Rite of spring: Kayakers race over icy falls

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LETTER E TOWNSHIP — Adults, children and dogs trudged up and down the narrow paths at Smalls Falls on Saturday to watch whitewater athletes race kayaks down a section of the Sandy River.

The fifth annual Smalls to the Wall race brought 17 competitors and hundreds of spectators to the still-icy gorge south of Rangeley.

Strangers cheerfully offered each other a hand and waited patiently for the more cautious hikers to creep along the trail as kayakers made their two runs down the falls.

Observers wedged themselves among trees and roots to keep from sliding into the steep gorge, looking down at nothing but water and rocks 25 feet below.

Andrew Cooper, who started, organizes and promotes the event, said he spent the previous months planning the day, hoping for perfect weather and water conditions. He grew up in New Harbor, but he’s always considered western Maine and Rangeley a second home.

“When I was growing up, my folks had a camp on Loon Lake,” Cooper said. “I wasn’t into kayaking until later, but I really thought Smalls Falls would be a great place for a race.”

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He learned to kayak and paddled the falls himself years later. He said he knew there were other whitewater canoe and kayak races around New England, but nothing was quite like this location. It already was a popular “park ‘n huck” site for kayakers who wanted a quick challenge and were willing to hike the steep trails for the thrilling run.

“A lightbulb went off for me one day,” Cooper said. “Why has no one else done this?”

He said the race started with a few volunteers and competitors. Each year, he’s been able to add sponsors and draws on the local talent for souvenir T-shirts.

Before Saturday’s event, he and his father and brother did some scouting for downed trees and limbs, known as strainers, which are especially dangerous if hit at high speeds.

He had all of the participants meet for a safety review before they trudged up the trail to the snow-covered launch. Below, the riverbanks were lined with rescue crews, while a NorthStar Emergency Medical services ambulance waited in the parking lot.

Local volunteers, including a few members of the White Mountains Swiftwater Rescue Team, stood at the river’s edge with throw bags and other necessary equipment, ready to help a kayaker in trouble. Cooper said no race is exactly the same, and he has to trust that racers have the necessary expertise to make the short, steep dive down the icy waterfall. He requires everyone who registers to be age 18 or older and to sign a liability waiver.

The state-owned scenic rest area features a series of four falls, with a final drop into a 20-foot-wide pool.

Although he knew that’s what everyone came to see, he made a tough decision Friday night. Because of low water levels and the need to keep everyone safe, Cooper said, he reluctantly made the call to move the race to the shorter and less challenging Chandler Mill Stream, just above the falls.

Despite the change of venue, the crowds came anyway, with at least 200 vehicles parked throughout the afternoon on both sides of the road, above and below the parking lot.

Cooper feted participants at an after-party at The Shed in Rangeley, with prizes for racers with the best times.

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