Monday, April 18, 2011

903 Paddlers and 1 Greenland Paddle: The Kenduskeag Stream Race by Mark

"You're beating me with a stick! That's not even a real paddle!" was the good-natured shout from a fellow kayak racer as I eased past him. I had impulsively decided the night before to run the 16 mile Kenduskeag Stream Canoe race and here I was cruising along in my sea kayak with my homemade cedar Greenland-style "skinny stick" paddle.

The Kenduskeag Stream Race is a traditional celebration of Spring in Bangor, Maine, hundreds of canoes and kayaks converge for the race. Many paddlers are in wild costumes with decorated boats. But what kind of boat do you take on a race that involves 10 miles of mostly flat water, followed by two mandatory portages up steep river banks, and miles of rocks and class II/III whitewater? This race is tough on both boats and bodies. Since the water was high this year, rocks would be mostly buried, and with the Wilderness Systems Zephyr 16, I thought I had a boat that was nimble enough for whitewater but efficient enough for the long section of flatwater.

And initially, it did seem like a great choice, as I passed boat after boat. I got a lot of favorable comments on my "cool looking" skinny paddle. I'm pretty sure I was the only person using a "Greenland Stick" paddle in the race this year. Sea kayaks and Greenland paddles are both made for efficiency over long distances and I was cruising along just great, despite the sub-freezing air temperatures and the biting head wind. That all came to an end, though, when I hit the mandatory portages. Sea kayaks do not portage very well - especially roto-molded plastic boats with cargo. They are long and heavy and a difficult carry for one person.
The first mandatory portage at a place called Flour Mill wasn't too terrible - there was a small hill but it had a nice gentle path leading up it and some grass over the first section that I could drag the boat on. I hoisted the 58 pound loaded boat onto my head for the last 150 yards along the gravel path so as not to destroy the bottom of my boat. That was hard to do after 14 miles of paddling! Then, it was back into the water and a quick quarter mile paddle under the Route 95 Bridge to the second mandatory portage at Valley Ave.
(see the course here)
I got out of the boat at Valley and looked with incredulous eyes at a steep 25 foot bank to the road level. It took just about all the strength I had left to drag the boat up the near-vertical slippery slope. I thought it must have snagged on some of the small saplings along the way...but, no, it was just a lack of strength. I got it to the top, dragged it to the road and put it on my head again to get across the road, then slid it on the grass down to the put-in, thankful that I wouldn't have to carry the boat again until after the race.

After the Valley Ave portage, I hit the heaviest whitewater of the race, since I had taken the optional portage around the boat-eating Six Mile Falls. It's a section called Shopping Cart because some nameless vandal in years past decorated it with stolen grocery carts. There were no carts there this year...but there were some substantial drops and some tight lines that had to be made. It was quite a roller-coaster ride and the kayak and paddle did great in it. I mostly used extended strokes to get extra power from the paddle to drive it to the lines I wanted. Going through the drops, I found myself using an extended trailing stern brace to provide stability and to keep the bow pointed into the waves. It was at the Shopping Cart where Mike Alden had set up his camera, capturing the paddlers going through, including the watermarked photos of me. He has a great collection of photos and other race related information at his site, KenduskeagStreamCanoeRace.

After one final enormous standing wave that soaked me to my chin, it was smooth paddling through the canals and tunnels of Bangor to the finish line and the final take-out down by the Sea Dog restaurant. I was very happy to have finished without major damage to boat, paddle or body! In fact, I felt remarkably good despite all the paddling and carrying. After a brief rest and an excellent bowl of free Sea Dog chili, I dragged and carried the boat one last time to the car and stowed it on the racks.

My time for the race was 3:04; pretty good for a first time run. I'm happy just to have finished at all - only about 65% of those who started the race this year did. Congratulations to Ray Wirth, author of Waterline on his top ten finish! If I want to improve for next year I think I will practice on Six Mile Falls so I can run it instead of portaging it. Also, I should train more with carrying my boat up and down hills; maybe with some kind of sling system so I can do a comfortable shoulder carry instead of balancing it on my head. Head carrying works well for me, but it takes a lot of energy to get the boat from the ground up over the head; it puts strain on the neck and it's really hard to see where you are going.

All in all, it was a fantastic race and a lot of fun. My thanks to the Bangor Parks and Recreation department and all the volunteers for putting it all together year after year!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Union River at Low Tide

Basics: Public Launch off Water Street. Seems to be sufficient Parking. Rest Rooms in season, picnic tables year round. Launch 10:30, Low 10:30 Down to the Bay and back, 6 miles.
We arrived at the Union River at a moderately low 10:30AM tide. The concrete ramp extended in to the water, and the barren dried river bed gave a stark appearance to the area. The river was still moving at a good clip. Just upstream of the launch the river moved over rapids, and Ellsworth Center was visible.
We glided down on the current, past an array of spring fish nets. At the ramp there were no signs of salt water, but that changed quickly, first traces of seaweed, then barnacles and clams appeared. The stream had several wharf remains along it and a variety of birds, golden eyes, buffle heads, the obligatory eagle and even a turkey were spotted on or over the river. Cormorants were on the river, back from their winter hiatus to the south.
It was a short pleasant journey to the base of Blue Hill Bay, where we stopped at what we thought was an exposed sand bar, though later examination of charts determined that at low tide it was attached to the shore; and therefore, under Maine rules, private property not available for landing.
I had some concerns that working my way up the river would tire me, but to my gratitude the wind picked up, and we blew up river to the launch.

When we'd launched we were the only car at the site, but not so on our return. A number of vehicles filled the lot with residents enjoying the warmth of a spring Sunday settled at picnic tables and below the grand gazebo.
All in all, the Union River at low tide was a great choice for an early spring paddle, though one should be cautious about the velocity of the downstream current. There is a channel up the middle of the river, varying in depth from 15 feet to 3. But through much of our journey we paddled over shallow water, and could easily have waded to the shore. Our favorite parts were exploring the sand bar island (which regrettably we know now is not an option for future trips), playing the fast water above the launch, (though it was rocky enough that we did not go very far up) and having the salt water in the bay rinsed off by the time we made it back to our car.