A pair of paddlers try to get around another pair who flipped their canoe at Six Mile Falls during the 55th running of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race in Bangor on Saturday, April 16, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

People from Greater Bangor and around the state show up every year to line the banks and watch the annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.

This marks the 56th year of Maine’s so-called harbinger of spring, which is not only a paddling competition but the celebration of a time-honored tradition and an opportunity to get outdoors after another winter.

The action begins at 10 a.m. in Kenduskeag Village, but there won’t be a steady flow of boats coming through Six Mile Falls until well after 11.

If you prefer to view the action from the comfort of your living room, the Bangor Daily News will carry a livestream from Six Mile Falls

Where to watch

After launching, the paddlers will make the 16 1/2-mile slog from Kenduskeag Village all the way to the Penobscot River in downtown Bangor.

Many longtime Kenduskeag Stream race fans congregate in key spots, most notably Six Mile Falls, for the chance to see less fortunate — and often less experienced — racers go for an invigorating swim in the chilly water while trying to negotiate the drop and rapids.

Some of those “river vultures” revel in the misfortune of unfortunate paddlers, but it has long been part of the spectacle that is the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.

what being a “river vulture” is all about

Because of that excitement, Six Mile Falls is the definitive spot for folks who want to get a feel for what makes the race so much fun for viewers. First-timers should definitely check out the scene there, which often features music, cheering, jeering, spills, chills, laughter and maybe even a few tears.

There’s plenty of room on the banks of the stream, and even on the bridge, to see the action. However, be aware that prime spots get taken quickly.

With temperatures Saturday expected to range from the mid-50s to the lower 60s, and no rain in the forecast, it should be a great day for observers and paddlers alike. It doesn’t hurt to wear some boots or waterproof shoes if you plan to be milling around near the water’s edge. It is mud season, after all.

If you would prefer a less congested scenario for watching the race, head streamside near Bullseye Bridge on Griffin Road in Bangor or along Valley Avenue in Bangor, which marks the homestretch to the finish line downtown.

Better yet, if you have friends who live somewhere along the stream, those backyard venues can be prime real estate to view the parade of paddlers as they make their way toward the finish line.

The best of the best

Race fans likely will be able to get a glimpse, albeit a fleeting one, of some of the top paddlers who know how to successfully and quickly negotiate the Kenduskeag.

That list contains perennial favorite Trevor MacLean of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The solo kayaker has been the fastest paddler down the stream a record 16 times, including his victory in the 2022 event.

Robert Lang of New Brunswick still holds the record for fastest time ever of 1 hour, 50 minutes, 8 seconds, set in 1997. The solo kayaker was a 12-time overall champion in the race.

Breaking two hours on the Kenduskeag, which requires high, fast water, paddling skill and a capable craft, is considered one of the ultimate accomplishments. It has been done only 28 times since the inaugural race was held in 1967.

best of the ’22 kenduskeag stream canoe race

Other paddlers among the five fastest finishes of all time include two-man kayakers Fred Ludwig and Steve Moser (1:51:27 in 1997) and the duo of Jeff Owen and Steve Woodard, who in 2007 set the best-ever finish time in a canoe, 1:52:30.

The other top five fastest finishers are kayakers Kenny Cushman (1:52:45 in 1997) and MacLean (1:53:30 in 2007).

That said, there are numerous race titles up for grabs as paddlers may compete in a variety of experience and age categories. Of course, for many it’s more about the experience and the accomplishment of making it to the finish line, no matter how long it takes.

The history of the race

The Kenduskeag Stream Canoe debuted in 1967, the brainchild of Lew Gilman and Sonny Colburn. Only 51 paddlers competed in the inaugural event.

Colburn and Gilman never could have imagined the legacy their idea would leave on the Maine canoe and kayak racing community.

The race has been held every year since, with the exception of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The race enjoyed its greatest popularity, at least among paddlers, back in 1994. A record 1,529 paddlers hit the water for that one. By comparison, more than 600 people grabbed a paddle and competed in one of 366 canoes and kayaks in 2022.

If you’re interested in a bit of a history lesson about the origins and growth of the race over the years, check out this story by the BDN’s Emily Burnham, which covers some of the race’s highlights over the years.

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...