To someone who grew up outside New York City, the Penobscot River was bound to have an effect. When I moved beside it in 1996, the river slowly, unknowingly became one of the reasons I decided to stay in Maine. When I moved to Portland six years later, it still wasn’t clear just how deep an influence it had on me.
Since those years spent living beside the Penobscot, I have run and returned to wild places at every chance. And I often wonder, is it because of the river? When a rushing, roaring current says goodnight to you, greets you each morning and becomes an ever-present companion, how can it not take hold?
A month after moving to Portland in 2002, it finally hit me. One night as sleep came on, so did the sadness of having lost a pet or old friend. Because of course I had. I missed the river.
More than 13 years later I still miss it. I can’t imagine missing it for a century. That’s how long two dams blocked the free-flowing nature of the lower Penobscot, preventing it from running toward the sea in its natural state.
While working on a story at the Harvard Museum of Natural History this spring, that realization halted my reporting. At an exhibit on Penobscot birch bark canoes, a quote from Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis reminded me how this lower stretch of river is home to a whole nation of people:
“Our relationship with the Penobscot River is at the very core of who we are as a people and plays a significant role in our spiritual and physical health. This river being restored means everything to our people,” Francis was quoted in the exhibit.
That river gets its due this week.
The Penobscot Indian Nation, in partnership with the New England Paddle America Club, is holding the first canoe and kayak race on the Penobscot River on the section from Indian Island to Bangor. The inaugural Bashabez Run, named for the first-known chief of the Penobscot Nation, will be held 9 a.m. Aug. 3 over 15.5 miles.
The race celebrates the removal of the Great Works Dam in 2012 and the Veazie Dam in 2013, the work of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. It also honors the history and culture of the Penobscot people, who settled beside this section of river centuries ago, and who happen to claim several canoe racing national champions.
For the Penobscot Nation, this lower section of river is home.
“This area was quite a resource for my ancestors,” said race director James Francis, the Penobscot Nation’s director of cultural and historic preservation. “Falls are places you go in order to find sustenance (and fish). This section of river, you can see now that it’s opened up, was probably very, very important for those activities. When the dams were built, that pretty much buried the falls.”
“We see this as potentially becoming a recreational corridor. We took the opportunity to pair the race with our Community Days on Indian Island, so people who finish the race could join us in celebration at our annual pageant.”
The race course retraces the route of Chief Bashabez, the first Penobscot leader documented by Europeans, from Indian Island to Brewer, where Bashabez met with other tribal leaders of “Norumbega,” a confederation of Abenaki Indian nations.
“The first Europeans wrote about him,” James Francis said. “In particular, when Samuel de Champlain sailed up the river to Bangor (in 1604) he was asked to wait while a party came to meet him. Bashabez showed up from up river with a whole fleet of canoes. I’ve wondered if he came from Old Town.”
The newly exposed stretch of river drops 100 feet between Old Town and Bangor. The course runs over Class II and III rapids that up until last year were hidden.
“I’ve been an avid canoeist my whole life and I’ve never done this stretch of river until recently,” James Francis said.
Many paddlers have begun playing in the newly exposed rapids, said Clayton Cole of the New England Paddle America Club. Cole, a Corinth resident, thinks the race will bring attention and more paddlers to this wild section of the Penobscot that has been recovered.
“It’s kind of a unique stretch of river. It’s a semi-suburban area, but from the river, from a paddler’s perspective, except for a few spots, it’s very wilderness-like,” he said. “The best thing I can compare it to are sections of the Kennebec River up in The Forks.”