At the Maine Canoe Symposium in Bridgton, you’re never up a creek without a paddle.
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
- Photography by: Gabor Degre
I am kneeling in the sand, canoe paddle upside down in my grip, rotating my upper torso, as instructor Paul Faria explains various elements of the proper stroke. We are alone on the beach at Moose Pond in Bridgton on a gray and blustery June afternoon, and I am getting in a bit of private instruction before the twenty-third annual Maine Canoe Symposium (MCS) officially kicks off.
I am no stranger to canoes. In fact, I’ve had ample experience — messing around in them when I was a kid at camp, casually paddling with friends, even a four-day trip on (and in) the West Branch of the Penobscot, replete with portage and whitewater — but I just have no feel for a paddle. I have long been at odds with upper-body-powered sports. I can’t hit a tennis ball without it sailing over the fence. Kayaking bores me. And while I love being in canoes, my efforts (which usually involve a lot of splashing and banging) are rarely appreciated. I’m always relegated to the bow — akin to being the last chosen for volleyball — and, after much thrashing, I always get “the look” from my companion in the stern and an invitation to kindly lift my paddle.
So, I thought, what better way to get a feel for this sport than by total immersion? (Maybe not the best choice of words when talking about watercraft.) And what better way to totally immerse myself than with a full weekend of programs, demonstrations, and hands-on workshops with some of the most avid and committed canoeing enthusiasts in the state and in North America? The fact that Faria had agreed to meet me early and give me a few pointers is just a bonus.
Lean and lanky, Faria has a quick smile and a reassuring manner. He first selected a PFD (personal floatation device) for me and strapped me in, as though dressing a child. He next instructed me on how to size a paddle and how to grip it before he had me kneel down in the sand. I whirl my paddle as he furnishes me with the names of a few strokes — the J-stroke, the draw, the pry. “Oh, and don’t forget the WCS,” he says, pausing, before he adds, “the wicked cool stroke.” He is trying to simplify things for me, breaking all strokes into their shared individual segments: catch, propulsion, and recovery. And I am following every word, nodding and whirling, whirling and nodding. It all sounds so simple — on land, that is.
I had arrived just a short time earlier, poking my way up Route 302, in the lakes region of southwestern Maine. The Maine Canoe Symposium takes place at the same spot it’s been held every year since its inception in 1986, at Winona Camps in Bridgton. As I bumped my way down the dirt drive hemmed in by trees and breathed in that piney air, I knew at once I was at a classic Maine boys’ camp. Indeed, Winona Camps, which is tucked amid three hundred acres of towering pines and grassy fields in the shadow of Pleasant Mountain, has been a fixture here since 1908. The main lodge forms a centerpiece along a mile of shorefront, with docks and floats jutting out the length of it. On either side of the lodge, canvas wall tents on wooden platforms line the water’s edge, as well as outbuildings and more function halls. The interior of the lodge, where the registration was taking place, is a cavern of pine paneling and floors, with rows of long tables and a big bank of windows overlooking the pond. The walls are decorated with posters of mammals, turtles, amphibians, and bats, as well as camp photos and trophies. With each slam of the screen door, another round of attendees arrived. Old friends were catching up, spouses and children were being introduced. Newbies (myself included) could be seen wandering a little aimlessly, trying to get our bearings, studying the two maps provided — one dedicated solely to the privy locales — and eavesdropping a bit. “Why would you ever want to marry a paddler?” one bearded, middle-aged gentleman was heard remarking to another. “Why not?” I thought.
Once I was signed in, I found my quarters and stowed my gear. The large tent was lined with rickety metal cots with thin vinyl mattresses on them. (A quick amen for my own personal sleeping bag.) A solitary wooden bookcase covered with carved initials and graffiti stood alone in the tent’s center like an Egyptian obelisk. I rolled back the flaps of my tent to expose the view of the pond through the pines and to move some of the musty air around, and then set off to find Faria.
And that is what brought me to this moment on the beach. As we prepare to launch our canoe and put some of his instruction to the test, Faria gestures me toward the stern. “Really?” I squeal, as though being chosen — at long last — to be on the cool volleyball team.
