Come June 1 — if the ice is gone and the river’s not flowing too high — Matt Hopkinson will step into his 16-foot Mad River canoe and begin a grueling journey that symbolically mirrors that of the Atlantic salmon that used to be plentiful in the Penobscot River.
Hopkinson’s quest will be to pole, paddle, portage and potentially sail that canoe 125 miles upstream from the historic first barrier to sea-run fish, the site of the former Veazie Dam. Along the way, he’ll battle (again, like the salmon) through rapids and flatwater all the way to the West Branch of the Mattawamkeag River and Rockabema Lake in Aroostook County’s Moro Plantation.
“Hopping in at Rockabema and coming down this way, 125 miles, that’s like running the Allagash. That’s about the same kind of trip,” said the 57-year-old Hopkinson. “[Going upstream] is symbolic. The salmon get to go upstream, and they’re going up in June. … [I thought,] ‘Let’s go up with the salmon.’ That’s just how it ought to be done, I figure.”
Hopkinson, who lives in Hubbardston, Mass., isn’t making the trip just for the adventure. Instead, the accomplished canoe poler and paddler is hoping to raise awareness for the Penobscot River Restoration Project and raise money for the Penobscot River Restoration Trust.
Hopkinson said the idea began to percolate in his mind a few years back, when he sat at the Veazie Salmon Club and heard club members lament the fact that they could no longer fish the river for Atlantic salmon. Then he started hearing about the restoration project, and the fact that by removing two dams and providing fish passage at a third, more than 1,000 miles of upstream habitat would be opened to sea-run fish.
“So it just occured to me that it would be fun to see if I [could] help somehow,” he said. “[And this trip] is a neat way to raise funds.”
Hopkinson’s goal is to raise $5,000. He is using crowdrise.com/uptheriver to raise the funds, and as of Thursday, it showed $855 in donations had been pledged.
Hopkinson said a number of factors coalesced into the idea to embark on the journey.
“I love canoeing. I spend as much time as I can paddling,” he said. “There’s some of the local-to-Maine folks that have studied a lot of the ancient canoe routes that have been around for thousands and thousands of years. I started getting interested in them, and in order to follow them, you need to be able to go upstream and carry between one watershed and another.”
And upstream he will go.
Hopkinson has staged other upstream trips, including one during which he headed up Ross Stream to Ross Lake. On that trip, he traveled 20 miles over the course of two days, gaining 400 feet of elevation along the way.
“This trip here, I’m going 125 miles, and I’m gaining 675 feet of elevation,” Hopkinson said. “I figure I give myself 10 miles a day. So [in] a couple of weeks, I’m hoping to finish it off.”
Hopkinson said the June 1 starting date is preferred but could change if the conditions warrant. A recent trip to Baxter State Park, where he found snowpack five feet deep, has proven that there’s plenty of frozen water in the north country that will head downstream when it eventually melts.
“If I set out, and it’s just not doable [because of high water levels], I’m not going to spend two weeks trying to beat my way up to Old Town. I might push it off a week or two,” he said. “I really want to do it. I don’t want to just try it. I want to make it.”
Hopkinson said he’ll carry nearly everything he needs in the canoe, with the exception of some food, which he might have dropped off along the route a couple of times during the trip.
He’s expecting to encounter plenty of black flies, so when he sleeps beside the river each night, he says he’ll rely on the bug screen that fits over his hammock.
“Pretty much it’s an unsupported trip, a self-supported trip,” Hopkinson said. “And I’ll do anything to get up the river that doesn’t involve motors. Hand power is pretty much what I’m gonna do.”
To donate money to the Penobscot River Resotration Trust because of Hopkinson’s trip, visit crowdrise.com/uptheriver.