Why I Love the Kenduskeag

I’ve competed in 5-K and 10-K road races, cross country races, xc ski races, and triathlons, but I haven’t found a form of racing I enjoy as much as kayak racing. I’ve paddled all kinds of rivers — and raced on at least a half dozen of them, but I haven’t found a river race I enjoy as much as the annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.

Part of it is the number of canoes and kayaks involved — more than 400 on most years. Part of it is the length and difficulty of the race — 10 miles of flatwater followed by 6.5 miles of whitewater — made all the more difficult by fatigue. Part of it is the tradition — the race has been around for more than 40 years now, and the returnees each year include notables such as the Gumby boat (photo) and Zip Kellogg, who wears a coat and top hat and paddles much of the race standing up.

A combined flatwater / whitewater race such as the Kenduskeag is a triathlon in itself. The first event is the 10 miles of flatwater, which tests your physical and mental stamina and your ability to get in a groove with your paddling stroke. The second event is the whitewater, a combined test of strategy, skill, and pluck. The third event (actually interpersed with the second one) is the two mandatory portages, in which competitors stagger ashore in wet gear, and labor their way through crowds of park-goers and spectators, carrying their suddenly clumsy craft through the mud.

How to survive it all. How to go fast the whole time and still leave enough to get to the finish. How to keep focus through those inevitable moments when, disoriented by fatigue, you forget you are in a race at all — and it is just you, your boat, and that river shining under the spring sunlight.

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