I like Maine. The state is truly vast—it has counties that are larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined—yet its population is less than half of that of Brooklyn. When you leave behind the narrow strip of coast that’s choked with outlet malls and tourists saying “lobstah”, you find yourself on rural roads passing through groves of pine trees that stretch hundreds of miles to Canada. The speed limit is 75. Flummoxed moose loom out of the woods watching cars pass beneath their velvety muzzles. People ride snowmobiles and ATVs on public roads. Woodpiles are larger than the houses that they heat. As with all rural areas in a tough climate, the people are hardy, self-sufficient, and have very creative ideas on how to have a good time.
I drove up to Maine with DW to compete in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, an annual event that attracts over 400 boats. A Mainer calling the Kenduskeag a “stream” is like an Australian calling a crocodile “grumpy.” The Kenduskeag in April is a 100-foot-wide torrent of 33 degree meltwater slipping into the watershed somewhere in Quebec and then picking up inertia as it pummels its way through hundreds of miles of land before smashing into the Penobscot and the sea. The river swells so much that trees grow out of the water in the shallower areas by the banks, and even without paddling the canoe moves faster than a walking pace.
DW and I unloaded the boat at the starting area and sized up the competition. We were better off than the people who were racing in jeans and t-shirts with no spare gear or water bottles. Nevertheless, we were definitely on the low-tech end of the spectrum. Lots of people had buoyed their canoes with float bags and foam rails, lots of people wore wetsuits, and some people pored over heavily highlighted maps of the 16-mile-long course. We had none of that stuff—the plan was to aim the boat downstream—but we battened down our dry bags, strapped in an extra paddle, and got ready for our wave to launch.
The Kenduskeag is a race that lulls you into a false sense of security. The first ten miles of it are on fairly flat water, and you can drift lazily, chat with other boats, and have a snack. Some people get a little too comfortable, and as we waited to launch I saw two different boats flip in the flat water within 10 yards of the starting area. DW and I paddled fairly hard through the opening stretch, because we were starting far back in the pack of boats and wanted to get well ahead.
The first rapids that we encountered were Six Mile Falls. There was significant congestion going down the left flank of the river, including some boats that were stuck under horizontal logs, so I steered us to the right edge of the river instead. It soon became clear why this route was less trafficked. We crested over an unseen ledge and for a moment our boat was poised on a fulcrum in the middle, teetering between the water pushing us forward and a two foot drop to the churning pool below. Going backwards or sideways wasn’t an option, so we bumped the boat forward, crashed nose-first into the pool, and capsized. DW and I managed to hang onto the gunwales and steer our boat too shore, where we dragged it out of the water and jumped around to force the shocking cold out of our bones. After baling the boat and righting it, we scouted ahead and picked the line we would take down the right edge of Six Mile Falls.
We nosed the boat back out and were shot out into the current faster than we could have imagined. I steered the bow towards the first corner we would have to make to hold our line, but wasn’t able to turn the boat afterwards to keep us pointed in the right direction. Instead the stern got caught in the slipstream and spun us, sending us down backwards. DW and I backpaddled to stabilize us, and then were able to brace and spin the boat forward again. The bow snagged a rock and spun us once more backwards! DW lost hold of his paddle in the confusion, then saw it floating alongside and snatched it up to paddle again. We straightened out at the bottom of the falls and finished the rapids facing forwards. After our first spill, we had barely shipped a gallon of water despite doing two complete revolutions down the rapids. Dozens of spectators on the bridge above cheered as we whooped and beat the water.
It turns out we peaked at Six Mile Falls. We were pushed over the next waterfall abeam and capsized again. DW and I tried to swim the canoe to shore, but we couldn’t make any progress against the ferocious current and we were being bashed against huge underwater rocks. I decided to let go of my paddle in hopes of hanging on to the boat, but was soon forced to let go of that too. Rescue volunteers on the shore threw tethered lifesaving buoys to haul us out of the whitewater, and we stumbled ashore to see absolute carnage. At least one out of every three boats that went by tipped, and rescuers could hardly retrieve and throw their buoys fast enough. DW and I watched as our boat, now turtled, evaded the flotsam and then slipped around the river bend.
We went overland. At times sticking to a path, at times crashing our way through the thick brush, we followed the river chasing our bobbing boat. We lost sight of it but trudged on, and finally found it a mile downstream where some saintly Samaritan had tied to a tree on our side of the river. All of our gear was still attached, and we launched again. We capsized one more time before the end of the race and had to chase the boat once more. No kindly strangers were around to push it over to us, so I jumped into the frigid river to swim it back to shore. We were shooting Class III rapids, but some of them got even bigger: there were two stretches where the river was Class IV or Class V and we had to haul out and portage the boat along the bank. Several canoers missed the portages and were sucked into the maelstrom, and we began to hear sirens and see ambulances moving along the overpasses. The flatwater section felt far away.
The race finished beautifully. After clearing all of the crazy water, you come up to the finish line in downtown Bangor. The river cut through a brick canyon made by old factories that went down to the water’s edge, and the water was so high that we had to bend over double in the boat to pass under the footbridges that spanned the river. Our final time was 4 hours, 51 minutes and 30 seconds for a 16.5 mile race, including the portions that we did overland as we chased our boat. I was so tired that I could barely walk. We managed to eat about three thousand calories each and I drank the best beer I’ve ever tasted in my life before falling into 11 hours of dreamless sleep.