My cell phone rang as I walked down Congress Street in Portland.
"They’ve started!" It was Alan Greene from Sebago calling.
"When?" I asked. "Where’d they put in?"
"Peabody Pond at Tiger Hill Road. They plan on running the river all the way to the Fitch Road Bridge. Jason has Phil Strike and Jason Schoolcraft with him in the canoe."
"I’m heading home," I said as I got to my car. "I’ll meet you somewhere along the river."
And so the fourth whenever-they-get-to-it Great Northwest River canoe race had begun. The "Great Northwest River Race" is a bit of a misnomer, because the race has only one entry and only one winner. The schedule is serendipitous, held whenever someone can put a crew together. Despite all this, it is still a great spring event whenever it happens.
Jason Greene, Alan’s brother, has run the river twice before, and had been looking for at least five years for a partner to make the trip again with him. Last time the crew was willing but river flows were not. This year spring snowmelt swelled the river to near-flood conditions that were just right for white-water canoeing, and two hardy souls had signed on to take the trip with Greene.
Starting at Peabody Pond, Northwest River runs for about 9 ½ miles and flows into Sebago Lake at East Sebago. In former times there were at least six stone dams on the river that either powered sawmills or that regulated water levels downstream to the millpond at Fitch’s sawmill in East Sebago. Today only two dams remain - at Peabody Pond and at East Sebago, and Northwest River roars through what remain of four old dams on its way to the lake.
The course of the Great Northwest River race is about 7 ¾ miles between Peabody Pond and East Sebago. Like many rivers in Maine water levels drop and it is too "bony" to canoe during the height of summer. But for a few short weeks in summer, snowmelt and runoff make it ideal for canoeing and kayaking.
The Northwest River runs behind our house. I stopped at home, slipped on my green Wellies and picked up my camera. Spring was on the way but winter snow still lay deep along the woods trails here and there - not deep enough for snowshoes but enough to slow me down.
I called Alan Greene on my cell phone as I made my way down to the river. "Where are they now?"
"They made it through the first two old dams OK, but dumped the canoe when they came to a log across the river. The water is like ice and they’re freezing! They’re here with me on the bank, soaking wet, and I’m starting a fire to warm them up a little. They’ll be back on the water shortly."
The delay gave me a chance to wade through the snow and find a spot on the river where they would pass me.
"See any logs across the river?" Strike asked. "None that I saw," I hollered back as Strike and Greene flew by on the spring flood, big grins on their faces. The third member of their crew, Jason Schoolcraft, had lost his paddle when they capsized and decided to walk the rest of the way.
Leaving them to negotiate the next two old dams, I followed an old woods road down stream and joined the small crowd of race fans at the Fitch Road Bridge.
"There they come!" someone yelled.
There was only one canoe in the race but no one’s enthusiasm was dampened by this minor detail. "They’re in the homestretch now, and they’re in the lead!" someone else added. The green canoe appeared about 300 yards upstream, racing towards us at full tilt. As I ran up the bank to get closer for better pictures, a groan came from the crowd. "They went over!"
As I watched in horror the canoe ground to a halt on a rock and flipped both its occupants into the icy Northwest River. Strike rose out of the river, water to his thighs, holding his arms out with a pained look on his face. Greene was off his feet, holding onto the canoe for dear life. As Strike slowly waded his way to the bank, Greene regained his footing and worked to free the canoe from the rock which held it.
"Phil," I asked "Are you all right?"
He held onto a tree, knee deep in the frigid water and bent over, pain on his face. "I hit my back on a rock. I can’t move!" Greene made it to shore with the canoe, and together with his brother Alan who had come running up from the bridge, they lifted Strike bodily out of the river and laid him on the bank. As we started first aid on him we called the Sebago Rescue and Fire Department on our portable radios, and units were soon on their way.
Strike was showing all the classic signs of hypothermia. His lips and face became blue and he started to shiver violently. He was disoriented. Immersion in cold water speeds the loss of body heat and can lead to hypothermia. One of the first signs of hypothermia is involuntary shivering as the body tries to generate heat. Victims lose feeling in their arms and legs. Cold, blue skin, decreased mental skills and slurred speech are other common symptoms. Untreated hypothermia can lead to death.
It seemed like an hour, but in only minutes the Rescue unit and two fire trucks arrived with equipment and help. As EMT Anita Chadbourne took Strike’s vital signs and EMT Jason Schoolcraft cut Strike’s wet clothes off him, we wrapped him in dry blankets and hot packs, packaged him on a litter, and carried him carefully to the Rescue unit. With lights flashing and siren wailing, they took him to the Bridgton Hospital.
This story has a happy ending, unlike too many tragedies involving cold water and hypothermia. The canoeists had let others know their plans before they left, and immediate help was at hand. They wore life jackets. Thanks to the quick response by everyone at the scene, Strike recovered completely. He was back at home the next day with only a sore back and bruised reputation as a white-water canoeist to show for it. The canoe team lost all three of their paddles but kept all their lives, and they were the winner yet again in the Great Northwest River canoe race.
This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on May 26, 2005 under the title "River canoe 'race' turns scary".
Last updated October 27, 2005
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree