How To Prepare For The Kenduskeag
NOTE: While some of the following information is based more along the lines of how a competitive paddler approaches the Kenduskeag, this guide can certainly benefit newbies and intermediate paddlers as well.
So while it is not mandatory for the "average paddler" to outfit his or her boat in the manner described below, please consider using float bags, grab loops and lines at a minimum.
Need help with some of the "lingo" of paddling? Check out the Paddler's Glossary.
PART ONE: OUTFITTING YOUR CANOE
Float bags are an excellent way to keep water out of your canoe. Even if you do not spill and your boat takes on a lot of water, you'll have to struggle with the shifting weight of heavy water slopping around the hull of your boat, a potential hazard. If your canoe is properly "bagged out" you will have an easier time retrieving the canoe should you spill.
Boats that sink to the bottom of a stream or river with a swift current can be very difficult to retrieve. Float bags can be purchased for the center, stern and bow of your boat. Some people use foam or inner tubes for floatation. You are allowed 10 feet of total floatation for your boat. A four to five foot bag for the center of your canoe and a couple of two foot bags for the stern and bow, for example, could be one of many different configurations depending on how you want to outfit your boat.
NOTE: float bags must be secured firmly. Imagine your canoe dumping upside down or being pummeled with a waterfall. The float bags must stay in place to be of any use. One idea would be to install eyelets alongside the top edge of the canoe (the outwales) on both sides, and lash the bags down with rope or bungie cords in a crosswise pattern.
Splash Rails and Decks
Splash railing is actually a foam material which can be placed along the outwales of your canoe with contact cement. While not necessary for general recreational paddlers, many racers appreciate the benefit of splash rails.
Video footage proves that the splash rails can decrease the amount of water splashing up and into the boat as the boat enters a section of rapids. The splashing water is directed outward from the boat, as opposed to up and over (and into) the boat. Splash rails can extend up to one and a half inches from the outside of the hull. Splash decking is another good way to keep water from blasting over your bow and into the front of the canoe.
The deck plate conforms to the shape and point of the bow and can be fastened in place with velcro. The top of the deck plate itself has foam edges (up to one inch in height is allowed under race rules) which helps redirect water off the deck rather than drop into the bow of the canoe. These splash decks act almost like the scuppers on a ship which allow water to run off the deck rather than pool up.
Grab Loops and Lines
A grab loop is usually installed in the stern of the canoe. It's a fixed loop of rope or synthetic line which allows you to lift the stern of the canoe or kayak for portages and general transport. Not all canoes come with grab loops as standard equipment; in most cases you will have to install a grab loop. Recreational kayaks often have some form of grab loop on the bow and stern, but not always.
NOTE: The small rounded opening fixed into the plastic in the fore and aft of a canoe which you can grab to lift and carry the boat is not the same thing as a grab loop.
Grab loops are fairly small and as such they are not so easy to work with if your canoe swamps and you want to get ahold the canoe to keep it from going downstream. Therefore it is advisable to install a grab line (also called a "painter") to the bow of your canoe.
A grab line is a simple rope which can be six feet in length according to the Kenduskeag race rules, but some prefer longer grab lines when they are allowed. The grab line can be really useful in the water should you spill, allowing you to grasp the rope and swim to pull your boat towards shore. Also, the grab line makes it easier to pull your boat up a steep bank during a portage.
Grab lines should be as long in length as race rules will allow so that you can keep some distance between you and your boat should you have to tow it while in the water. Some paddlers even prefer to install a grab line in the stern of the boat so that the line is always in the water behind them in the event of a spill. Whichever method you prefer, make sure your grab line is lightly secured inside your boat with tape. This will help prevent the line from working its way loose, traveling down the inside of your hull and possibly tangling up.
NOTE: It is VERY important to keep the grab line free of knots or loops. Don't tie knots into a grab line thinking it will make it easier to grasp for towing. Knots can become entangled in trees and branches either above water or below the surface. Avoid such entanglements and go with a straight line for safety.
Hip Blocks and Foot Braces
Hip blocks are made of foam and can be installed (again, with contact cement) on the inside of the canoe where the paddler sits. Think of it as a two foam walls which hug the waist of the paddler. An egg in a carton, perhaps? The foam is cut to fit - not too snugly - but enough to act as a sort of brace. Hip blocks can prevent a paddler from sliding left or right on a canoe seat. Some canoe seats are fairly wide, so a hip block can help a paddler stay centered in the boat.
A foot brace is another recommended item which you can install in the bow of your canoe, or even towards the middle-rear of the canoe for the paddler sitting in the stern. Foot braces are available for purchase at a reasonable cost or you can make your own basic foot brace with a piece of wood and some rope. Why would you want to use a foot brace? Well, the brace provides some resistance for your feet to push against while paddling. This can help not only with paddling efficiency, but with stability as well.
You can use the platform of the foot brace to help "steer" the boat to a degree as you shift the pressure from one foot to the other while making a turn. It's a bit like riding a sled down a snowy hill, in which you can use your feet to push against the front braces of the sled to help direct the sled rails. But as a paddler you are also working your waist, back and upper body, so the foot brace is a sort of "anchor fixture" to push against to improve your performance and help reduce fatigue through wasted movement and energy.
In closing, some veteran racers have told me that if paddlers take a bit of time to outfit their boats with the recommendations listed above they will most certainly notice a difference in how they feel and perform on the water, as opposed to working with an off-the-shelf "stock boat" with no enhancements.
Tricking out your canoe with these optional modifications need not be expensive or time consuming. Recreational paddlers and competitive racers alike will enjoy the benefits of these additions.
PART TWO: FOOD, WATER & SPILLS
Hydration And Food
Hydration is extremely important. Take sips of water at frequent intervals during the race. Dehydration can occur quickly. Bottled water is fine. Some people like to use Camelbaks with a drinking tube tucked under their life vests fixed near their mouths for hands free sipping.
Speaking of hydration, be sure to get in line for the Porta Potty at the launch site before you settle into your boat for the race. Those lines get pretty long after everyone has had their morning coffee!
What about breakfast? There's a great traditional pancake breakfast in the Mystic Tie Grange Hall in Kenduskeag. Definitely part of the fun and part of the spectacle of the Kenduskeag race. However, some racers have mentioned that they eat a very light breakfast, perhaps toast with peanut butter and an orange or other fruit. Having a huge farmer's breakfast just before a 16.5 mile workout on the stream is not for everyone.
What To Wear
What about clothing? Some folks wear wetsuits, but many racers do not advise this. It really is a matter of personal preference by and large, but anecdotal evidence suggests that paddlers wearing wetsuits often become uncomfortably warm. This is exacerbated by warm weather, but the body heat alone generated by a paddler is sufficient to dress lightly.
Many racers wear loose shorts and shirts, maybe some Farmer John overalls or long underwear. Even on a cold and miserable race day one year, I observed some paddlers who appeared to be miserably hot in their heavy clothing or wetsuits. And when some of them spilled into the icy waters, a sigh of relief could be heard, despite the inclement weather conditions! That's simply too hot for comfort and it can put a bummer on what might otherwise be a fun day on the stream. Use your own discretion.
Wear shoes that are comfortable and will allow you to exit the boat quickly. Large boots are not necessarily a good idea. Shoes should have some traction on the soles for climbing up steep banks during a portage. Running shoes are usually good enough, some people like to wear Crocs.
Unanticipated Spring Swimming
What do you do if you spill? It's a serious question, and dumping your canoe or kayak in the middle of the Kenduskeag (or anywhere else) is no laughing matter, despite the cheers and jeers you'll hear from some of the river vultures.
Once you are in the water, you want to lay on your back, with your feet facing downstream. Let your life vest do what it is designed to do. You want to float downstream feet first in case you need to push away from rocks or other obstacles. Moving down the stream headfirst like Superman is never a good idea.
