Kenduskeag 2000

THUNK! This can't be good. I'm sitting comfortably, it's a gorgeous Spring afternoon, I'm out with my Gonzo buddies and yet a mild bit of panic has set in. Where am I, how did I get here and what do I think I am doing?

Where I am is stranded on a rock ledge, in the middle of the Kenduskeag River in Bangor, Maine. I'm sitting in a borrowed kayak, with water pushing me up against the ledge and threatening me with some pretty swift water at both ends of the kayak. I am holding onto a branch and my greatest desire is to be standing on river's edge, all safe and sound. Unfortunately, that does not look like a valid option at this time. The water is moving fast enough that I don't really feel like trying to exit the kayak and trying to get it and me to shore, and there is no doubt that I can't paddle strong enough to go back up river, assuming that I could even get the kayak pointed in that direction. I am stuck up the proverbial creek, with a double-sided paddle, but somehow, that is not enough. My fate today lies elsewhere, and I'm not sure that I'm ready to face it just yet.

How I got here needs a little explaining. I started canoeing in early March out at Gordon's when everyone started training for Kenduskeag. I'm still hoping to get a family canoe, and I definitely need the upper-body workout. The first nite out, I'm the odd man out and rather than take out the one-man canoe, I opt for one of Gordon's kayaks. I had taken a some lessons at the Dartmouth Sportsplex a few years back, but this would be my first time out on the water. You could say that I was a tad nervous, with the kayak tipping all over the place, and the water still having ice in it.

I really liked the workouts. It's amazing how far you can go in an hour of steady paddling. To say that I liked the kayak would be an understatement. I really like the closeness of the water as well as being by myself.

Of course, with everyone else working towards Kenduskeag, the inevitable question for me was, did I want to race the kayak? Well, the answer was no. I was enjoying the workouts. My biggest concern was dunking and getting a chill out in the middle of nowhere, or losing the kayak itself.

But after a few weeks, I started really getting comfortable with that kayak and and going to Bangor seemed like a real possibility if I could figure out how to stay warm. I borrowed a variety of wetgear from Gordon (Thanks again...and again) and stuck with just a wet top. After trying out some high braces and planned tipovers with a wetsuit on, I felt quite comfortable exiting out of the beast and getting back into it.

Once in Bangor, I was extremely antsy to get into the water. My second-hand knowledge of the race included that fact that the 1st 10 miles was really quiet, followed by the infamous 6 Miles Falls, then 5 miles on mild whitewater, 2 portages and lastly Thunder Hole and a quiet finish. I figured that if I got the kayak to 6 Mile without dunking, I'd try to go down it. I was missing 2 essential pieces of information. One, that 6 Mile is preceded by a few 1-2 foot drops that you have to negotiate sort of cleanly to get to 6 Mile, and two, that the practice session on Friday would start at 6 Mile.

My first look at river right and the elbow chute leading up to 6 Mile scared the chitlens right out of me. I couldn't believe that people take watercraft in these things. I was scared for myself, and sure that I'd lose the kayak, It would go streaming down the river ahead of me and I'd never see it again. On race day, there are volunteers to help retrieve you and yours. Today, there may or may not be someone below able to help in a hurry.

I decided to get the kayak in the water and practice on this 6 inch drop in front of me. I got a few little shocks as I fought my way above and around the area. The water below you follows the laws of physics, but to a newbie, you're just getting pushed and shoved from water forces that you can't see and don't understand anyway. I was getting pretty pleased with myself, shooting this 6-incher and twirling about.

After doing river left, Bernie and Ben came back for a run at river right. This meant that there would definitely be someone below, and I told Bernie that I had been practicing on the little shelf behind me and would follow him down. I can't describe the look on his face but he told me that the little shelf behind me was nothing. I told him that I was aware of that, but that was all I had to work with, and was going down anyway. He reviewed the info about steering around the elbow, the push out to the left, and center down the chute. Off they went.

I waited a bit and just started following. I was psyched up, but not as committed as I should have been. Not a good idea. The kayak starting picking up speed and aiming for a rock, all at the same time. My brain locked up immediately. I got around the rock, but starting sliding sideways. The river had more force here than in my little play area and I paddled like an idiot to try and straighten out. That wasn't working and I mentally bailed. I slid sideways into another rock shelf. THUNK!

What do I think I'm doing? Well, right now, I am doing something that I don't seem to be mentally or physically prepared for. I'm here, and here is not a pretty place. I can't go forward and I can't go back. I don't want to be here. My decision to do the Falls now seems very foolish, but until I get to shore, my predicament is definitely not over.

My options are limited. Getting out of the kayak and schlepping it seems impossible under these circumstances. As well, Bernie and Ben are waiting for me and likely wondering where I am and if they should come back up. Whatever I do, I should do it soon. With such limited options, my decision is to go forward. The brain unlocks and the commitment level returns. I push off the ledge and try to force the kayak straight as quickly as possible. I just miss another rock on my left and then we are accelerating. There is no stopping now, no place to rest, no bailing that would do any good. I drop over a few ledges and the confidence levels jumps abruptly. I head into the elbow remembering to aim into the right bank and fight against the wash. At the end of the elbow, I let the kayak start to straighten. Lacking any experience, I have let go too soon and get rammed into the bank. Actually, this works out well, as I bounce out towards the middle of the stream, and can get setup for the main drop. I try and relax a bit and just stay on the kayak. I've seen videos, I've heard the stories, but now the story is mine.

BINGO! I don't I can describe the feeling of 6 Mile other than it was exhilarating and over too soon. I get over to shore, drag the kayak back up and try river left. It has its drops and turns in the setup, and I don't do them well, but the commitment level carries me through, and I negotiate 6 Mile again. Man, this stuff is addictive.

Now, it's time to paddle the 5 miles to ThunderHole through some Class I & II whitewater, and I'm as pumped as you can get. I know what I'm doing here. I'm learning a new sport and I just had the icing, now it's time for the cake. I'm in Gonzo heaven. I feel like the kayak is attached to both my brain and my body. I'm trying to read what I can from the water and doing a really lousy job, but kayaks can be very forgiving and I ride through or over everything. I even start looking for the bigger drops when there is an option. Big rocks loom underneath and the water moves in mysterious ways. I do get myself behind an eddy a few times on purpose and keep the kayak pretty straight otherwise. I am aware of Bruce/Sara, Kevin/Darren, Bernie/Ben, but more aware of the river and the kayak. Man, this is fun!

The race Saturday is a lot of fun. There are literally hundreds of canoes, kayaks and things that float. Everything seems very well organized, including a mother of a pre-race breakfast. Between the paddling practice, clothes planning, dunking in Lake Thomas and yesterday's initiation rites, this race promises to be fantastic, and it is.

Everyone is friendly, the weather is gorgeous. I am prepared and pumped. I have no real idea how long 16 miles is on a river and I stick with my original plan to get to the other end in one piece and try 6 Mile if I'm still dry by then. I had some trouble all day with the little rudder gizmo (skag?), had to bail at 6 Mile, had no arms left for the portages and got hit by a canoe in ThunderHole, but it was a glorious day. I could not have enjoyed myself more.