BANGOR, Maine — Resonating drumbeats mixed with traditional Wabanaki songs and dancing as the Burnurwurbskek singers, a Penobscot Indian Nation drum circle led by Ron Bear, welcomed people Saturday morning to the second annual Penobscot River Revival.
The first song the group performed at the waterfront festival “was a Micmac honor song, in honor of the river,” Bear said.
The usually six-member drum group was pared down to just three — Bear, his son Cree Bear and John Neptune — and the dancers included his daughter, Selena Bear, and Neptune’s daughter, Shantel Neptune.
The Penobscot River Revival, a celebration of the return of health to the river, was put on by the Lower Penobscot Watershed Coalition and several other organizations.
Cheryl Daigle, community outreach coordinator with the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, told the drumming group that “it was really an honor to have you here celebrating the past, present and future of the river.”
Daigle said the celebration was planned to “raise awareness of all the natural resources the Penobscot River offers.”
As part of Saturday’s event, locals donned life vests and kayaked or canoed the river between Bangor and Brewer, while others made crafts or learned about how to keep the river clean. In addition to the music stage, more than 38 vendors set up booths, including local artists and crafters, guides, conservation groups, schools and local and federal agencies.
For decades, Maine’s largest waterway was polluted by residents, businesses and industries along the river, and it has taken many years of cleanup to improve water quality, Daigle said.
Many local children don’t realize that the river, which looks clean today, was polluted beyond belief just a few decades ago, said Glenburn resident Tree Heckler, a fiber artist and instructor.
“When I was a kid, I remember how filthy this river was,” she said. “You couldn’t even see the water because of the sludge. And the smell. You didn’t have to worry about kids drowning, because no kids in their right mind would go in it.
“My kids have no memory of that at all,” she added. “If we don’t take care of it, it could go back to that. It’s not perfect, but it’s better. It’s a worthy cause.”
At Heckler’s booth, children could sew together fuzzy rocks or bugs made out of felt.
Steve Coghlan, a University of Maine freshwater fisheries ecology professor, said the river’s history “is a sad, sad story.” He added that removal of some of the dams and planned removal of others along the Penobscot is a positive step.
“Once you tear down the dams, the river will begin to repair itself,” he said while tying flies for fly fishing at his booth. “Removal of the dams really set a whole string of events into motion.”
The Penobscot River restoration project is an unprecedented collaboration among hydropower company PPL Corp., the Penobscot Indian Nation, seven conservation groups and state and federal agencies to restore 11 species of sea-run fish to the Penobscot River while maintaining energy production, the project’s Web site states.
The project includes removing the Veazie and Great Works dams and bypassing the Howland dam to allow salmon and other sea-run fish access to nearly 1,000 miles of watershed.
Great efforts have been made in the last couple of decades to clean up the river, and once the river restoration project is complete, things can only get better, Daigle said.
“I’m a firm believer that there is a bright future here,” she said. “I live along the water with my daughter. I want it to be a place she can enjoy.”