JAY – Kenny Jacques grew up within a few miles of the Androscoggin River 40 years ago, but didn’t dare play in the gunk that didn’t move below the banks.

Today he owns a ski shop beside the river and wonders why other locals don’t join him paddling the now-clean waterway that is busy with ducks and rising bass.

“I bet less than 1 percent of the people who live here have been on the river. I’m pulling that right out of thin air, but you don’t see people on this river,” said Jacques as he moved his kayak through the water Thursday night.

A gathering of 33 paddle fans organized by the Androscoggin Land Trust last week put many locals on the river for the first time. It’s part of a new effort to draw locals to this recreational avenue and rally economic activity.

Jonathan LaBonte, the Land Trust executive director and Auburn mayor, has put together the Thursday night paddle series with local businesses to draw attention to the river north of Lewiston and Auburn, where the land trust is working to create trails.

Already the Department of Conservation has spent roughly $30,000 in the past year to extend an existing multipurpose trail from the north end of Jay into downtown Livermore Falls to businesses along the river. That extension of The Whistle Stop trail will be opened this fall.

The land trust also is working to protect and develop trails on the opposite side, along 1,300 acres of working forestland that includes 9 miles of river frontage.

Meanwhile, Tim DeMillo, who purchased the old mill in Jay and opened a restaurant there with his wife, Mary, has opened the primitive boat launch site there to the public. The DeMillos plan to protect it with an easement.

And LaBonte says other projects are in the works, none of which will happen without continued involvement from the local communities and businesses.

“Since 1989 the land trust has worked on the river project. Now there is an ambitious project in this immediate area,” LaBonte told the group before the paddle Thursday. “Tonight you’ll really get separated from development. You’re going to be surrounded by a lot of pine trees and maybe a bald eagle.”

Certainly, awareness of the natural beauty and wildlife along the Androscoggin is lacking in the region. Several who learned about the outing from local businesses never thought of the river as a place to play, said avid paddlers such as Lori Ireland of Industry.

Ireland hauls her inflatable stand-up paddle board around the area, except to the Androscoggin.

“I go everywhere, to Clearwater Lake, Wilson Lake, North Pond. I had never been on the Androscoggin. I’ll come again. It’s just beautiful. Out on the water it’s very peaceful,” Ireland said.

Her paddle friend, Nicole Ditata of Farmington, also had not been on the river despite being a Jay native.

“Growing up, it was pretty gross. But now it’s a good place to go,” said Ditata, who learned of the paddle at DeMillo’s Mill Street Cafe.

Jacques also remembers the river when it was a place to be feared, not to play. Now he relaxes along the Androscoggin, where softball games on the shores send fly balls above, while hungry bass create a stir below.

“We used to say, ‘It’s too thick to drink and too thin to plow,’ ” Jacques said. “Today they say you can eat more fish here than you can in Moosehead Lake because the mercury level is low. Today there are plenty of fish in the river.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: [email protected]

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