Perhaps no other injury to a river is as profound as the construction of a dam.
I’ve lived the majority of my life in various places along a southern stretch of the Kennebec River valley between the city of Gardiner and Maine’s capital city, Augusta. Over the course of my lifetime this stretch of river has gone through some dramatic changes. I am fortunate to not have witnessed the condition of this river prior to its transformation. My parents tell of times during their childhoods in the 50’s and 60’s when on hot days in the summer the stench of sewage from the river was so strong it could peel the paint off of the houses that lined the banks. It was said if you threw a large rock out into the river on days such as this it would float on the surface for a brief moment before finally slipping into the sludgy river waters. No canoes or kayaks floated on this river, no fish were found in its waters. The years of commercial industry had ravaged this once pristine thoroughfare of the native Abenakis. The Kennebec River was for all intents and purposes a dead and useless stretch of stench that served as nothing more than a local embarrassment. The year after my birth congress passed the Clean Water Act (1972). I wouldn’t bear witness to the kind of pollution endured along the river during my parent’s youth. Instead I’ve witnessed a rebirth. The last log drive down the Kennebec River happened in the spring of 1976. The following year the improving waters were celebrated by hundreds of people forming large flotillas of non-motorized boats and rafts in the river making their way from Augusta to Gardiner in what became known as the first annual Great Kennebec Whatever Race. Thousands more celebrated this race from the shore. The river was considered clean again. Fish were migrating up its waters in increasing numbers. People were recreating on it again. Fast forward a couple of decades to the late 1990’s. Despite the Clean Water Act of 72’ there were still many obstacles present that prevented a complete return to the river’s natural state, most chiefly was the Edwards Dam, which spanned the headwaters of the Kennebec in Augusta.
Built in 1837 to help aid navigation and to power the mills along the river the Edwards dam created a reservoir of dead water for 17 miles up river and blocked the passage of migratory fish for 162 years until it was decommissioned and ordered removed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1999. This was an historical removal as it marked the first of its kind in this country and became a model for other dam removals across the U.S. Where 1972 marked the great changes to the river that my parents generation would celebrate 1999 marked the first significant changes that I witnessed and celebrate.
My parents live about five miles upstream from the former Edwards Dam site near the town line of Vassalboro. From their modest little home on a dead end street it is just a short walk past some old sand pits, down a wooded embankment, over some old railroad tracks and down another steep embankment to the edge of the Kennebec. Just after the dam removal in 99’ I took a walk down here to investigate. The riverbank was found to be a barren and ugly mudflat. The river here no longer dead water was flowing freely now with riffles in some spots and deeper channels of fast water and pools in other spots. The riverbank was already springing up with vegetation. A year later it was as if there had never been a dam downstream. And this whole section of River was returned to it natural wild state. That year I caught my first whopping striped bass on this section of river (a section that hadn’t seen a fish of this type in its waters for nearly 150 years.) There was now not only striped bass found teeming these waters but also the shad they feed on, alewives, Atlantic salmon, and sturgeon of both the short nose and Atlantic variety. (You should see those suckers jump!) I canoed down this 17 miles of reclaimed river in 2000 from Winslow to Augusta and witnessed countless bald eagles, heron, cormorants, and osprey. Amazing. In just one year’s time the river had gone through a miraculous healing process. I witnessed it. It continues and I continue to celebrate it.