BANGOR, Maine — Bright blue under a sunny sky and with a fresh breeze blowing across its waters, the Penobscot River itself was the guest of honor Saturday at the fourth annual Penobscot River Revival festival at the Bangor Waterfront park.
The event featured short paddling excursions, boating safety tips, river-related crafts for children, information on fish and wildlife, fly-tying demonstrations, displays of nice old canoes, live music and more. But throughout the day, as a laid-back crowd ambled among the displays, the river rolled past, bright and beckoning.
It was not always like this.
“When I was a kid, this river was an open sewer,” said Woody Higgins, vice president of the Penobscot County Conservation Association, one of many sponsors of the festival. The organization has tried for decades — unsuccessfully — to restore Atlantic salmon and other game fish to the Penobscot.
Generations of Maine children have grown up knowing the river as a toxic soup of chemical run-off, industrial waste and raw sewage, he said, but more recent efforts have succeeded in reversing the process.
As the river waters got cleaner following the enactment of state and federal environmental protection policies, wildlife gradually returned, he said. The species have followed a food-chain progression.
“First it was the insects that came back,” Higgins said. “Then came the fish, and then the eagles and the ospreys.”
Soon, he said, dam removal along the waterway will open the Penobscot for sea-run fish, while also inviting river travel all the way from Howland to the mouth of the river as it flows into Penobscot Bay below Castine.
Festival coordinator Cheryl Daigle of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust said her group succeeded in raising $24 million to purchase three hydroelectric dams from the Pennsylvania-based PPL power company, which owned a total of nine dams between Medway and Veazie. The purchase was completed last winter.
The project required a great deal of community education and outreach, as well as a protracted legal licensing process, Daigle said. But beginning next summer, the Great Works dam in Old Town will be dismantled, to be followed by the Veazie dam. A stream-like waterway will be created around the decommissioned dam in Howland to allow fish to migrate upstream.
Over time, species such as salmon, shad, sturgeon, striped bass, and river herring, blocked for over 200 years by the impassable dams, will make their way back to their native spawning grounds, Daigle said.
The remaining six dams on the lower Penobscot are now owned by Black Bear Hydro and will continue to generate electricity, she said.
“They will actually make at least as much energy from those dams as when the project first began, and probably more,” she said.
While there are economic and recreational benefits to restoring the health of the Penobscot, Daigle said the project has inherent environmental value as well.
“Restoring the river and the population of sea-run fish improves the river for all the other fish and wildlife that use it,” she said. “If you have a healthy Penobscot River, the cultural and economic benefits grow naturally from that.”
For Reuben “Butch” Phillips of the Penobscot Indian Nation, the river restoration project holds deep significance. Phillips was overseeing a display of traditional Penobscot crafts at the festival, including a birch canoe and finely worked ash and sweetgrass basketry.
“The Penobscot River is who we are,” he said. “We take our name from our place on the river.” The Penobscot has always been essential to the tribe’s very existence, playing a central role in spiritual observances as well as for fishing, hunting and travel, he said.
But when he was growing up, the river had been grossly degraded by dams and pollution.
“It diminished our river culture,” he said.
Thanks to the Clean Water Act and other federal and state regulations, as well as the ongoing collaboration between the Penobscot Nation, local conservation groups, economic development agencies and even the power industry, the Penobscot River is much closer now to being the life-sustaining river of his ancestors, Phillips said.
“I never dreamed that in my lifetime I would see this happen,” he said. “But it is happening.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a few errors. The vice president of the Penobscot County Conservation Association is Woody Higgins, not Woody Harris. Also, the Clean Water Act, not the Clean Air Act, helped in the revival of the Penobscot River.