Old Town will be bustling this week as paddlers from around the nation head to the Penobscot River and test themselves against a “new” stretch of the Penobscot River.
OK, that’s not entirely true. The river, of course, is still rather old. But the whitewater sections that will test competitors during the Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta? That’s another story.
Until the Great Works Dam was removed from the river in 2012, the section of the river that includes the regatta’s biggest set of rapids was not navigable. And before the Veazie Dam also was removed in 2013 as part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, paddlers wouldn’t have been able to make their way all the way from Old Town to Eddington, which they’ll do in this week’s downriver races.
Scott Phillips, the race director and a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, which is staging the four-day event, said the changes to the river are worth noticing and appreciating.
“For me as a tribal member, this is not just about competition,” Phillips said Tuesday as he stood next to the Great Works rapids. “This is really about a celebration of the river, of restoring it back to as close as we can get to the natural state.”
Phillips said that as of Tuesday, 130 paddlers had pre-registered for the races, which will be held from Thursday until Sunday. Those paddlers include competitors in the American Canoe Association nationals, as well as regatta participants in kayaks and on stand-up paddleboards.
“It’s been a long time since it’s been over 100 competitors at the whitewater nationals,” Phillips said. “Part of [the reason for the increase] is that it’s new. The river being opened up, it’s a new challenge. There are a lot of people from out of state who are coming who are just excited to see Maine and see something new, and I think the locals want to paddle it as well.”
Downriver races Thursday and Friday will be 9.5-mile affairs, starting at Binette Park in Old Town and finishing at the Eddington Salmon Club. Saturday’s sprint races will consist of a mad 600- to 700-yard dash through rapids.
“The spectating is going to be great, especially right here in Bradley, at the Great Works rapid,” Phillips said. “You can see the entire rapid [from shore].”
Phillips said spectators can turn off Route 178 onto Broad Street in Bradley, park at the town ball field and walk a short distance to the river. That will give visitors great vantage points to watch the gnarliest part of the course.
“This is the most difficult rapid on the course, so you can plenty to see here all four days. And Saturday’s going to be a special day here, because we’re only racing this rapid,” Phillips said. “You’ll see the whole [sprint] event taking place right from this one spot. And on Saturday, we’re starting one boat a minute, so it will be two to three hours of constant activity here.”
For a complete race schedule, visit penobscotriverwhitewaternationalsregatta.com.
Phillips said spectators also may want to head to Old Town, where race headquarters will be set up at Binette Park. Activities are planned at the park each day, he said.
“There are going to be some cultural activities there,” Phillips said. “On Saturday, there will be some vendors in the park, some of the native artists from [Indian Island] and some of our other sponsor vendors.”
Also on Saturday, the Boomhouse restaurant will hold a paddler’s dinner — you don’t actually have to be a paddler to attend — just after the daily awards ceremony is staged at 5 p.m.
Phillips said the races aren’t just for adults, either.
“Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m. and Friday afternoon at 2, there are youth races for kids under 16,” he said. “They’re going to race from the Orono boat landing just down to the Veazie Town Office. It’s just current with maybe some Class I [rapids], and they’ll be chaperoned by some adults following along. It’s good for the kids to get in there and experience racing canoes and kayaks.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke.