Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race

Lew Gilman and Sonny Colburn

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Lew Gilman (left) and Sonny Colburn
We begin with this simple truth. Without Lewellyn "Spook" Gilman and Edwin "Sonny" Colburn, the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race wouldn't exist.

The founding fathers of the race came up with the idea seemingly overnight in 1967 at a time when Bangor Parks and Recreation needed a new fundraising event after a bicycle race the city had sponsored "went zilch", according to Sonny Colburn. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lew Gilman, who passed away at age 81 on August 18, 2011, led a remarkable life of innovation. Gifted with a natural grasp of mechanics, chemistry and plastics, Gilman designed and influenced several canoes for Old Town Canoe including the ubiquitous Discovery model and the popular Tripper model among others. In his obituary it was noted that Lew "revolutionized the canoe industry by revamping the thermoforming process for ABS plastic canoes."

Gilman and Colburn met while in high school and again later while both served in the Air National Guard, where they strengthened their friendship. A devoted family man who loved the outdoors and inventing things, Gilman's favorite saying was "the impossible just takes longer."

Ed "Sonny" Colburn grew up in Bangor, a gregarious man who loved his family and the outdoors. Described as having "a big personality", Colburn managed Bangor Furniture and pursued many outdoor interests in addition to his association with the Anah Shriners in Bangor.

After he met with Lew Gilman over beers at Miller's Restaurant to discuss the concept of the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, it was Lew Gilman who pushed and prodded Colburn into pursuing the idea with Bangor Parks and Recreation, then located just "three doors down" from Bangor Furniture. After the race took off in 1967, Colburn was often too busy organizing the race to actually participate in it. But Colburn and Gilman did paddle the Kenduskeag together as a team a number of times, including the 25th Silver Anniversary Race held in 1991.

Over half a century later, the dream of Lew Gilman and Sonny Colburn lives on.

“I think the spectators are what makes the race so much fun. They make the race special.”
- Lew "Spook" Gilman

"I want everybody to have a good time and smile, even if they're going to get wet."
- Ed "Sonny" Colburn

Zip Kellogg

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Zip Kellogg stylishly negotiating the rapids of the Kenduskeag
Zip Kellogg is unquestionably a perennial favorite at the Kenduskeag amongst paddlers, spectators and fans alike and he has been for decades. Often dressed in more formal attire than his fellow racers and with the bow of his canoe usually festooned with a bouquet of flowers, Zip Kellogg brings a touch of class, humor, skill and color to a canoe race which is often described as a rite of spring after a long winter.

Zip stands out. Literally. He handily negotiates Six Mile Falls and other trickier rapids along the stream while standing upright in his canoe, wielding an extra long paddle for balance. Underneath the dapper exterior, however, Zip wears a wetsuit and a PFD. "Safety in early spring is critical."

Zip Kellogg grew up with the Kenduskeag Stream in his backyard and began paddling at a young age with his friends. Contrary to what some might think, Zip doesn't stand upright while shooting the rapids for show (although it is an entertaining side effect, it must be said) but rather to better survey the stream in order to line up his canoe properly and to choose the best path.

A reference librarian at the University of Southern Maine for many years (he has since retired), Zip is the author of The Whole Paddlers Catalog, a highly interesting compendium of tips, resources, quotes and inspiration for paddlers. (Grab a copy on the used market if you find one).

Zip has also written about watershed conservation and environmental issues. In an essay he wrote which was included in Fern Stearn's Tales of the Kenduskeag, Kellogg pointed out that the Kenduskeag Stream was once so polluted with sewage and industrial waste from local mills that Sonny Colburn couldn't play near the stream as a youngster. "Shouldn't a stream which has recognition in Okinawa deserve to be treated with dignity by its own neighbors?"

The Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race nothwithstanding, Zip is known as a prolific paddler who has traveled extensively around Maine to paddle on an incalculable number of streams and rivers.

"Chances are if you have driven a vehicle over a bridge in Maine, I have been under it in a canoe."

Fern Stearns

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Fern Stearns (in the bow) with her husband, Bill Stearns
Perhaps the best way to write an entry about Fern Stearns is to listen to what a couple of longtime friends have said about Fern and her late husband, Bill, who passed away in 2010.

