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Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race in Maine

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Bangor, Maine for the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race

It is not who wins or loses, but who puts on the biggest show capsizing their canoe. This was the main sentiment that I took away from being a spectator at the Kenduskeag Stream canoe race which runs through Bangor, Maine each April. Yesterday, I watched as hundreds of canoes, kayaks, rafts, and other sell propelled styled boating crafts plied the waves and rapids of the Kenduskeag. The rowers are often dressed for the show: some as vikings in war canoes, others as bananas in equally yellow and proportionally shaped kayaks, while others were decked out as witches, and cowboys, and pirates, and punks. There was even a canoe of three girls each respectively sporting their own assault on gravity with very large bulbous bouffants dyed bright orange, green, and red sprouting up from the tops of their heads.

But it is the Gumby boat that is a Kenduskeag canoe race favorite. “They do this every year, when I was little I use to come here just for the Gumby boat,” my 26 year old Mainer wife recalls. Team Gumby past by amid a huge ovation from the crowd. They consisted of four men in green shirts chanting “Gumby! Gumby!” as they maneuvered briskly through the rapids. Gumby — or a six foot high blow up rendition of such — was the fifth man in the operation, and he looked more at home on the river than most of the humans who past by unsteadily in canoes. He certainly had more experience — this was the 26th year in a row he had participated in this race.

Team Gumby. Photo by Miriam Kates Goldman.

To top off this grand race, a few oddballs even seemed to be trying to win, and they zoomed on their canoes and kayaks deftly through the rapids making haste towards the finish line. But the crowd seemed to grow bored of these adept boaters and gazed hopefully up river for a canoe full of novices going sideways, backwards, or otherwise askance into the rapids. The revelry of this crowd was for one thing: capsizing canoes and kayaks with their riders spilling out into the freezing water. Nobody in the crowd that gathered around the rapids seemed to know what the winners of the race won, or even if there were winners. The racing part of this race was a moot point really, used mainly as a mulligan to get 600 participants into the water and welcome the beginning of spring after a long winter in Maine.

“I suppose you can see people riding in canoes and kayaks everyday, but how often do you get to see dozens of people capsizing over rapids into freezing water?” I remarked as I got my first glimpse of what this race was really about.

Background of the Kenduskeag Canoe Race

Canoes crashing the the Kenduskeag race

The people of Maine know that the long winter is about to end not only by the recession of snow, the rise of the sun, the buds on the trees, and  the perennials in the gardens rising out of their long hibernating, but also by Kenduskeag canoe race. Since 1967, this 16 mile race has cut through the forests of the state and had its terminus in Bangor.

“The weather is getting warmer,” my 80 something year old grandfather in law spoke generally to a clerk in a store on the morning of race day.

“Yeah, but it’s going to be cold in the water,” the clerk replied automatically.

Everyone in Bangor was thinking only one thing on this day: the canoe race. And the clerk was correct, the ice of winter had just melted into the rivers in this part of Maine, and on this 40 degree windy day — considered warm by many local inhabitants —  the Kenduseag would be freezing. But the fact remained that ice over the stream had been warmed enough to melt: another testament to the end of winter in this cold, cold land. Spring has come to Maine, the canoe race had begun.

River Vultures

People who oppose bloodsports are over-moralizing vegetarians of the flabbiest Hindu sort. -Teddy Roosevelt

“River vultures…live vicariously through the foolhardy pursuits of others. We stand beside the stream and wait for the carrion to start piling up. Then…I’m sorry to admit this…some of us cheer.” -John Holyoke, Bangor Daily News

“What is your number?” a race organizer calls out to two men carrying a canoe through a race checkpoint.

“453.”

“453?”

” Yeah.”

“It’s all downhill from here.”

In point, the leaders of this canoe race are often the contestants who are skilled at maneuvering the boats that they are racing. While the rest — from my observations the bulk of the riders — are those doing the race for kicks. The downhill side of this race would be those more likely to crash, capsize, and give the crowd around the rapids the show they came to see.

