November 12, 2013

The lead paddle has passed

John Will relinquishes leadership of the Pemaquid Paddlers, which he founded.

By Deirdre Fleming
Staff Writer

DAMARISCOTTA — The last note from John Will to the Pemaquid Paddlers where he signed off for one last time said it all.

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With John Will somewhere in front, the Pemaquid Paddlers make their way along the shore of Pemaquid Point during one of the last organized kayaking expeditions of 2013. A former teacher from Ohio, the 68-year-old Hill organized the group solely as a labor of love, and now hopes someone else steps up to be leader of the paddling pack.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Nancy Marshall of New Hampshire, who owns a cottage on Pemaquid Pond, has long enjoyed the Pemaquid Paddlers’ weekly expeditions from May to November. But the group now finds itself without a captain as John Will would rather someone else handle the immense organizing.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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For the past 10 years John Will volunteered his time to organize and lead the Pemaquid Paddlers. During those years the paddlers and miles paddled added up quickly. Here is the group’s last year by the numbers:

24: Number of trips planned

24: Number of trips taken

402: Total who paddled

32: Most paddlers on a trip

4: Fewest paddlers on a trip

1,890: Miles paddled

4: Trips in the rain

14: Brilliant sunny trips

He talked about the last of 240 paddle trips taken over 10 years, described the warmth of the 53-degree ocean water and added the “big plus for the paddle was there was no wind and a full sun, not a cloud in the sky.”

Boarded-up houses being readied for winter, a few loons “enjoying the fine weather” and lobstermen pulling out traps greeted the hearty paddlers cruising for three hours along the Maine coast, Will recounted in his last paddle report in October.

And then John Will said goodbye. After his classic upbeat and satisfied trip report to 161 paddlers, he ended 10 years of directing, guiding and teaching about the history and tides along the Maine coast to this ad-hoc group of paddlers, which he did at no cost to them and completely of his own accord.

And for about a dozen paddlers who summer and live in the midcoast, their paddling future is unknown.

Joan Plummer of Pittston said there are no other paddle groups in the region that compare.

“All those trips were wonderful. If you go on a paddle with him, he’s done his homework. He’s got the tides right. You’re not put in danger. Since a lot of us tend to be older, it’s nice to know you’re in really good hands,” said Plummer, who paddled with the Pemaquid Paddlers and her husband, Ernie, for nine years.

In 2002 after Will moved from Ohio to Pemaquid to retire, the former school teacher decided to start a weekly paddle group to meet other kayakers.

What happened next was the birth of a midcoast institution.

The weekly Tuesday paddles were known to draw 20 to 30, and one time brought 43. The best annual weekly average was 22. This past year the annual average was 16.

“I always thought I’d do it for five years and then be done. That was the original goal. If it was a group of six or seven then it wouldn’t be worth it. When it started becoming a group of 20 to 25 to 30, I just kept it going,” Will said.

What is truly unique about Will’s Pemaquid Paddlers is that he formed the group without assistance from a town, a land trust, a nonprofit or any outdoor organization. He did it because he loves to paddle.

He simply asked local and regional newspapers to publish his trip list, and put out the call to paddlers. And they came.

They showed up and met his few requirements to join the paddle: Bring a PFD and your own craft, and be in the water by 9 a.m.

Sometimes, of course, they were late, but Will always waited. He knew the tides, the safest routes and the paddlers relied on him.

He spent $70 to have a 5-foot-tall map made that shows the coastline from Bath to Rockland. He knew many of his paddlers were retired, with older eyes.

“I wanted them big so people could see them without glasses,” said the 68-year-old Will, with a smile.

“A lot went into it. In January or February I’d get the tide chart for the year and start planning the trips. It started the third Tuesday of May and went to the last Tuesday in November.”

And it took some years for the participants to realize this annual, weekly pilgrimage was simply a benevolent gift from a guy who doesn’t get paid and asks for nothing back.

“I was paddling with John for a long time before I said something to the effect, ‘So who’s paying you?’ And he said, ‘Nobody is paying me. I’m just doing this,’ ” said paddler Carolyn Jenks of Portland. “I was astonished.”

So it was with sadness that the core group of Pemaquid Paddlers who have joined the weekly trips for years found out last month Will is definitely ending his weekly tours that spanned from May to November each year for 10 years.

“John is like a Father Goose character,” said Rick Sevra, a paddler from Kansas City who summers in New Harbor.

“He shepherds everyone into the water and shepherds them out of the water. He keeps count of everyone during the paddle. He’s just a very dedicated gentleman.

“Everyone is mourning the passing of this group.”

Will is just tired of the organizing, he said last week in a coffee shop in Damariscotta. At 68, he’d just like to paddle with no responsibilities, which he does nearly every day from May to November, anyway.

“We’re sad John’s not doing it,” said Stephen Jenks of Portland, who summers in the midcoast with his wife, Carolyn.

“I totally understand his reasons. It’s been a one-man show for years. He finally got someone to write the weekly postings in the newspaper. But he’s really been central to the whole thing.”

So what will come of the Pemaquid Paddlers now that Will has stepped away from his duties, which were really just an invitation to others to get outside?

“No one has stopped to even think about taking over the reins of what he has put together. He’s had no support or backup. It’s unusual,” Sevra said.

Sure, the Pemaquid Watershed Association offers Saturday morning paddles, some that Will has guided. But as to the regular Tuesday morning outings, this organic, home-grown effort that came from one man’s love of the Maine coast? Nobody knows.

“I think it’s a good model for how things used to work, and work very well, when you have really committed, passionate people,” said paddler Mary Margaret Halsey of Newburyport, Mass.

“But then they get formalized and standardized and made into a bureaucracy and then it gets into money. I like John’s approach. I trust John.”

Yet Will has decided with the same conviction he brought to the free, guided trips he organized so well, this is it.

“I told them in the first newsletter. And then started each weekly report saying, ‘Come join me on my fairwell tour.’ They had 24 trips to find out this was it,” he said.

Several paddlers who planned their summers around the Tuesday journeys are hoping they can keep it going. But so far nobody has come forward to run the Pemaquid Paddlers. The regular paddlers say they don’t know what will become of the group. They only know there is no one who would run it like Will.

Halsey said Will took care of all the planning and except for two times in 10 years, he always showed up. And those two times when he was on vacation, he got substitute guides. So the Pemaquid Paddles went on.

“I liked the reliability of it. If it rained, we went. I didn’t have to wonder. I knew it was going to happen. He was just very dedicated,” Halsey said.

“Maybe it will become more informal, no more emails, just a bunch of us going out on such and such a Tuesday.”

But for Will, he’s looking forward to longer paddles, sleeping in on Tuesdays, not worrying about why on earth the people who called didn’t show up.

To the participants in the Pemaquid Paddlers, the reliable weekly paddles that spanned six months were unheard of in the midcoast region. But Will wondered why more people didn’t participate.

“Of 161 on the email list, we only had about 10 percent show up. I wondered why the others weren’t there,” Will said. “I hope they weren’t just sitting at home looking outside.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

Twitter: FlemingPph

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John Will


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