Kenduskeak Stream Canoe Race
The view from the bow of a canoe during the 2019 Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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We dumped our canoe 30 seconds into the race.

Like many canoe tippings, it was an experience felt in slow-motion – a delicate lean that began as a graceful nod and ended with four startled paddlers immersed to their chins and yelping with glee and shock in the cold spring waters of Kenduskeag Stream.

In full view of the starting-line spectators, no less.

Our first go at the annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race wasn’t exactly smooth. Our ending wasn’t either: We dumped our canoe again just before the finish line.

But those 16-or-so miles in between? Pure glory.

Kenduskeag starting line
Paddlers prepare at the starting line of the 2019 Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

The Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race is a longstanding and popular paddlers’ right of passage. The race, which takes place every spring (this year marks the 55th annual event), rallies canoeists and kayakers for a 16.5-mile paddle that begins in the town of Kenduskeag and ends near the confluence of the Penobscot River in downtown Bangor.

Along the way they’ll encounter rapids and rocks, they’ll portage their boats up muddy riverbanks, and – if they accept the challenge – they’ll test their mettle through Six Mile Falls.

Spectators abound along the way, sometimes sitting in camping chairs near the riverbank or leaning over the railing of an overpass, cheering on the canoeists as they paddle by.

But the best place to witness the action is the aforementioned Six Mile Falls, a section of Class II-III rapids (water level and discharge depending) crowded with rock and overhanging branches. There’s a reason people like to position themselves here: it’s the unadulterated pleasure of watching a parade of canoes roll belly up in the rushing water, their paddlers spilling into the churn. Many others make it through, prompting whoops and woohoos from those watching.

Most of the photos and videos you have seen from the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race are from Six Mile Falls; that footage lures in many adventurous first-timers who wish to put themselves in the melee.

Others take one look at that rough tumble of whitewater and respond, “Yea, no.”

Six Mile Falls
A two-person team makes its way through Six Mile Falls during the 2019 Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

For the better part of a decade, when I’d hear that registration had opened for that year’s Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, I’d browse photos and watch videos online, simultaneously talking myself into and out of actually doing it.

In 2019, three friends and I decided to go for it. Why did we think putting four people in a canoe meant for two was a good idea? It was just one of our many “seemed like a good idea at the time” decisions (and a major contributing factor to our frequent tip-overs).

But despite the dunkings, the cold toes, and our embarrassingly slow going, we had an incredible time.

Why? It’s fun as all get-out.

Kayakers and canoeists turn out in solid form, many decked in costumes and regalia, perhaps with an inflatable Gumby or Minion wedged into the canoe, too. Whatever the weather (it’s April in Maine, after all; the weather is probably going to be cold, overcast, and damp), the atmosphere is lively. Participants are eager to thaw out their paddling arms and reintroduce their canoes to the water, no matter how frigid it feels.

It’s a thrilling challenge, particularly for us middling canoeists who are confident enough to sign up but not confident we’ll remain upright for the duration. It’s worth noting that 10 miles of the race are on flat water, during which you can paddle at a relatively easy pace and greet passersby (in 2019, our creeping canoe was passed by many. Maybe you’ll have the pleasure of passing others).

Shannon Bryan, left, and Heather Steeves
Shannon Bryan, left, and Heather Steeves after successfully navigating Six Mile Falls during the 2021 Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

The remaining 6.5 miles are friskier, featuring Class I, II, and III rapids, the most notable section being Six Mile Falls. (If the notion of disgorging down Six Mile Falls doesn’t appeal to you, you can portage around it.)

We dumped. More than once. And while it was my worst fear come to fruition, it turned out to not be so bad. There are safety and support crews along the course who keep watchful eyes on all the paddlers, tossing a throw rope when needed. In the case of our initial tip-over, we were close enough to the riverbank to swim our canoe to shore, give it a tip, and bail out the remaining water with a milk carton we’d wisely tied to the boat.

Was the water cold? You bet. But we’d dressed appropriately in neoprene and were ultimately no worse for the wear. Going into the river so soon made me feel better – my nightmare was put into perspective – and I was able to relax. At least a little.

It’s a brag-worthy adventure. Successfully navigating Six Mile Falls is a feat you can brag about for the rest of the year. Heck, brag if you spill and need to be reunited with your canoe downriver.

Even if you choose to portage that section, simply having the gumption to ride that river the third weekend in April is an achievement.

There’s a reason participants showcase their Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race decals on their canoes, some boasting rows of the recognizable round stickers: it’s rightful pride. And a standout way to welcome the spring paddling season.

Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.

55th annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race

Waves begin at 10 a.m., Saturday, April 16. There are categories for kayaks and canoes, beginner, experienced, recreational, and an “open” class for teams of three or more canoeists or for a craft that is not classified as a canoe or kayak. The entry fee is $45 per person through April 7; $60 per person April 8-14; $75 (cash or check only) per person April 15 & 16. Registration: bangorme.myrec.com. For more information, including photos, videos, and excellent pointers for participants and spectators, check out www.kenduskeagstreamcanoerace.com.