Canoe season on hold despite nice weather

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FRYEBURG – Maine Registered Guide Fred Westerberg is in no hurry to get his canoes and kayaks on the river.

It may be costing him money in the pocket, but he’s been around the Saco River long enough to know you don’t rush Mother Nature.

“This is an outdoor business. You rely on the weather. It’s the chance you take. You don’t cry about it,” Westerberg said as he and his wife Prudy and their daughter Beth began cleaning up their Saco River Canoe & Kayak store on Main Street during a sunny, 80-plus degree day.

If it were a month or two later, he would be fielding calls from hundreds of people wanting to rent one of his canoes and kayaks that go out as many as 160 times during a summer weekend. But Westerberg, an Auburn native who opened up the canoe business in 1972 with his wife, is satisfied to wait it out.

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“This is mountain country. As you know we have quite a snow mass and with the spring rains it can be treacherous and cold,” he said of the river which stretches 121 miles from Saco Lake beside Route 302 in Carroll, N.H., to the Atlantic Ocean in Saco, Maine. Fryeburg’s flatter and quieter section of the river has some of the most popular boat launches on the river, including Swans Falls, which is across the street from his business.

Some days may be hot and sunny in April but Westerberg knows the water is frigid and safety is his primary goal. “It’s just not smart or safe to put anyone out there,” he said. “I’ve been at it a lot of years … I know the elements at hand.”

Only four days earlier, on another warm early spring day, nine mostly young people in three canoes and a kayak ended up stranded on an island in the Saco River in nearby North Conway after their boats capsized in the rain-swollen water. Officials said some were wearing life preservers, others were not. A hiker saw a life preserver and paddles floating down the river and called authorities, according to an Associated Press report. The water temperature was 39 degrees.

“This weather turns people on. They start calling and asking ‘are you renting yet? It fires them way up,’” said Westerberg, who has already fielded calls from people hungry to get on the river for a new season.

While the season will not start immediately for the Westerbergs, it may start much earlier than usual, he said.

“If we can get over this stretch of rain we could hopefully be in the water from three weeks to a month earlier than normal,” he said of the normal mid- to late-May opening.

Even the state of Maine acknowledged the early unseasonably warm weather this year by enacting emergency legislation to allow open water fishing beginning March 25, instead of the usual April 1 date. But that action almost resulted in tragedy a few days later when two Farmington men took advantage of the early fishing season and fell out of their canoes in Parker Pond in Mount Vernon. Game wardens rescued the pair after they swam to a nearby island. Lifejackets were in the canoe and floated away.

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife officials immediately issued a warning last week saying, “Maine waters are extremely cold, and many remain at high (levels) because of the heavy rains earlier this week. Rivers and streams are flowing fast. People are urged to use caution if going into any body of water, to dress appropriately in case of a spill into cold water, and to wear a life jacket.”

Westerberg said he is aware that some people are still going out on the Saco River on private boats but says simply, “Some know what they’re doing. Some don’t.”

He will wait.

ldixon@sunjournal.com

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