first time canoeing in whitewater.
We were not the only recreationalists on the river. We saw paddlers dressed in banana costumes, paddlers wearing bunny ears and people playing music. Last time I raced, Amy and I wore fake beards.
From the shores of the steam, locals cheered and kids shook tambourines. A group of backyard barbecuers offered free beers to paddlers. It was the Beach to Beacon of canoeing.
The first 10 miles of the 16.5-mile race were relatively flat, which meant a lot of paddling. “Switch! We were on that side forever,” I complained to Travis, impatient that I had to say it because he hadn’t. My shoulders burned.
Canoes are nicknamed “divorce boats” and even though we weren’t married, I could see why. We hadn’t even reached the whitewater yet.
The water level was high due to recent rain and flowed at more than 1,000 cubic feet per second. This meant times would be fast and the last 6 miles of the rapids would run well. Some years, flow was below 200 cubic feet per second.
After an hour and a half of paddling, we approached the first major whitewater, also the largest rapid of the race, called Six Mile Falls.
The river narrowed and canoes ahead of us fell into single file. The left side of the stream was shallow, so we hugged the right. Then the canoe in front of us hit a rock and turned sideways, blocking the entire channel. There was nowhere to go, and we couldn’t stop so we crashed into them perpendicularly.
“Oh, I know you. Hi Christi.” I looked up and saw my friend from college, Justin, sitting in the bow of the canoe that blocked the path.
“Oh hi!” I responded nervously. I was worried we were about to capsize, or head down the impending falls backwards. Finally, with a push from Justin, we were able to squeeze past his grounded canoe toward the Falls.
“Cut hard left!” I guided Travis, remembering how to take the Falls. You have to hit it right in the middle, or else you’ll capsize. With a large splash we made it down the falls upright. River vultures (the people and photographers lining the bridge and shore to watch the carnage at Six Mile Falls) cheered. Safety personnel in dry suits waded in the river, throwing ropes to capsized paddlers to help them to shore. After high-fiving our paddles and bailing out the water in the boat, we were back on track.
“Ok two mandatory portages, then Shopping Cart Falls and that’s it,” I coached.
The last 6 miles were almost all whitewater. We no longer paddled for speed, but maneuvered around rocks, trying to stay afloat. Because I am not experienced at reading rivers, we read the canoes ahead of us and followed the ones that made it through, while avoiding the ones that were stuck or capsized.
As we beached the canoe for the mandatory portage around Flour Mill Dam, I struggled trying to walk for the first time in two hours. I felt like a newborn giraffe. We lifted the canoe onto our heads and carried it the longest 500 feet of my life before re-entering the stream. The next mandatory portage at Maxfield Bridge was short and we were quickly back in the boat.
We had just begun paddling when we got hung up on a rock I didn’t see. Travis kicked us off the rock, and we crashed down a small rapid, and capsized. The 40-degree water didn’t feel cold, thanks to the wetsuit I wore, and the water was calm after the small drop. We swam to shore with the canoe, turned it over and climbed back in.
“I suck at being in the bow,” I said to Travis, accepting the blame for not spotting that rock. In past races, my friend Amy had been in the bow.
“You kind of do,” Travis teased.
We had dumped. But at least there were no river vultures or photographers around.
After we regained composure after our swim, we entered Shopping Cart Falls. As opposed to Six Mile Falls, which is one large fall, Shopping Cart Falls is a series of smaller falls. We bounced up and splashed down hard multiple times, and though the boat took on a lot of water, we stayed afloat. At the end of the Falls, we bailed again and continued on to the final leg of the race.
When we entered the calm, concrete canals of downtown Bangor, we shifted into high gear and paddled hard. We finished in 3 hours, 14 minutes, which was good enough for second place in the one male, one female, beginner category.
And we didn’t get divorced.