Allan Fuller: "Fern and Bill Stearns were the top couples paddlers for a number of years in the State of Maine. I don't know that they ever lost a canoe race in the C2 Mixed. They were one big reason why Bangor Parks and Recreation created a Beginner Class for the Kenduskeag. No other couple could beat Bill and Fern!"

Bucky Owen: "Sue (Bucky's wife) and I took on Bill and Fern in the early 1970s in the Kenduskeag Canoe Race; BIG mistake! We stayed with them for 10 miles and when we hit the whitewater, it was all over. One year Bill, Fern, and I plus one other took a batteau over Flour Mill rather than try to portage it. Good memories."

In addition to paddling in countless races and winning awards and championships, both Fern and Bill were faculty members at the University of Maine Orono, where they taught mathematics. Between raising a family and racing, Bill designed and built boats and Fern authored several books, including Tales of the Kenduskeag, a collection of essays which often inform this website. Fern also authored Nahanni Reflections, Once Upon A Farm and was the co-author of The Canoeist's Catalog with Bill.

Fern and Bill were two of the founding members of the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society (PPCS), a non-profit organization of outdoor-loving people, with membership primarily from Maine.

Allan Fuller recalls watching the dynamic duo as they paddled down any given stream or river:
"They were smooth and always in unison, poetry in motion and fun to watch. They were in a class by themselves."

Chip Loring

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Chip Loring and Bangor Parks and Recreation assistant director Debbie Gendreau
Chip Loring of Old Town, Maine brings decades of experience to any race he attends, which partly explains his easy familiarity among race fans and returning spectators not only at the Kenduskeag but at many other races as well. "Oh hey! I know that guy!"

Loring has competed in countless races (including the juggernaut Yukon 1000) and he has also paddled in an impressive array of classes: solo, tandem, war canoes and dragon boats to name a few, often with different race partners or with his friend Terry Wescott, both longstanding members of MaCKRO (Maine Canoe & Kayak Racing Organization).

A vastly experienced paddler, Chip Loring is also one of the most respected. Loring maintains an interest in bringing young people into the sport of paddling: "If young kids can paddle and see someone older paddling too, it gives them incentive."

A member of the Penobscot tribe, Loring participated in a ceremonial paddle down the Penobscot River from Old Town to Bangor after the removal of the Veazie Dam as part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, one of the largest projects of its kind in US history.

“Someday we’ll be able to paddle on the river our ancestors used to paddle."

Terry Wescott

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Terry Wescott (left) at the Yukon 1000 River Race along with paddling partner Brad Krog
Terry Wescott might hail from Thorndike, Maine but his true home is clearly on the river. Nicknamed "The River Troll", Wescott is one of the most prolific Maine racers ever. He has paddled in over 500 races, has paddled the St. John River over 40 times and the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race over 43 times.

In 2016, Wescott and his paddling partner Brad Krog were the overall winners of the Yukon 1000, the longest canoe race in the world which begins in Canada and ends in Alaska. (As if that feat weren't impressive enough, Wescott and Krog were the oldest paddlers to win this grueling race up to that point; Wescott was 67 and Krog was 63.)

Wescott has also won several WWOC National Championship awards and is the recipient of a Maine Legislative Award.

And along with all of these accolades, Terry Wescott is also known to make room for anyone who wants to paddle with him. As with Chip Loring, his friend going back to high school, Terry Wescott serves as a mentor for young paddlers who are interested in the sport.

Wescott also finds solace on the water.

"Paddling is something to keep the mind going and keep the mind off bad things. It kind of keeps you sane. Even when you’re pounding, racing for a long time, it’s peaceful. Most places you go, you’re out in the country for just miles and miles.”

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Editor's note: in lieu of formal footnotes, I would like to thank the following for their generous assistance in putting this page together: Bangor Daily News, Fiddlehead Focus, Fern Stearns, Maine Warmers, Kyle Duckworth, Allan Fuller, Bucky Owen, Paul Plumer and the Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society, and Debbie Gendreau at Bangor Parks & Recreation.