Canoe race co-founder keeps eye on the water

Ed “Sonny” Colburn, who started the annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race in 1967, stands by the Union River in Ellsworth.

OTIS — Ed “Sonny” Colburn knows what’s going on in the water around him.

For example, if you needed any assurance that this past winter was a long one, you could go check out Beech Hill Pond in Otis. Colburn, 82, lives on that pond and usually counts about 40 ducks bobbing across it this time of year. Sometimes as many as 80 show, Colburn said.

But since the pond’s ice took forever to melt this spring, only four fowl have appeared so far.

Colburn also keeps a close eye on Kenduskeag Stream, the 36-mile stretch of water that flows southeast through Penobscot County.

This past weekend, hundreds of hardy souls hopped into canoes and other watercraft to brave their way down the stream’s swells and rapids. The Bangor Parks and Recreation Department was putting on the 48th annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race — a rite of spring in these parts.

Although the traditionally 16.6-mile race was shortened by one mile due to high volume and swift currents, over 400 teams still partook, just about tying last year’s participation.

Colburn was helping run the race at its starting point. But his involvement far predates last weekend.

It was in Miller’s Restaurant on Bangor’s Main Street in April 1967 that Colburn and Lew “Spook” Gilman first decided to approach the city about starting it.

Gilman, who died in 2011, worked for Old Town Canoe Co. Colburn ran Bangor Furniture Co. For about three months, he’d been trying to start a race on the Kenduskeag, where he often went to collect fiddleheads.

After Colburn and Gilman had a few beers at Miller’s, Colburn explained, his friend asked if he’d approached the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“And I said, ‘Hell no, I didn’t think of it,’” Colburn said.

Well, Bangor Furniture was just three doors up from City Hall. So the next day he went and approached then-director Winston Lynn.

“I asked him if he was interested in having a canoe race,” Colburn recalled. “He said, ‘I’m damn sure not going to have a bicycle race, ’cause we lost money on one last year, but a canoe race would be good.’”

The first race took place that May.

Find in-depth coverage of local news in The Ellsworth American. Subscribe digitally or in print.

Charles Eichacker

Charles Eichacker

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Charles Eichacker covers the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Castine, Verona Island, Penobscot, Brooksville and Dedham. When not working on stories, he likes books, beer and the outdoors. [email protected]