BLOOMINGTON, MD. -- About 350 days a year, the Savage River is the last place in the world you'd think of running a whitewater canoe race. Other days, the Army Corps of Engineers flips a switch, and the Savage goes wild.

So it was last weekend as most of the top U.S. paddlers and others from as far away as England and Australia convened to battle the froth at the Savage River Invitational -- precursor to the 1989 World Whitewater Championships, the first worlds ever scheduled in the United States.

Early mornings, the Savage looked nothing like its name. It was just a placid, clear trout stream trickling out of Garrett County's wooded mountains. But by 10 a.m., when Washington, D.C.'s world champion canoeist Jon Lugbill and his colleagues were drawing on their spray skirts, the trickle was a torrent. Cold water gushed from the foot of Savage Lake dam at 800-1,000 cubic feet per second. Within minutes, it was crashing down five miles of boulders to the North Branch of the Potomac, creating along the way some of the most challenging whitewater for racing in America.

Lugbill and other U.S. competitors helped bring the worlds to the Savage by lobbying for its selection with the American Canoe Association in 1984. At the time, the Wisconsin River at Wausau, Wis., was front-runner, but paddlers maintained the Savage was a far tougher test.

Last weekend the Savage won praise. "The water is great," said International Canoe Federation official Susan Chamberlin, who flew in from California.

Chamberlin said while the Savage may not be as big and powerful as some rivers used for past worlds, it has a sharp drop of about 75 feet per mile and is "more difficult technically than many European courses because of the almost continual whitewater. There's just no place to rest," she said.

"This course is hard," said Chuck Mullard of Vancouver, British Columbia, head of the Canadian Whitewater Association, "and it's going to be even harder for the worlds," when water will be released at a faster rate, he said.

The degree of difficulty was evident as a few competitors capsized in the rough water and a lot more failed to make gates on the slalom course. One paddler destroyed his boat in the rapids during the wildwater race, and even world silver medalist David Hearn flipped his decked canoe, although he popped up quickly to take third place in the men's slalom.

Lugbill was an easy winner in that event, as he was a month ago at Bourg St. Maurice, France, when he, Hearn and Bruce Lessels put together the first U.S. sweep of a world event. Lugbill and Hearn, both paddling out of Washington, now have finished 1-2 in the biannual worlds for the last five events, Lugbill winning four and Hearn the other.

Will they be able to keep the streak alive on their own turf?

No problem, said Lugbill.

"The Europeans have plenty of talent," he said, "but they suffer from not seeing us enough." He said he and Hearn push each other to new heights in the privacy of their practice sessions. When some of Europe's top paddlers came to the worlds last month, he said, they took one look at the way he and Hearn were going and were "psychologically blown away."

"And our team is deep," Lugbill added. "So with the home waters, I have no doubt about our chances in C1 {solo canoe}."

A bigger question may be whether Garrett County (pop. 26,000), whose biggest town is Oakland (pop. 2,000), will be ready to stage a world-class event for 600 competitors and 20,000-30,000 spectators in 22 months.

"When we started," admitted Fred Bolton of the organizing group, Whitewater Championships Inc., "we lacked everything but a river." But Bolton, who went to France last month to observe the racing, said although the French "did a first-rate job, we're going to beat 'em."

The biggest concern is whether the rural venue is too far from population centers. It's a good four-hour drive from Washington or Baltimore to Bloomington, where the locals drink Iron City beer and root for the Pirates. The nearest hotels and restaurants once you get here are a half-hour away at Deep Creek Lake or Frostburg.

The whitewater course itself lies three or four miles away from the tiny village up a narrow, winding road with no parking. Spectators will have to ride buses in and out, then filter along the river on footpaths to watch from the rocks.

If it sounds spartan, it's not that unusual for paddling events, according to Jamie McEwan, a former Washingtonian who at age 34 won the silver in two-man slalom at the worlds last month, paddling with Lecky Haller, another ex-Washingtonian.

"In France," said McEwan, "they had the advantage of being in a town that was walking distance to the race course. Obviously, they can't put up a town here, but as far as the immediate environs, they can easily match it."

Time will tell. Bolton said organizers will be doing postmortems on last weekend's activities in preparation for next June's preworlds, which should draw the best paddlers in the world for a look at the river.

Meantime, the switch has been flipped back off and the Savage once more is a sweet, civilized trout stream, burbling along through the bush. SAVAGE INVITATIONAL RESULTS Slalom

Men's canoe: 1, Jon Lugbill; 2, Jed Prentice; 3, David Hearn.

Two-man canoe: 1, Jamie McEwan-Lecky Haller; 2, John Harris-Charles Harris; 3, Steve Thomas-Mike Larimer.

Women's kayak: 1, Jennifer Stone; 2, Cathy Hearn Haller; 3, Maylon Hanold.

Men's kayak: 1, Richard Weiss; 2, Chris Doughty; 3, Andrew Gladwin. Wildwater

Men's canoe: 1, Andy Bridge; 2, Tom Popp; 3, David Hearn.

Two-man canoe: 1, David Jones-Mike Hipsher; 2, Jamie McEwan-Lecky Haller; 3, Joe Stahl-Steve Chamberlin.

Women's kayak: 1, Cathy Hearn Haller; 2, Jody Fellows; 3, Karen Kolan.

Men's kayak: 1, Robin Lang; 2, Brent Reitz; 3, David Orlicky.