Canoeing the Penobscot
Canoeists paddle on the Penobscot River during a daylong trip led by Forage River Outfitters. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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There’s a certain kind of majesty to paddling a canoe. 

Maybe it’s the sense of self-determination we feel while sitting in the stern, our paddle acting in accordance with our will as we propel our way downriver or across a lake like bold explorers of yesteryear. 

We’re at one with the water – commanders of our paddling destinies. (Although we’re fooling ourselves a bit; Mother Nature always has the upper hand. That’s why adhering to proper safety measures and knowing rescue techniques is so important. More on those skills in a minute.)

Kayla Birdsall, Greg Sarnacki
Kayla Birdsall ties a knot under the watchful eye of Master Maine Guide Greg Sarnacki of Forage River Outfitters. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

For centuries, canoes were an integral means to travel, explore, and trade for cultures around the globe – and in some places they still are. The Pesse canoe, uncovered in 1955 in the Netherlands, dates back to sometime between 8040 and 7510 BC and is the oldest known canoe. 

In modern Maine days, if you’re paddling in a canoe, it’s likely you’re doing it with leisurely goals – another noble purpose. 

If you’re new to paddling a canoe, or you’ve spent plenty of time tooling around Maine’s rivers and lakes but would like to broaden your skills and elevate your on-water confidence, sign up for a Penobscot River Canoe Trip this summer with Master Maine Guide Greg Sarnacki. 

Launching on the Penobscot
Launching canoes on the Penobscot to get on-the-water experience during the Forage River Outfitters class. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

The Penobscot River Canoe Trip is hands-on learning at its finest. The one-day class begins at a field training site in Mattawamkeag, where you’ll gain some paddling know-how on dry land before sliding your canoe into the Penobscot River for the afternoon. You’ll learn paddle strokes and signals, rescue techniques, and what a Prusik knot is (and when to use it), and you’ll practice reading the water and navigating small rapids.

You might even find yourself floating in the Penobscot with your legs flung over the bow of a canoe to help stabilize it while one of your classmates climbs back in. It’s all part of the on-the-water experience that will leave you feeling like a more confident and competent paddler. 

Sarnacki is the founder of Forage River Outfitters (as the company name suggests, he can teach you a thing or two about hunting down the edible and medicinal plants and mushrooms of Maine) and has been sharing his canoeing expertise for a long while. 

Poling upriver
Poling upriver during class on the Penobscot. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

He’s leading two Penobscot River Canoe Trips this summer, July 9 and Aug. 6; each runs from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. The cost is $125 per person and includes canoes, PFDs, and other gear, as well as snacks, water, and lunch on the shore of the Penobscot River. They also include top-notch instruction.

In the morning you’ll meet Sarnacki and your fellow classmates before settling in to get acquainted with some canoeing basics. He walks you through the parts of the canoe, the different kinds of paddles and paddle strokes, and how to read the water to better understand what’s happening just beneath the surface. 

Your class will also get some on-land practice with knot tying and river rescues, perhaps with some friendly competition in a Z-rescue race, where you’ll practice retrieving a broached canoe. 

Shore lunch
A shore lunch prepared along the Penobscot River by Forage River Outfitters. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Then it’s off to the Penobscot for some real-river experience. On the water, you’ll hone your paddle strokes and sharpen your river-reading savvy while navigating around obstacles and through some light rapids. There’s also ample time to simply paddle along and enjoy the slow current of the river and spot eagles in the trees. 

When it’s time for lunch, your canoe crew will pull out onto the river’s edge for a traditional Maine Guide shore lunch – a satiating meal cooked over a fire. 

Midday is also river-rescue time. That means you’ll get to dump your canoe on purpose, then practice T-rescues with your classmates while Sarnacki offers guidance and assistance and shows you how to create a reliable stirrup with some rope and a paddle to help someone get back into their canoe after falling out. This is a thrilling part of the class (and refreshing, if it happens to be a hot day), but also an important experience for canoeing safety. It’s way better to practice a rescue in good conditions than to try and figure it out in bad ones. 

Penobscot River Canoe Trip class
The class and instructors from a 2020 Penobscot River Canoe Trip. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Before the day comes to an end and the canoes are pulled from the water, you’ll have a chance to try poling upriver. While those who do it often make it look effortless, it’s no easy feat to stand in a canoe and pole against the current. It’s possible you won’t be successful at it right out of the gate, but it sure is entertaining to try. 

Throughout the day, Sarnacki shares his wisdom in an insightful and good-humored way, creating an environment that encourages you to learn about and appreciate the Maine outdoors, while also feeling free to sing out “push it real good” while your new-found canoe friends are fighting to pole upriver.

Whether your next trip is for trade, exploration, or leisure, you’ll be ready. 

Shannon Bryan is a writer and outdoor enthusiast who lives in South Portland. Find her at shannonkbryan.com.