For several years, the Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society has provided safety for the Marsh Stream Canoe & Kayak Race. Each April safety-minded club members enthusiastically volunteer their time to support this worthwhile paddling endeavor, traditionally led by Kyle Duckworth.
There are added benefits for club members. Many Chowderheads participate in the downriver race. Those who provide safety assistance get to paddle the stream after the race.
Officials, racers and safety participants congregated at Winterport Riverside Riders Snowmobile Club headquarters in Winterport on a beautiful, sunny and warm spring morning. Kyle managed to herd Team Safety together to discuss plans to provide race assistance.
The snowmobile club is just a short distance from the stream where a challenging double-ledge pitch required coverage. That was where my group was assigned. Another contingent paddled downstream to a second complex rapid. At each location, we positioned some team members in their boats in the water and others on shore with throw bags.
Upstream, 31 determined racers assembled on the Loggin Road in West Winterport in preparation for the 4-mile course that ended near an old railroad bridge next to Stream Road in Winterport. They included 22 tandem and solo kayaks and canoes.
Strategically stationed at various locations along the two ledge drops, our team waited in anticipation. Soon, a skillful field of competitors began navigating their crafts through the complicated passages. Most negotiated their chosen routes without difficulty. However, one solo kayaker collided with a rock, capsized and swam. A Chowderhead paddling his kayak quickly rescued the kayaker and towed the struggling racer to shore. Others recovered the unfortunate contestant’s kayak and paddle farther downstream. Thankfully, that was our only rescue during the race.
After the race finished, more excitement followed for Team Rescue. We proceeded downstream past the race takeout toward the first of four challenging falls, Railroad Rip. The intricate rapid offers two moderately demanding choices. Paddlers can maneuver a Z-turn in tricky currents or a more straightforward but bumpy descent on the left. Our group explored both options without problems.
We weren’t as successful on Pine Island Rip. Several paddlers faced adversity at a steep pitch to the left of the island that ended with a disagreeable hydraulic. I experienced my first frosty kayak roll of the spring season while a few others swam or rolled. Team members quickly reunited the swimmers with their boats. Rolling or swimming in icy water results in a shocking experience paddlers call an “ice cream headache.”
Once the group reassembled, we progressed through a stretch of easy rapids and flatwater to the most difficult whitewater of the day, Flat Rock Falls. The question on the minds of many was would the members of the group portage or paddle? Landing on snow covered banks at the top was problematic but scouting was essential. After thoroughly inspecting the long intimidating falls, most elected to walk.
A handful of intrepid kayakers prepared to challenge the falls while others set up safety in their boats below. In order to avoid hazards at the bottom on the left and center, the preferred route entailed ferrying right, punching through a steep hole, angling right over a powerful diagonal wave and propelling their kayaks through a breaking roller into an eddy far right. The exacting sequence required precise maneuvering under precarious circumstances. Perfection was necessary and they delivered.
The last rapid of the day was around the bend. The easiest of the final four, it consists of large waves pockmarked with holes that are best avoided. Some long, fast waves appeared ripe for surfing so paddlers gathered in eddies next to them. Quality surfs were achieved by some, but most found the surging swells deceptively difficult to manage.
One canoeist tested his skills versus a turbulent hole. The hole won. Following several determined attempts to roll, he came out of his boat. Seasoned rescuers were quick to assist.
After a day of thrills, spills and multiple rescues, we gathered at the takeout in the village of Frankfort to reminisce about our exciting exploits. All agreed, the swift water rescue training the club offers each summer was of significant benefit. This was a day when tall tales paled compared with the actual events.
My book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” narrates two more exciting spring races on Kenduskeag and Souadabscook Streams.