We shove off from shore and point our craft into a substantial headwind. Here Faria takes the opportunity to show me some of our shoreline strokes in action. I mimic his moves and feel the canoe respond. I place my paddle in the water and pull its face toward me (the draw), and the stern swings. I pry the face away (the pry), and the stern pushes away. I’m steering! I’m actually steering! I even begin to think it might appear from shore that I know what I’m doing, until I try to repeat another stroke — a sweep — he has shown me. I bring the paddle across the top of the water and in the process soak him. He grins and shrugs — I’m sure he’s accustomed to enthusiastic novices — but he’s probably glad we’re heading back to shore.
The Maine Canoe Symposium is a nonprofit, volunteer-run weekend dedicated not only to instruction but, more importantly, protecting the heritage of North American canoeing. It features luminaries from the paddling world, such as the Peake brothers of the Hide-Away Canoe Club, who have been retracing historic canoe routes in northern Canada since 1981, and octogenarian Kirk Wipper, founder of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario and something of a living legend with paddlers. That doesn’t mean this is an
experts-only, exclusive group, however. Of the 130 attendees (about one-third of whom are staff and instructors), many have never set foot in a canoe. Some are here to bolster their safety skills or to take their paddling to the next level. There are old Mainer types in wool shirts and college students in their poly- and Gore-Tex-gear. Families are well represented, with kids tearing this way and that. And there seems to be a number of women of a certain age who are here, perhaps, like me, to become a little more adroit with a paddle and graduate from the bow to the stern.
Meals are always a big event at gatherings like these, and the first evening is no exception. The dining hall is thronged even before the dinner bell is rung, with a line already snaking from the buffet. The fare is no-nonsense, hearty, and filling: stuffed shells, meatballs, salads, bread; the following night offers baked chicken,
potatoes, summer squash. Set out on the beverage table are pitchers of what is referred to by the summer-camp set as “bug juice,” which comes in shades of neon blue and orange, alongside pitchers of plain old ice water. For the duration of the weekend, there is always a line at the coffee urn and the dessert table. Plates clatter and voices strain above the happy din.
I join Faria and his family, including his brand-new granddaughter, and discuss strategy. I’ve been studying the workshop roster for days prior to my arrival, trying to work out the best plan to make me a sea- (or at least pond-) worthy canoeist. I think I have selected a good cross-section, starting with “Intro to Paddling,” to help me assess my skills and weaknesses. The problem is, sign-up for each workshop is required, the number of participants is limited to around a half-dozen, and, most problematically, the sign-up sheets are set out at harum-scarum intervals, so getting a spot is a little like playing musical chairs. The sheets for the following morning’s first workshops were out earlier in the afternoon, so I’d have to take my chances on my other picks: “Refining your J Stroke” and “Women’s Poling,” the latter of which would require me to stand, balance, and propel myself with a long stick. I had selected it just to see how much time it would take me to “immerse” myself. Faria approves of my choices. I’m glad, since I won’t see him much again after this as he is deeply involved with the children’s programming.
The focus on kids goes beyond just keeping the event family friendly. The organizers make clear that the children’s activities — crafts, canoeing, hiking, swimming, outdoor skills, games, a campfire — are not a babysitting service. They are designed to promote and encourage interest in this somewhat — if not dying, then perhaps flagging — sport. Let’s face it: canoeing is decidedly old-school in the extreme and wired world of recreation. And while that might be the very appeal to many here, getting the next generation on board may require a little more effort. But whatever the MCS staff is doing to keep the kids involved, it’s working. Throughout the weekend, it’s not uncommon to see an eight-year-old girl blissfully racing from one activity to another, lifejacket buckles flapping, small paddle gripped at a diagonal across her torso, like some miniature Xena water-warrior. And because families return year after year, the kids are able to form special bonds, as well. All very healthy for keeping the symposium and the sport afloat.
