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Up the Creek, While Going Down It

THIS morning, while watching the sun rise over the slowly-thawing Penobscot River, I noticed something that could provide comfort and hope for only a New Englander: my canoe.

I had forgotten to pull it ashore before the first autumn snows, and the swollen river had claimed it, the whole 17 feet of it, until not a trace remained. But I knew it was there, entombed in the ice, waiting to be revealed again come the thaw.

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It seems like an odd time of year for a northerner to be talking about canoes. After all, March has little significance in Maine. Winter is usually just getting its second wind at this point, and waterways are still solid enough for truck traffic.

But this winter has been unusual. February was downright balmy, and I was amazed at how quickly so much snow could disappear under the prodding of a constant sun. And so my canoe is nosing up out of the river ice like a ground mammal coming out of hibernation to sniff the first fresh winds of an early spring. Those who were sensible enough to pull their canoes ashore are already reconditioning them, running hands along their smooth lines, dreaming ahead to the phalanx of canoe races that will usher forth with ice-out.

Maine is a water state. With a 3,500-mile coastline, 2,500 lakes and ponds, and 5,000 rivers and brooks, it is said that you can canoe from any point in the state to any other without having to portage for more than a mile. When I closed on my small house on the river some years ago, I bought a canoe before I bought a bed. Somehow, it seemed the right thing to do. And then, the following April, I did the thing that had to be done because I had a canoe: I entered a race.

If a Mainer had nothing better to do in the spring than count canoe races in the state, he'd be occupied clear through to autumn. These races have a sort of magnetic pull. Once one is announced, people usher out of the hills and up from the coast. Only a small number are actual participants; more just come to watch.

The first and best-known of these is the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. It takes place in April when the inland waterways are boiling with runoff cold as ice. I entered it in 1991 with little forethought. In the hubbub that preceded the event, I hooked up with a partner who had never done the race either. In the first five minutes of our acquaintance, it was decided that I would be in the bow and Eli would take the stern, doing most of the steering.

Neither of us was an accomplished canoeist, and we both harbored the same fear - that we would be dumped at the most riotous pass of the race: Six Mile Falls. But in the euphoria of submitting our registration, we played down what lay ahead.

The day of the race dawned overcast and chill. By 7 a.m., Eli and I had arrived at the starting point - the village of Kenduskeag. Watercraft of all stripes and colors were everywhere: on car tops, alongside the road, being heaved along on shoulders. A vast community breakfast was in full swing at the town hall. TV crews were setting up. Despite the temperature and the sight of ice chunks rolling down the swollen river, the message was clear: We will have no more of winter; let spring - and the race - begin.

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And begin it did. Eli and I were one canoe among 760 other vessels putting in on a river you could almost spit across. When we lit out with the first wave, the crowds let off a hullabaloo that made me feel, for a moment, that I knew what I was doing.

ELI and I paddled madly for three minutes or so, until we were beyond sight of the send-off crowd. By then our already-sore muscles were telling us how much hard work was involved, with three hours of paddling still ahead.

But the democratic nature of the race gave us comfort. We were in the company of kayaks, rafts, and rowboats; college students, veterans, Indian teams, and even whole families. And if the elderly couple just ahead of us could proceed with such gusto, then we could manage as well.

And then came the great disillusionment. Six Mile Falls.

This was the part of the race that every spectator lived for. Seated in lawn chairs or standing, they were packed everywhere: on both banks, on the bridge, and on small rocky islands. Hovering in the midst of them were the TV cameras. It was the moment of truth for every participant, to see if they could navigate a rushing gorge without capsizing. About 75 percent managed the pass without incident; those who lost control were quickly pulled from the icy water by volunteers strung out on lifelines.

One by one the canoes shot through the torrent. Successes bred polite cheers from the crowd, but a capsized craft brought a roar of excitement. The worst that could befall a paddler was cold water and a loss of dignity.

As Eli and I neared the fast water at the head of the gorge, I invoked the executive privilege of the bowman and decided that the approach we had chosen was too tricky. At the last second, I paddled hard to the left, Eli screamed out, and we navigated the falls.


The crowd loved it, we went on to complete the race, and for two days we were the talk of the town.

Despite our accomplishment, I swore I'd never do the race again. I don't like being cold and wet, and I don't like the uncertainty of reaching my destination.

But as I stand here at my kitchen window, witness to the ascent of my canoe through the river's ice, I cannot help feeling the pull of its saddle. It has, after all, been seven years. It just may be my duty to help spring establish its stake in the north country.

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