Steve Woodard recalls paddling at age 13 with his friend, Jeff Owen, in Maine’s spring canoe racing series. They weren’t very good at first, dumping their canoe in rivers almost every time.

Now both 52 years old, Woodard and Owen have continued to race together for nearly four decades. The pair has won five titles at the Whitewater Open canoe nationals on the Penobscot River and nine titles in the two-man, medium canoe division in the Kenduskeag Stream canoe race.

“We learned together at a really young age. I can’t think of many paddle partners who started that young,” said Woodard, who lives in Cumberland. “When I look back on it, there’s something about being in a race in a boat just 12 feet apart giving it your all. You really learn to understand this person you’re paddling with, and appreciate them.”

Longtime canoe racing partners like Woodard and Owen say the thrill they get from paddling together is unparalleled in any other sport.

And their passion for canoe racing has much to do with their fathers – Frank Woodard, 78, and Bucky Owen, 80 – who first raced together 46 years ago.

“We have a competition brotherhood, I guess,” Frank Woodard said. “Now that I think about it, we were like a couple of brothers. It’s special because such great coordination is required and you can tell when your coordination is perfect. It’s a great feeling. I can’t think of anything else that requires such perfect coordination as much as canoe racing.”

Frank Woodard started paddling in the Kennebec River beside his hometown of Bingham at age 12. Bucky Owen, a native of Rhode Island, bought his first canoe in graduate school in Illinois. When he came to Maine in 1969, he started canoe racing and never stopped.

The two first raced together in 1972 at a now-defunct race in the Carrabassett River.

Frank Woodard of Falmouth, front, and Bucky Owen of Orono race to the title in the Kenduskeag River canoe race in the two-person canoe long division in April 1974. Courtesy of Frank Woodard

Woodard, an engineer and retired University of Maine professor, and Owen, a retired UMaine professor of wildlife management, would train together at dawn on the Stillwater River in front of the university.

“Sometimes we paddled around ice chunks,” Frank Woodard said.

They teamed up in races that no longer exist, like the Carrabassett race and the St. Croix River race. They placed well in several, winning the Kenduskeag race in the two-man, long-canoe division in 1974.

Eric Gallandt, president of the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization, said when Bucky Owen and Frank Woodard were racing in 1980s, it was the “zenith of whitewater canoe racing.” The group continues to oversee a 12-race point series on rivers in northern Maine.

To excel in canoe races, paddle partners have to coordinate strokes, switch sides at exactly the same time and make adjustments in perfect sequence. Even with that, Mother Nature can confound the effort.

“We left a bunch of canoes on the Lower Dead River,” Bucky Owen said.

Owen would race in the stern and Woodard in the bow where he had to read the water. Before every race they would walk the river to find the problem spots. Then they would study aerial photographs and maps.

Still things didn’t always go according to plan.

“I don’t remember a single time that we actually hit 100 percent of the route,” Woodard said.

Yet the two men raced as a team with gusto every spring until Woodard moved to southern Maine in 1984. Then they continued racing in Nordic events and road-running marathons until three years ago, when they teamed up again in the National Whitewater Open Canoe Championships in the Penobscot River, which they raced in as a team from 2015-17.

Jeff Owen started racing with his father at age 10. Steve Woodard started racing with his father when he was 7.

By the time the boys were in their early teens, they started racing together.

Steve Woodard went to college in Massachusetts, but after returning to UMaine for graduate work in 1992, the two raced again.

“We often take the most aggressive route. We’re able to make that choice because of the skill set we have,” said Jeff Owen, who still lives in Orono. “If I were paddling solo or with a different partner, it wouldn’t be the same.”

Both competed on the track and soccer teams at Orono High. But Owen, an Orono High science teacher who started a varsity canoe racing team at the school this year, said canoe racing is very different because the course is an unpredictable force of nature.

And then there’s the bond forged on a team formed in childhood, which Woodard said runs deep, at least a good 40 years.

“It’s just so easy,” Jeff Owen said. “We can paddle a whole race and not talk about where to go. We know the race courses so well. And we’re still able to paddle hard and well, and smoothly. We can pick up right where we left off, even if it’s been five or 10 years. I can’t think of any other sport where you have to be perfectly in sync, or it’s easy to sink the other way.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

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