Not so Fast: Reflections on the Kenduskeag

“What a slog.” The three word Bangor Daily News headline went a long way to describe what many paddlers felt about the 44th annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.

The race, as described by Michael Alden at KenduskeagStream, is “held annually on the third weekend of April, [and] is the largest paddling event in New England and one of the largest in the country. Hosted by the Bangor Dept. of Parks & Recreation, the 16.5 mile race begins in the Town of Kenduskeag and ends near the confluence of the Penobscot River in downtown Bangor.”

For the 2010 version, you had to be a scrapper. Between the chilly gray weather (snow flurries at the start) and the low water conditions which meant for very bumpy trips over Six Mile Falls, some of those who had planned to participate apparently made last minute decisions not to show. A total of 889 paddlers competed, roughly 100 fewer than last year.

The Kenduskeag race, which has been run every year since 1967, has a lot of history — and this is part of what makes it special. When you are out there paddling, you are competing not only against 800 -900 other paddlers but against the thousands of others who have done the race in previous years — and who will do the race in coming years. Even more importantly, if you are a veteran of the race, you are also competing against your former and future self.

In a high water year, it’s easy to feel like a grown up athlete playing t-ball, or a golfer hitting drives on the moon. There you are, speeded by PEC’s (performance enhancing currents), strutting down the river with big grin on your face, putting your times from other years to shame. In contrast, a low water year brings a certain sobriety. You paddle hard, maybe harder than ever before — and still your times do not measure up.

This year was a low water year with a capital L. Several race veterans stated they don’t remember the river being any lower. The winning paddler, Trever Maclean, paddled the course in 2:19:05 — and thereby earned the ignominious distinction of having the slowest winning time in recent memory. My review of the records shows it may be the slowest winning time since 1988, when Lee Martin and John Mathiew paddled a C2 Medium (2-person medium racing canoe) to a time of 2:27.46.

The trend in the last 4 years has been toward slower winning times and slower times overall. What is going on here? Is it that modern paddlers, despite their caffeinated energy drinks, carbon-infused paddles, and gym-chiseled physiques just can’t hold a paddle up to their forebears?

The 10-mile stretch of flatwater between Kenduskeag and Bangor provided plenty of time to meditate on the ways that low water slows you down: (1) low water means less current, taking several miles per hour off your average speed; (2) low water means more distance, as it requires more maneuvering to find deeper water and to avoid rocks; (3) low water means increased influence of “shallow water drag.” This invisible and sometimes overlooked factor is probably the strongest of the three. Some have claimed that paddling in water as shallow as 12″ increases drag and resistance by up to 90%.

Losing a foot or two of river depth adds up to a big deal, or at least that is what I was more than a little motivated to prove, given that my own times have also been getting slower.

Streamflow and river height are two factors that might allow comparisons between different years. The recently installed USGS gauge on the Kenduskeag measured 4.4 feet on race day. Unfortunately there is no such data from previous years.

Lacking that data, I considered several other methods that might allow comparison of times from year to year. I decided to use the average of the top 20 times from each year as a baseline for determining whether the river was running fast or slow, also understanding that the size and competitiveness of field does vary, which makes these comparisons somewhat inexact:

Year / Winning Time (Name of Winner) / Average Time of Top 20 Finishers*:
2007 / 1:53 (Owen & Woodward) / 2:07
2008 / 1:57 (Maclean & Hall) / 2:15
2009 / 2:19 (Maclean) / 2:42
2010 / 2:19 (Maclean) /2:50
*Times rounded off to nearest minute.

Assuming the field was equally competitive in the past four years, we can conclude that the river was slowest in 2010 — and that for even the winning paddlers, it was 26 minutes slower than in 2007, which was a high water year. For the “average top 20 paddler,” the river was 8 minutes slower than last year (another low water year) and a whopping 43 minutes slower than in 2007

We can also conclude that the most impressive win in the last 4 years was actually Trevor Maclean’s win this year. His time was 31 minutes faster than this years “top 20 average.” This makes sense in that this year Maclean was pushed hard by Robert Lang, who finished 2nd just a few minutes behind Maclean, and who would have had an even faster time, had he not capsized twice during the race.

My look at the numbers also supports a couple of other somewhat common sense conclusions: (1) high water tends to clump the field while low water spreads it out; (2) in low water, single kayaks probably have an advantage relative to tandem kayaks, canoes, and war canoes.

My times in the past 4 years were 2:04:54, 2:13:17, 2:38:53, and 2:38:49.

I was happy to find that even though my times have been trending slower, my performances relative to river conditions (and the average of the 20 fastest times) have been improving. In the last 4 years, my margin over the “top 20 average” has been 2 minutes, 2 minutes. 3.5 minutes, and 10.5 minutes respectively.

Maybe low water isn’t so bad after all.

If you’d like to read more, my blog about last year’s race is here

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