Bright and early Saturday morning, a large throng of paddlers will gather in the town of Kenduskeag, mill about, check their gear, and prepare for the 50th running of one of the region’s iconic spring events.
It’s time, once again, for the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. The organizers are ready. The paddlers are eager. And the river vultures — those race fans who gather near rapids, rooting for the stream to exact its annual toll — are ready to feed.
The veteran racers will be there, of course. You’ll be able to identify some of them quite easily: They’ll be standing beside battered boats that are decorated with 10 or 20 or 30 ace participation stickers.
Alongside them, you’ll find canoeists and kayakers of all experience levels. Some race every weekend during the season. For others, this 16-mile jaunt to Bangor is it … their once-a-year foray into whitewater racing.
Still others — they’ll be the ones laughing nervously — are here for the first time … and many have no idea what they’re in for.
Sunburn? A chilly dousing in the unforgiving Kenduskeag? Fatigue? Soreness? All are possible. So is this: These rookies might have such a good time that they’ll save the date of next year’s race as soon as they finish.
That’s what happens, you see: Competitors become friends here. They share their war stories, about rocks they didn’t see, and rapids that swallowed them, then spit them out. Then they make a point to reconnect in the future.
Same time next year.
A year ago, the race was postponed for a week due to snow and ice that was reluctant to melt. This year, after an early thaw, things are different. Much different.
“This rain the last couple of days helped a lot,” said Debbie Gendreau, the assistant director of Bangor Parks and Recreation, and race director. “It’s not going to be as low [water] as we thought. It’s going to be good.”
A month or more ago, it was a different story. The snow had melted. The stream was trickling. Rocks were visible everywhere.
And while the rain earlier this week turned the stream into a roiling beast for a couple of days, the water has receded, leaving it perfectly raceable, Gendreau said.
“I think it’s going to be at a good running level,” she said. “Not too low for people, but definitely not running high.”
Gendreau said there are a few paddlers who will watch the water level and only decide to enter the race if the flow is high. She said a steady stream of entrants signed up at Bangor Parks and Recreation this week, and entries are running nearly identical to what they were a year ago.
Entrants have until 1 p.m. Friday to sign up in person for $25 per paddler. At that point, registration will shut down until 6:30 a.m. on Saturday. She notes, however, that paddlers will only be able to sign up for an hour, and those opting to register at the starting line during that time span will pay $50 per person.
Veteran vultures will recognize many of the faces they see on the river. Zip Kellogg will paddle through Six Mile Falls, standing up. Trevor Maclean will go zipping by in his racing kayak, likely bound for another overall win. The Gumby boat will entertain young spectators. Veteran canoeists with names like Owen and Dana and Cole and Loring will go about their tasks without fanfare, but with a level of intensity and skill that only becomes readily apparent a few hours later, on the list of category champs.
Some years, it rains during the Kenduskeag race. Some years, it snows. Some years, it’s 75 degrees. Some years, it’s 28.
This year, Gendreau said she’s already put in an order for good weather, and it appears she’ll be rewarded.
“I would say 58 degrees and bright sun, no clouds,” she said with a laugh. “It couldn’t be more perfect.”
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke