BANGOR — The Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization is nearly 30 years old, running more than 30 races across the state from May to October. But even though the group is still going strong, members realize that for “Mackro” to survive they’ll need to recruit the next generation of whitewater paddlers.
“When I came to Maine there were some guys my age paddling, but not very many young paddlers,” said the club’s president, Dan Baumert, who moved to Maine 15 years ago. “It’s a challenge to keep them in the sport. It’s been one of our pushes the past four to five years.”
Mackro, which started in 1986, serves canoe-racing enthusiasts in a state that boasts 32,000 miles of rivers and streams. It holds races as far north as the Meduxnekeag River in Houlton and as far Downeast as the Baskahegan Stream in Washington County. But until the past three years there were few, if any, youth at these races, Baumert said.
Recently, the canoe club has improved its odds of survival and recruited youth to whitewater paddling. Today the club has 125 members across the state with roughly 25 youth members, Baumert said.
Jeff Owen, an Orono High School science teacher and the former canoe club president, is largely responsible, Baumert said.
Seven years ago Owen took the defunct outing club at his high school and restructured it, turning it into a whitewater canoe racing team. As he started gathering equipment and building interest among the student body, he realized he had a willing corps of instructors from the canoe club where he served as president at the time. So Owen started pairing his high school paddlers with experienced Mackro paddlers.
The partnership was a perfect fit.
“I had these two roles going simultaneously. The Mackro membership was fantastic in offering up time to help the novice paddlers learn how to go fast and navigate through whitewater and build confidence,” Owen said.
The high school canoe team’s numbers grew. And today it has 25 students competing on the canoe team.
Meanwhile Owen has built on his success growing whitewater interest at the high school.
He worked with Mackro boat builder Jon Hill to provide Mackro with youth paddle boats. Hill built 10 small canoes that are fast, lightweight and tippy boats perfect for whitewater. Then area businesses donated paddles and life vests.
Owen works for the parks and recreation department in Orono during the summer to teach kids ages 7 to 12 how to navigate down whitewater rivers. This summer he will offer the kids whitewater camp for the third year. And in Waterville, Hill will offer the same camp on Messalonksee Stream for the first time.
“As a teacher you get to choose what you focus your energy and enthusiasm on, and I chose this. And I like it so much I’m willing to work hard at it,” Owen said.
However, Owen added, the effort to build youth participation in whitewater paddling has been made throughout Mackro.
Last weekend in Bangor a free whitewater slalom clinic on the Kenduskeag River drew only seven novice paddlers, including just three youth. Mackro volunteer instructors (and briother and sister) Laurie Sproul and David Stearns were not dissuaded.
The sibling team rolled out kayaks and canoes, offering their boats, paddles and expertise to all interested. Guiding a boat through whitewater is not as hard as it appears, Sproul said.
“We grew up canoeing in whitewater,” she said. “For us there is no difference between slalom and canoeing on a river. We play in the whitewater. But a lot of people are nervous in it. You do have to get beyond a certain unfamiliarity.”
As Stearns paddled across and over strong currents with Duncan Howell of Blue Hill, the 12-year-old tranformed into a whitewater paddler.
“Push, push, push. Lean, lean. Paddle, paddle, paddle. Now power, power,” Stearns yelled at Howell. “Now zig to the left. Watch the current.”
Stearns barked orders. But on the dry river bank after he pulled out of the icy water, the instructor was delighted.
“Oh he did well. This is a tough slalom course this year. The water is high and the current is fast,” Stearns said. “Also the gates add difficulty. When you have to cross a current to get to a gate, you have to dive into the current. That’s tough.”
In the process of navigating through the whitewater and across it, Howell learned to pull the canoe to the side with a “draw” stroke, and he did it in fast moving water.
“It was difficult because in order to get to a gate, I had to go through the water,” Howell said. “But on Gate 24 he told me to pull sharp to the left, and I did. I learned what draw means.”
Owen believes such whitewater paddle clinics and camps one day could be held around the state as Mackro’s efforts gain momentum.
“Mackro now has the youth boats, the life jackets and trailers. We can park that trailer in any town and anyone who wants a youth paddle camp can hold one,” Owen said. “We can deliver the equipment there. I would love to see that happen.”
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at: