Once again, the river runs wild

The now-undammed Penobscot River has brought bounty to my backyard.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
A riverkeeper checks on alewives on the shore of a Penobscot River tributary in Bradley, Maine.

Until recently, my home was snuggled neatly between two dams along the banks of the Penobscot River here in central Maine. The behavior of the river was therefore a function of the human forces controlling the dams: At times it was a raging torrent; at others, a quiet lake. During spring runoff, when the river was the recipient of melting snows, the lower dam was sometimes closed and the Penobscot would rise precipitously, lapping at my backyard as I stood at water’s edge, wringing my hands. But if the powers that be opened the dam, the river would drop to the point where I could almost wade across it.

This uncertainty has ended. A few years back, in a miracle of civic and political cooperation, several agencies came together and agreed to remove the dams, returning the river to its native state. For the first time in a hundred years, the Penobscot is a free-flowing river, muscling its way to the sea under its own power.

When I first caught wind of the plan, I was unsure where my sentiments lay: with those promoting hydropower as a clean, inexpensive way to produce electricity? Or with those believing that rivers knew what they were doing and should be left alone? Now that I have seen the results of the dams’ removal, I am happy that nature is again able to take its course.

When the dams were breached, the river’s level dropped and it narrowed, exposing banks that had been submerged for generations. It was a beachcomber’s dream. 

In the old days, the Penobscot was a dump site for those living along its shores. The depositories for household refuse existed at intervals, indicating that neighborhoods seemed to have agreed upon places to throw their trash. As I roamed the banks, I discovered all sorts of “memorabilia” – an old Coke bottle, a porcelain baby food container, a clay marble, a cast-iron toy truck, an iron wagon wheel, the blade from a buzz saw – all evidence of the industry, both domestic and commercial, that characterized the river for countless years.

But the biggest boon of the dams’ removal was the effect on the riverscape itself. While the contraction of the channel initially revealed some unappealing sights (tires, shopping carts), nature has been busy seeding the new beaches with all sorts of sedges, grasses, and wildflowers, which has invited the return of shorebirds and other wildlife.

Last spring, as I stood behind my house and peered out over the Penobscot, I caught sight of flashes of silver at the surface of the water. I took a closer look and realized that these were fish – thousands of alewives – leaping skyward as they headed upriver to spawn, now that there was nothing standing in their way. My impression at that moment was that this was more than simple migration; it was exuberance.

And so I now live along not merely a river, but a river renewed. The Penobscot had always been a wonderful and scenic – if unpredictable – resource for me, but now it’s become a movable feast. The drop of the water’s level, combined with its unimpeded course, has created a restless scene, with all sorts of interesting eddies and stretches of white water, and bald eagles perched for their share of the largess. As I regard this river, one of the most scenic in America, the thought that occurs to me is this: As it was, so it is again.

But the promise of the Penobscot unbound is not yet complete. 

Many years ago the river boasted a thriving Atlantic salmon fishery, with the first fish of the season going to the president of the United States. The dams helped to put an end to that era. But now, with the dams gone, there is renewed hope that salmon, the crown jewel of the Penobscot, will find their way home again.

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