Twenty years ago, canoeing was king of white-water boating in Maine. A weekend at the Forks would find scores of solo and tandem white-water canoeists paddling the Dead River, with just an occasional kayaker cluttering the rapids. While kayaking had already begun to dominate the sport in other areas of the country and internationally, New England, and Maine in particular, was predominantly canoe country.

Back then, canoeists or “open boaters” as they preferred to call themselves, could be found paddling 14- to 16-foot solo boats, such as the Mad River ME, Blue Hole Sunburst, Old Town Kennebec or Mohawk Rogue. Tandem paddlers often chose the 17-foot Old Town Tripper or Mad River Discovery. By current standards, they were much longer, heavier and less maneuverable than their present day counterparts. To negotiate them down Class III and IV rivers required precise paddling skills and a good deal of stamina.

The very best of the solo open boaters graduated to the “big water” run on the Class IV Kennebec Gorge or the Class IV/V runs on the Penobscot and the Mattawamkeag rivers. A few even took on challenging creek runs like the Upper Carrabassett or Cold Stream. Many of the expert canoeists developed and perfected the seemingly impossible “open boat roll.”

Aluminum boats produced by Grumman were the first canoes that were durable enough to handle difficult white water. But they tended to puncture when they struck rocks and were heavy. In the 1960s, fiberglass replaced aluminum as the material of choice. Fiberglass was still quite heavy and it was prone to cracking. In the 1970s, plastic canoes with technical names like Oltonar and Royalex revolutionized white-water canoeing, as they were lighter materials that were almost indestructible. It is possible to wrap a submerged plastic canoe completely around a rock, and then press it back into its original shape with a minimal amount of effort.

Probably the most problematic aspect of white-water canoeing is dealing with water that inevitably finds its way over the gunwales and into the interior of the boat, which is not an issue with enclosed kayaks. A canoe full of water can weigh 1,500 to 2,000 pounds, and even if it can be kept upright, is completely unmanageable in that circumstance. In the early years, canoeists would inflate large tire inner tubes and place them in the unused portions of their boats to displace water and provide floatation. This was a tenuous choice at best, and it was not unusual to observe a canoe floating in the river upside down with both the inner tube and its former occupant following close behind.

As the sport became popular, equipment manufacturers made air bags specifically designed for outfitting white-water canoes. This allowed canoeists to fill most of the interior space of their boats with lightweight inflatable plastic bags that fit firmly and were easily secured. The airbags facilitated the open boat roll, which would otherwise be a pointless exercise, as the boat would be full of water when righted. When a canoe is fully outfitted with airbags, it will still take on as much as 400 to 500 pounds of water, which is one of the reasons it is such a challenging sport.

For most paddlers, rolling a canoe is a difficult technique to learn. When the boater flips upside down, first he or she must find the top of the water with the blade of the paddle. Then, in this twisted and disorienting position, snap the hips in the opposite direction from the end of the paddle blade, while keeping the head and body tight to the boat. Since a canoe is a much bigger-volume boat than a kayak, and the paddle only has one blade, it is much more difficult for most people to roll. While the procedure is fundamentally one of finesse when practicing in a pool, it often requires a fair amount of upper body strength when executing a roll in demanding white-water conditions.

White-water canoes are also outfitted differently than traditional canoes. Paddlers kneel in order lower their center of gravity and improve their stability. The kneeling position also allows them to more effectively execute white-water paddling strokes, such as the upper and lower brace. So, most outfit their boats with pedestals or saddles, which are fairly comfortable for kneeling. It is also essential that paddlers to be fitted tightly into their canoes. Usually, this means strapping their knees and thighs into the boat, which provides for more boat control and allows the occupant to stay in the boat when rolling or bracing. There are a variety of strapping systems, but whichever is used must allow the paddler to quickly exit the boat when in danger.

Things have changed dramatically in the white-water world. Now, the vast majority of paddlers are kayakers. Canoes are the exceptions on Maine’s white-water rivers. It is not unusual to spend a busy day on the Dead River and never see an open boat. As each year passes, there are fewer and fewer open boats, and most are older paddlers. The younger generation of white-water enthusiasts does not appear to be attracted to the unique challenge of running rivers in big boats with little paddles. It probably seems less glamorous. Surfing a wave in a kayak appears to be a greater attraction than desperately catching an eddy with a boat full of water and then bailing.

But there is still a small group of Maine paddlers who is challenging the big water in canoes. The newer boats are shorter and more maneuverable. The typical solo canoe, such as the Mohawk Viper or the Dagger Ocoee is 10- to 12-feet long. Some of the more extreme playboats are as short as 8 feet in length. The tandem boats are usually in the 14- to 15-foot range, and often they are old solo white-water vessels that have been converted into two-seaters.

Paddling the Kennebec Gorge is still a rite of passage for the expert white-water canoeist. But the shorter, higher performance solo boats are pushing the limits of navigation in the steep creeks. In recent years, there have first descents of such demanding creeks as Sandy Stream in North New Portland and the Gulf Hagas section of the Pleasant River.

However, the dwindling numbers seem to portend the demise of this once great sport. The canoe manufacturers are probably a good indication of its declining popularity, as Blue Hole stopped operating several years ago, and Mohawk, which has produced some of the best and most popular boats over the past two decades, has recently closed its doors. Soon, it seems, open boating will be relegated to the status of an anachronism.

But, for those who paddled them, the memories will last a lifetime. Large numbers of kayakers have learned to paddle Class IV/V white water, but only a handful of open boaters have reached that level. For them, there is nothing quite like blasting over the top of a breaking Big Mama Wave, and then punching the hole at Magic Falls on the Kennebec Gorge. Or, a desperate last-ditch attempt to hold a low brace just long enough to reach the final chute in the Crib Works Rapid on the Penobscot. No kayaker will ever understand or know the unique thrill or challenge that this great sport provides.

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