As soon as you have determined that there are no obstacles in your way, start swimming towards shore and hopefully you will have the grab line in your hand to tow your boat to safety. You also want to stay on the upstream side of your boat, NOT the downstream side. Being on the wrong side of the boat in the water with a strong current can lead to situations where you are pinned between your boat and something else. You don't want to end up between a rock and a hard place. This is also where the longer grab line comes in handy; you can pull and tow your boat through the water while keeping some distance in between.
Last but not least. Have a warm change of clothing waiting for you at the finish line. A complete change of clothes - underwear, socks, shoes - the works. It's no fun to stand dripping wet in downtown Bangor in April, shivering uncontrollably while your teeth chatter.
PART THREE: PADDLING TECHNIQUE AND EFFICIENCY
While the art and science of paddling is a subject beyond the scope of this website, here are some basics with the Kenduskeag in mind:
Paddling efficiently and effectively is more than a matter of moving quickly through the water. By improving your strokes and minimizing wasted energy, you can decrease some of the wear and tear on your body, reduce the chance of injury, and reduce unnecessary fatigue.
The first ten miles of the Kenduskeag involves flatwater paddling. That can be quite taxing, and you will need your strength and energy the most when you reach the whitewater sections of the stream - meaning the last six and a half miles of the race. Paddlers who are completely exhausted when they reach the rapids often find themselves taking a swim (to the glee of the river vultures watching from the banks).
Portages can be downright brutal if a paddler is completely spent halfway through the race. One way to conserve energy and extend your strength is to know how to paddle efficiently. Veteran racer Jeff Owen advises the following:
This means a paddler should get down low in the canoe, on bottom of the boat and not necessarily up on the seat itself. Spread your knees outwards to your sides while in a sitting position, much like a frog, placing your butt on the bottom of the boat (or close to it).
Sitting lower in a boat provides some extra stability as opposed to sitting up higher in a chair, because your center of mass is lower when you squat down. Also, you don't want to slip and slide around the floor while sitting down. Install some non-skid tape or stripping, or perhaps a swath of low profile carpeting. Whatever it takes to keep you stabilized. This also works well in tandem with the aforementioned hip blocks!
Push the paddle straight down into the water - the paddle doesn't have to go too deep - and use short strokes. It only takes one foot of lateral paddle movement in the water to reach what is called the "power phase" of the stroke. Using short strokes, you will maximize your efficiency by working within the range of the power phase. You can increase the rate of your strokes by keeping them short and strong.
Inefficient paddling and extraneous movement will sap your strength while simultaneously slowing you down. One way to determine if you are maximizing the power phase of your stroke is to simply listen: an efficient stroke is often silent. If you are loudly splashing and thrashing the water with your paddle, you are not paddling efficiently or effectively. If you are paddling with a partner, a general rule of thumb is to have the more experienced paddler sitting in the back - the stern - of the canoe or tandem kayak.
Trimming The Canoe
Another general rule of thumb for efficiency is that it's better to have the heavier paddler sitting up front in the bow. As a canoe moves through the water with two paddlers there is often a tendency for the bow of the canoe to rise upward in relation to rest of the boat if the paddler in the bow is lighter than the paddler in the stern.
Imagine you are sitting on the back of a see-saw with a much lighter person sitting on the other end. Thanks to gravity, your weight will pull you down closer to the ground, and the lighter person will be higher up in the air. This same principle works with a floating canoe. What you want to do is level the canoe out as much as possible. This is called "trimming".
By trimming the canoe you are leveling the boat out, utilizing the shape and lines of the hull more efficiently in the water, and you reduce the "fanny drag" which slows you down when the stern is much lower in the water than the bow. An untrimmed boat will most assuredly reduce overall paddling efficiency; it's like paddling uphill.
So what do you do if you are the experienced paddler in the stern, but the paddler in the bow is much lighter than you are? Place a weight or heavy stone in the bow of the canoe as a counterbalance. The idea is to distribute the weight inside the canoe as evenly as possible across the inside length of the canoe. Again, trimming the boat reduces wasted energy and improves effiency. Let the canoe and the water do some of the heavy lifting for you!
Dealing With Waves
Many racers also allow the wake generated by other boats to do some of the work for them. It's a technique that must be practiced, but it's possible to "surf" on the waves generated by boats ahead of you. Kind of like driving behind a semi tractor trailer on an interstate highway: you'll encounter less wind resistance against your vehicle going forward.
