KENDUSKEAG – Bill and Tammy Kelley have been racing their 26-foot homemade canoe for 10 years in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, the highlight of a 20-year racing career. The giant “Kenduskeag Screamah” they raced last week falls under the “open” class in the Bangor race, although in other races it’s part of the so-called “war canoe” class.
Here in Maine, however, the common term is a misnomer.
These longer voyageur canoes — crafts that can seat 10 paddlers or more — have been raced in Maine for decades. But historians say there are no roots in the state for the so-called “war canoe” or even for the voyageur canoe used in the fur trade.
“There weren’t any special war canoe constructions in Maine. In British Columbia and Alaska, but not here, not that we know of, not in the Northeast,” said Arthur Spiess, senior archeologist at the Maine Historical Preservation Commission in Augusta.
Spiess said the tradition of longer canoes came to Maine only in the last century.
Then, he said, they were a throwback to the Canadian fur trade activity, chiefly the commerce fueled by the Hudson Bay Company of the early 1800s.
The canoes built by European settlers in the 1700s, called voyageurs, were in excess of 30 feet long and could move a lot of fur quickly along rivers to the coast for transport to Europe.
Birch bark canoe builder Steve Cayards of Wellington, who has studied canoe-building techniques with native tribal communities across the Northeast, said the big canoes used then were for commercial use.
“From the 1700s and well into the 1800s, it was a long era of furs trapped in Canada being shipped to Europe,” Cayard said.
“The beaver hat like Lincoln wore, those were the fashion of the time, and the roads were the rivers back then. They had a system of canoe routes through Canada to the coast. They had canoes up to 36 feet long. They were big birch bark canoes. Not many of them survived.”
Cayard said native tribes outside of Maine may have used longer canoes for wartime purposes, but not the Wabanaki tribes in Maine, and not the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac or Maliseet.
“What the tradition of these war canoes in Maine comes from, from what I understand, is something that started from summer camps and canoe clubs, probably in the wood-canvas era in the early 1900s. It was not native. It was an invention of white people,” Cayard said.
Indeed, in New England summer camps of the early 1900s, voyageur-style canoes were a big hit. The longer canoes could pack a lot of campers in one boat.
“In southern Maine there are old postcards picturing canoe activity with big 25- and 35-foot canoes at summer camps,” said canoe builder Mike Maybury in Brewer.
“I went to camp when I was a kid, 50 years ago, in the Berkshires, and they had a 35-footer, and a 25-foot canoe.”
Maybury has become something of a Maine authority on the voyager-style canoe. He and his wife, B.J., have been running canoe trips on the Penobscot River in Brewer in big, 28-foot canoes for most of 20 years at Riverkeepers, a nonprofit environmental education organization.
Maybury now has seven voyageur canoes and the Riverkeepers have four, all of them 25-31 feet long. The big boats are the most efficient way to teach students about the Penobscot and its rich history.
“It’s a contained audience,” Maybury said.
And apparently, from the longer canoes that show up in spring races around the state, Mainers love them.
Voyageur-style canoes can fit as many as 10 or more paddlers, sometimes side-by-side, and barrel down a river like a steamroller down a hill.
A week ago in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, the Kelleys paired up with four friends to take first in the open class. Theirs was just one of the four canoes to ever go under two hours in the 47-year-old race.
On April 20, they pushed past the whitewater, boulders, rocks and flat water in 2 hours, 36 minutes and 15 seconds in a low-water year.
But a day earlier, as they scouted the river, the big canoe slid over some big rocks.
“Anything that doesn’t stop us doesn’t hurt us,” Bill Kelley announced as the boat rolled over another boulder.
Some measure of care is taken to avoid unseen obstacles.
The six paddlers got out at one section called the “Shopping Cart” to pick their path. During the race there would be no stopping, or so they hoped. So they found their course the day before.
“If you see an upstream V, that means there are obstacles. You want a clear path. The rapids they call Gravel Pit could put a hole in the boat easy,” Tammy Kelley said.
The Screamah is part of a spring tradition with the Kelleys and their friends. Bill Kelley built it by joining two canoes together, a veritable “backyard project” as he called it.
Many of the same members of the Kenduskeag team return to the boat each year, knowing the demands of paddling in sync in a big canoe.
But to be sure, the communication in these crafts is a challenge.
“I’m just paddling forward, I can make fun of everyone,” cracked Bill Kelley, as he paddled from the middle.
While Tammy Kelley, sitting one back from the bow, tries to warn of rocks ahead, Leslie Winchester-Mabee, in the stern, and Ander Thebaud, in front of her, are missing some of the warnings.
For the most part from the back they’re reading the river and directing the boat. The canoe slides over a few shallow rocks but runs through three sets of rapids like a school bus full of students.
Not easy in a war canoe, which has fewer choices and options than a more nimble 16-footer presents.
“It can’t really turn on a dime,” Winchester-Mabee said.
Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: