Who can long watch the ceaseless lapping of a river’s current without conceiving a desire to set themselves adrift?
I could hear the sound of the rapids ahead as the current of the river pulled us forward against all my instincts to be heading in the opposite direction. We were on the upper West Branch of the Penobscot River on a boy scout canoe and camping trip and I was all of 11 or 12 and about to experience my first quickwater. It was late July and of course the little rip we were about to run was probably barely quickwater, but I was terrified and to my young mind this was the equivalent of some first descent class V drop and it took everything I had to steel myself and steer us around the little rocks poking above the river as we went thru, watching the bottom whizzing by. I also however remember the immense feeling of satisfaction after looking back at the rip and thinking Wow…we just put a canoe thru that. Thinking back now it really was a big boy trip that we took that year. Hitting Chesuncook Lake in record time, we extended the trip by going up to Caucomgomic Lake – upstream to Round Pond and is a trip I hope to repeat one day. That year the call of the rugged north country was awakened in me.
Then suddenly, as easily as jumping into a swimming pool I fell in up to my waist. The canoe scraped down my back bending me in half and shoving my face into the mud. The boat ends rested on the ground completely covering me. I yelled out in pain but also from the indignation and humiliation. I kept yelling hoping for help but mostly raging against the canoe, the camp, my parents for sending me, and the whole god-forsaken, bug infested, nation of Canada. I yelled for 5 minutes but no one came. When finally I’d yelled myself out something has changed. I’d accepted the indifference of the canoe and wilderness and was resigned to the fact that if I was going to get across the portage I’d better just do it myself. I rolled the canoe off me dug my boots out of the quagmire and straining with everything I had flipped it back onto my head. When I arrived minutes later at the lake I was well on my way to self reliance.
I was introduced to paddling at a very early age by my parents, I can remember lots of paddling, fishing, and camping trips as a kid, and once I got into the boy scouts I was taught paddling in earnest and got to go on lots of canoe camping trips which were always my favorite. Scouts taught me what a canoe could do – before our West Branch trip we all had to tip a canoe in the cold water and successfully get it back to shore swamped, dump out the water and re-float it. We learned as well the techniques to get the water out of a canoe that has swamped in the middle of a lake by using a second canoe for the task. We also learned gunwhale pumping which taught me balance, and what the limits of a canoe are.
After graduating college I started to get the itch to do a big river trip like we had done in Scouts, and I decided on the Allagash as the river I wanted to do. All that summer I worked a side job painting and saved up enough to walk into the Old Town Canoe factory and get myself a boat and a couple of new paddles, and spent the winter planning my adventure on the Allagash. My big concern was the whitewater, and whether or not I’d be able to handle it. I ran the river in ’97.
Running the Allagash was amazing, and I remember feeling that the whole world was now open for me and shortly thereafter I entered my first Kenduskeag Stream Race, and I was instantly hooked.
The paddlers of these skinny racing canoes must take on everything the river throws at them including standing waves, rock gardens, big drops, and portages. Most importantly they have to do it all while paddling fast and remaining afloat. The fastest canoe will usually be the one that has paddled closest to the edge of disaster without sinking. Welcome to the world of downriver racing.
Peter Heed and Dick Mansfield
I enjoyed everything about canoe racing – you needed to be tough, both mentally and physically – paddling your lungs and heart out of your chest hoping for enough energy for the upcoming rapids – running the portage so hard you just plain old ran out of air. It’s tough to describe the allure of the paddle. I think that part of it is downriver racing boils life down to it’s simplest most intrinsic form. It’s primitive, competitive and primeval tying us into our basic roots of travel. And where else in life are you availed of the opportunity to know instantly if you have made the right decision? You read the river, make your choice based on what you see, and then instantly know whether or not you were right (made it through) or wrong (swamped). I think a quote from RM Patterson in The Dangerous River sums it up well-
There is something beautifully final in certain phases of river travel; you make your decision and pick your course and after that the rest is all action. You are committed and there is no turning back – you must make it or swamp. The result is a supreme peak of physical effort and a split-second awareness of changing water. A mentally sort of cold excitement and exhilaration – a high point of living.
After a race when everything is packed up and the canoe is back on the truck and you’re sitting down for a big steak and a large beer, there is not much that compares.
I tried kayaking a couple of times, but I’ve always been a bit of a canoe purist for a couple of very simple reasons – first being if I want to get a better glimpse of the rapids ahead to see the perfect route I can just stand up and take a look. Second, my wet exit is pretty easy – if the canoe flips I fall out..I don’t have to do an eskimo roll, or worse, undo a spray skirt and try to extricate myself from the craft.
Knowing what to do in a canoe opens up all of Maine and it’s vast network of canoe routes and history.
The above is all a preface to say this; For years I have wanted to make a short film about canoe racing in Maine for the Banff Film Festival.
Here is a trailer if you’ve never been;
I truly think that a canoe racing film that is done right would have an excellent chance. The problem that I ran into was financial…Banff has certain submission requirements and the camera to satisfy those requirements was out of reach for me. I sent letters to a few businesses that I thought might be interested asking for sponsorship in exchange for advertising – there was some interest, but money was largely an issue for them too.
This past winter I also came to the realization that I was mortal and not getting any younger when I started having some pretty bad back spasms, and although I’m much better and on the mend, I realized that the day I’m not able to do this anymore is coming, hopefully much later than sooner, but it’s coming. I further realized that the dream of making, producing, and submitting a film is probably not going to materialize into reality. So this year I researched and purchased a contour headcam and a bottle of advil, and made a movie for myself. I was so looking forward to capturing the usual heavy water in the Kenduskeag Stream Race in Bangor that it’s rather ironic that when race day came the water levels were at historic lows. LOL – after all the races I did when the water was high. That’s the way life goes though eh? …make the best of it.
So, a caveat about the film. I made it for me, something I can watch and enjoy. Some of the clips are older and some of them new.
So, here is what I came up with – this embodies what downriver racing means to me – in the words of RM Patterson – A high point of living.
Update – I discovered the National Paddling Film Festival which will accept the format I can provide – I’ve sent them a copy of my film, and I hope it makes it through the pre-screening process – judging is in February…fingers crossed.