The Whitewater Open Canoe National Championship will return to Maine this summer – to be held for the first time on the Penobscot River, organizers announced Wednesday.

The Penobscot Indian Nation will host the event July 23-26 along a stretch of the river where two dams were removed in recent years.

The national championship has been held on the Dead River in The Forks several times, most recently in 2009. Races will start in Old Town – about 15 miles north of Bangor – with the longer downriver races ending in Eddington.

The championship is expected to draw several hundred kayakers and canoeists from as far away as North Carolina and Michigan. They will compete in the sprint races or the 9-mile race in a variety of classes for youth, men, women and for co-ed teams. Given the accessibility of this stretch of river, the event also is expected to attract many more spectators than in past years because it’s in an urban setting.

The 2015 championship marks the first time the Penobscot Nation will host the race. Traditionally, the American Canoe Association awards bids to paddling organizations.

“It’s going to spread the word around the entire country about this river that was reborn by taking the dams out. There has been plenty of publicity around that project – but this is more about getting people out and using the river,” said Scott Phillips, the race director and a member of the Penobscot Nation.

“There are quite a few individuals in the tribe who have won whitewater national championships. Before we officially went after the bid, we brought this forth to the Tribal Council and they said, ‘Yes, absolutely, we want to host this.'”

The removal of the Great Works Dam in 2012 and the Veazie Dam in 2013 was part of an effort to restore 11 species of sea-run fish to the watershed.

But paddlers say the exposed whitewater resulted in a more easily accessible river playground just outside Bangor. The stretch of river drops 100 feet between Old Town and Bangor and runs over Class II and III rapids.

“I think (the championship is) a celebration of restoring the river to a free-flowing state and people who come from away to experience it are going to go home with an understanding of what a river can be when it’s returned to its natural state,” said Jeff Owen of Orono, youth outreach director at the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization.

Last August, the Penobscot Nation partnered with the New England Paddle America Club to hold the first canoe and kayak race on this section of the Penobscot River below Indian Island.

The inaugural Bashabez Run, named for the first-known chief of the Penobscot Nation, was a 15.5-mile race and amounted to a dress rehearsal for this year’s national championship.

Clayton Cole of Corinth, a member of the Maine canoe club, said this section of the Penobscot is not as challenging as other open-canoe national championship venues, but it should attract more paddlers.

“It’s been a trend lately to hold such events on whitewater that is not quite as difficult so that more people try it. It makes it more accessible,” Cole said.

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