It is also a good idea to stay on the outer edges of wave trains - standing waves which are lined up one after another - otherwise you will be pulled into choppy water which can cause all sorts of problems. When you do approach a wave, it is best to line up perpendicular to the wave and go through it head on.
It is NOT a good idea to approach waves or rapids when your boat is at a sideways angle. The wave can overpower your craft if you hit the wave broadside. The danger here of course is that your boat can swamp or tumble (or both).
And here is some sage advice from many veteran paddlers:
"When dealing with tricky whitewater, keep your paddle in the water."
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, this is not always the case. It is a typical human reaction to guard against "bumpy" situations while sitting in a canoe that seems to be in peril by grabbing the gunwales or sides of the canoe. Don't do it. Keep your paddle in the water. Do NOT lift the paddle out of the water to grab the gunwales. You have more control over your craft if you keep your paddle firmly in the water, using your power strokes.
I'll quote veteran racer Clayton Cole here:
"You must paddle with authority when encountering a tough spot."
Understandably, all of this is might seem counterintuitive in a stressful whitewater situation. But it is something to keep in mind, and it may be the difference between keeping things together or tipping over and flirting with the dreaded "point of no return".
Go With The Flow
Try to line up your boat with the current of the stream. Look for bubbles when you are in the flatwater. This sounds obvious, but many paddlers do not actually line up with the stream current, and they lose efficiency and effectiveness in their paddling because of that. Sometimes the optimal section of a stream to hit when paddling is not the most obvious one. The paddler in the bow is largely responsible for pointing out rocks and other hazards, but it is also beneficial to scout out the stream current, often where the water is a bit deeper, to avoid the shallows which will slow a boat down and require more effort to negotiate.
Scout It Out
Many paddlers scout the Kenduskeag the evening before the race. It is amazing how quickly the Kenduskeag can change in terms of water levels, sometimes within a six hour period! While there are several factors at play here which vary from year to year, it is widely recognized that a good rainstorm will elevate the water quickly. Without rain, the stream gradually lowers - it is a fairly shallow water system. Scouting out the last 6.5 miles of the stream with a leisurely "dry run" can be very useful if you have the time.
Informal get-togethers usually meet up in the late afternoon on the Friday before the race in downtown Bangor (near the finish line area). You and your boat are shuttled to Six Mile Falls, and you can paddle with a group of knowledgeable race veterans who are more than happy to answer questions, help you pick the best approaches and lines through the rapids, and allow you to paddle at your own skill level and speed. Check with Mackro as the race draws near; the forum on their website is a good way to get in touch with others.
It is also wise to paddle with someone you can get into sync with. Knowing when to switch sides while paddling and working together to form a kind of rhythm is something the best racers do out of habit. Use a simple shout such as "hut!" or a whistle as it does not require a full breath of air to form longer words. Even of you are not seriously competitive about the Kenduskeag, it helps to paddle with someone who can at least pull their own weight. If one paddler is doing the lion's share of the work, it will take a lot of the fun out of the race for that paddler. They don't call it the "divorce boat" for nothing.
With Regard To Paddles
Long paddles can be unwieldy depending on your style of paddling. Short, lightweight paddles are often preferred by racers. Long, heavy paddles also require much more effort to work with, and they might do a number on your shoulder areas, the rotator cuff in particular. It all depends.
It isn't necessary to spend big bucks on a super lightweight paddle (although many serious competitors do just that) but a good rule of thumb to apply here might be this: buy the lightest paddle your budget will allow. Another thought? If performance paddles are not at all important to you, buy a simple paddle you won't mind losing if your boat tips and your gear is washed downstream.
Bent shaft paddles are very useful for keeping the paddle perpendicular to the water. A strong, lightweight paddle can help to reduce extra stress on muscles and joints, another part of the efficiency equation.
Paddling workshops, sporting good store demos, private lessons, club outings or even instructional books and videos are all good ways to learn more about how to paddle effectively.