That investment is core to the symposium’s mission. And mission is a good word for it. There’s a bit of revival-meeting sense to the evening’s programming, which takes place in Cobb Memorial Hall, a rough-hewn lodge with a balcony and massive fieldstone fireplace. On this, the first night, we receive a rousing welcome from the charismatic emcee Shawn Burke, one of the symposium’s instructors and a marathon canoe racer. He refers back to when the symposium was run by L.L. Bean and was closed to children. He pauses and then asks, “Who has kids here?” A field of hands go up. Then, more questions for the audience: How many have been attending for the full twenty-three years? A couple hands go up. Twenty? No hands. But then, as we descend to fifteen, ten, and five years — the hands fly. When we get to the newbies, another healthy show of hands. New blood! The room cheers. Next, we get a geographic profile. “Who’s from Maine?” Burke calls. “Who’s from New Hampshire?” (The bulk of attendees are from Maine and Massachusetts, it turns out. Canada is also well-represented, both in participants and presenters.) By shouts, we find we have people from Illinois, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. No matter the length of connection with the organization or level of experience, everyone concerned is now officially a member of the MCS tribe.
Introductions are made, highlighted by the bonhomie of Winona Camp owner Al Ordway. With his wire-framed glasses and graying hair, he looks the part of camp director that he is. We get cautionary talks about the bugs (“They’ve been good this year”), thunder and lightning (“Watch out for a potential thumper”), and other safety issues (“Can’t guarantee you won’t step on a nail from 1908. Wear shoes.”) And finally, without a flashlight, you will quickly “realize the pine trees don’t move.”
Next, some of the instructors are trotted out to hawk their workshops, most notably the buff and blustery Harry Rock (which clearly sounds like a canoeist’s stage name), a poling enthusiast. He cajoles the audience to follow him in his hoots and hollers as he pumps his fist sideways, as though using a hacksaw, which they gladly do. As he wields his pole, he gets heckled by the Peake brothers from what amounts to their Winona opera box above him. It is clear they take a dim view on the art of poling. “Where’s your curtain?” they call down, referring to the rod-ish looking pole Rock is holding aloft. His response? A resounding whoop and fist pump. The crowd cheers. Heckling polers seems to be a staple of MCS humor.
Following the evening’s slide-show talk about a canoe trip in Norway (the country, not the neighboring town), the crowds make their way to their tents. Tomorrow’s a big day.
The next morning, after a deliciously sound sleep, I wake with one notion in my mind: “The world would be a better place if more people could spend a night in a tent in the woods of Bridgton, Maine.” I am at the dining hall at seven sharp, only to find the sign-up for my J-stroke workshop already filled. Because no sign-up is required for the numerous on-land workshops — which run the gamut from nature walks to knot-tying to yoga for paddlers — I know I’ll have no trouble filling my time. Plus, I do make it on the list for the women’s poling, which is key to me at this point.
After breakfast, we all gather at the water’s edge for a demonstration of all the various techniques — poling, paddling, sailing — being offered in the workshops. We crowd out the length of the dock to gawk, and Burke once again plays emcee, boom box blaring upbeat music, as each instructor struts his or her stuff. Northwoods paddling uses short, fast strokes, and looks a little silly to a novice’s eye — sort of Keystone Cop-ish. We see women’s poling— or “chicks with sticks” — demonstrated, as well as whitewater strokes and freestyle. All of a sudden, I want to take all the workshops. One weekend is not going to be enough.
And ultimately, that’s the appeal of the ongoing nature of this event. While a person can attend the symposium just once and gain enough skills to get herself started — I did feel like I would be better equipped the next time I set out in a canoe — one realizes how broad and deep the canoeing culture is and how much there is to gain.
And while the workshops themselves I attended had plenty to offer (lesson: do not put two alpha females in the same canoe; only one person can steer at a time), and I did get my chance to pole (surprisingly without incident), the sheer rhythm and shared purpose was what made the weekend so worthwhile. As the Peake brothers cited as their motto in their talk: “We were not pioneers ourselves, but we traveled over old trails that were new to us and with hearts open. Who shall distinguish?”
With my newfound paddling confidence, I think I know how they feel.
If You Go
The dates for the symposium this year are June 5 – 7. $20-$80. Camp Winona, Moose Pond, Bridgton. 207-647-3721. www.mainecanoesymposium.org
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
- Photography by: Gabor Degre