Water burst through the Veazie Dam on July 22, a day that marked the beginning of its destruction. By the end of the year, the river will flow free. And after the ice melts next spring, canoeists and kayakers will be able to paddle from Old Town to the Atlantic, unimpeded, for the first time in nearly 200 years.
Many local paddlers are eager to ride the liberated stretch of river, its natural momentum restored.
“It will be like paddling a new river,” said Michael Sproul of Brunswick, a member of the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization. “There could be some rapids that weren’t there before. We’ll all discover what that part of the river used to be like, to some extent. Of course, it’s not going to be exactly like it used to be because rivers are always changing, even when you’re not removing dams.”
The Veazie Dam is the first barrier on the Penobscot River that boats face if heading upriver from the ocean, and it’s the second dam to be removed as part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, one of the largest river restoration projects in the nation’s history.
“It feels bittersweet,” Sproul said. “It’s great that the river will be open, but it’s sad that men worked hard to dam that river up to produce power that was clean power.”
The Penobscot has been dammed at Veazie since a dam was erected in 1833 to power a sawmill. The 32-foot-high Veazie Dam demolished this summer was built 100 years ago to generate electricity.
To compensate for the loss of hydropower that was generated at Veazie, the present power generation partner — Black Bear Hydro Partners LLC — is increasing power production at six remaining dams on the Penobscot.
“The biggest thing to me is that we’re helping to restore the health of the river,” said Penobscot tribal member Scott Phillips, owner of Northeast Outdoor Sports. “The river’s been smothered for more than 100 years, and now it’s being able to float free again. That means a lot to me as a tribal member of the Penobscot Nation.”
Phillips and Chip Loring are two of several Penobscot tribal members planning to take part in a ceremonial first paddle from Old Town to Bangor next year, when the Veazie Dam is completely demolished.
“We’ll be able to paddle on the river our ancestors used to paddle,” said Loring.
“Bringing all the fish back will bring back more wildlife along the river as well,” Phillips pointed out. “Hunting and fishing is going to get better. I’ve been helping out with this project all these years because it’s such a huge impact on the tribe and all the people, all the towns in the area.”
Phillips predicts that the number of paddlers on the river between Old Town and the ocean will increase drastically post-dam removal, but he warns people to be cautious of new whitewater and obstacles such as industrial debris. After the dam is demolished, he plans to organize a group of experienced paddlers to catalogue these dangerous areas along the river, then compile the information in a pamphlet and online for people to use while paddling.
“I paddled this section of river from Old Town down to Orrington about 10 years ago,” Phillips said. “It was pretty tough. There’s some challenging whitewater. But the toughest part was getting around the dams. There weren’t good portages. We won’t need them now.”
“[Canoeing] is something to keep the mind going and keep the mind off bad things,” said Terry Wescott, a member of MaCKRO from Thorndike. “It kind of keeps you sane. Even when you’re pounding, racing for a long time, it’s peaceful. Most places you go, you’re out in the country for just miles and miles.”
Wescott has been whitewater canoeing for 42 years and competes in races throughout the state. He plans to discuss with MaCKRO members the possibility of organizing a race that passes through the old Veazie Dam site, once the structure is completely removed.
“It has potential to be a very good race,” Wescott said.
To learn about the Penobscot River Restoration Project, visit www.penobscotriver.org.