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.”

(Continued on page 2)

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John Will


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