They call them the river vultures. This is the designation for the crowds that gather around the points on the Kenduskeag that prove challenging to navigate and where many boaters capsize, sink, crash or otherwise fall into the stream. It is no secret that the crowds gather to watch the falls, and the photographers vie for position along the rocks on the bank that would offer the best view of the capsizing canoes and sinking kayaks. Everyone cheers and laughs when boats sink.  There were many cheers on this day in Maine.

“I really love it when the people think they are through the rapids and start celebrating right before they sink,” a friend exclaimed.

I had to agree: all too often a novice set of canoers would meet the flow of the rapids head on, crash in the waves, come through the other side still right side up and cheering just to have the water that was splashed up into the boat slowly sink them to the bottom of the stream further down river. It was the ultimate anti-climax. The crowd loves it.

This good cheer shown towards capsizing and sinking boaters is not maliciousness on the part of anyone, this is one of the the prime attractions of both taking part in and watching this event. The riders crash, the crowds cheer, and, after emerging from the depths of the ice cold water, the riders, inevitably, laugh and cheer for themselves along with the rest of the river vultures.

It is not the person who triumphs over nature and man that is applauded in this race, the true winner is the person who is laid to waste by the power of the river and is then able to laugh about it.

Like so, this race seemed to have more winners than any other of its kind. From where I sat and watched, I would estimate that a third of the riders capsized, sank, or somehow fell out of their boats in the course of the race.

The rapids, rocks and waves represent a challenge to paddlers, but some veterans of the race have claimed that overturned boats and dumped swimmers are the true obstacle course. Canoes and kayaks can pile up at the rapids, leading to the Three C’s: chaos, collisions and carnage. -Keneuskeag Canoe Race History

It is not my impression that anyone has died in the Kenduseag canoe race recent memory, so little worry is paid to the racers capsizing into the cold water. When the racers do fall in, they are often quickly pulled out by the rescue teams employed to throw buoys made from old bleach jugs out for them to grab on to. The fallen racers either grab onto these jugs or continue floating down the river hanging for dear life onto their capsized water craft.

But it was the unmanned kayaks and canoes that were the real causes of applaud. The mystery of what happened to the riders of the overturned boats floating madly down the river was too much to keep from laughing about. It was common here for a canoe to bob over the rocks and carry on to the end of the race without its navigator. This is perhaps the only canoe race in the world in which more boats have the potential to finish than people.

What happened to the rider? Who knows?

“In the paper throughout the next week after the race you will see all kinds of ads from people looking for their paddles and boats,” I was told. I had to admit that at the race’s height a large amount of boating gear when floating on its own volition down the Kenduskeag. Sometimes it looked at though a well stocked river supply store was air dropped upon the river. Supposedly, there are people scooping up the errantly floating boating gear at the end of the race to return to their rightful owners. .

Conclusion

Rogue canoe in the Kenduskeag race

In celebrating the coming of spring an inherent essence of joy rises to the surface of just about any population that must preserver through long, cold winters. The people of the far northeast of the USA are coming out of their hovels and getting back out into the nature that surrounds them. In Maine, they jump into boats and ride them joyfully down a frigid river to thousands of cheering spectators.

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There is something essential about this canoe race, something that shows the character of a place that sits at an odd juncture between the lower 47 states, the sea, and Canada. As for who won the race, it is not my impression that many people care. My initial inquires were met with ambivalence — “I don’t know, the same guy just wins every year” — and I gave up asking rather quickly. Winning here does not seem to be the point of racing. Rather, the Gumby boat, the bulbous bouffants, the vikings, the kids with the pink mohawks who were completely creamed by the rapids, and the guy in the tuxedo that canoes the entire race standing up are the true stars of the show. At least this was my impression, gleaned from watching the 2011 Kenduskeag canoe race with the river vultures.

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Filed under: Culture and Society, Maine, North America, Sports, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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