OLD TOWN, Maine — On the rocky shore of the Penobscot River, a young man and woman sat fishing in the afternoon sun on June 14, just upriver from the former site of Old Town’s Great Works Dam. The anglers waved as an eclectic group of paddlers passed by, a parade that included canoes, kayaks, a raft and a stand-up paddle board.
Riding the river south, they were headed for a section of whitewater, rapids that formed after the removal of the dam in 2012, and one of the exciting challenges of the upcoming Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta, scheduled to run June 28 through July 2. Hosted by the Penobscot Indian Nation and sanctioned by the American Canoe Association, this four-day competition will take place on a 9.5-mile section that runs through Old Town, Bradley, Orono, Veazie and Eddington.
“This is our third and final year [hosting the races],” race chairman Scott Phillips of the Penobscot Nation said. “So for people who wanted to come and see it sometime, you got to come do it now.”
Next year, the national championships will move elsewhere in the country, giving racers an opportunity to learn a new waterway.
The competition used to move to a new location every year, Phillips explained, but the American Canoe Association’s competition committee voted in 2015 to keep the races on the Penobscot River for three years in a row so that racers could get used to the waterway and the area.
When it comes to the Penobscot River, that doesn’t just mean learning the locations of the rocks, rapids and shallows. It means getting to know the rich history of the second largest river system in New England, including the waterway’s significance to the area’s native people and the recent river restoration efforts that have made such a race possible.
“The event itself allows not only the locals, but also people from away to come here, visit us, and see the great river that we’ve reclaimed,” Phillips said.
In the early 2000s, a group called the Penobscot River Restoration Trust formed to revive the native fisheries and traditional uses of the Penobscot River. This group included the Penobscot Indian Nation, seven conservation groups, two hydropower companies, and multiple state and federal agencies — all working together to restore the health of the waterway. This project has included the removal of the Great Works Dam in 2012 and the Veazie Dam in 2013, as well as decommissioning and building a bypass around the Howland Dam in 2016, significantly improving nearly 2,000 miles of habitat for sea-run fish.
“For me personally, being a [Penobscot] tribal member, it’s great, number one, that we returned the river back to its original state from Old Town on down,” said Phillips, who has been heavily involved in the restoration project since its beginning. “It allows us to paddle the river the way our ancestors paddled the river prior to the dams.”
The first inhabitants of the Penobscot River watershed, which covers an area of 8,570 square miles, were people of the Penobscot Indian Nation, who fished for shad on the river as early as 8,000 years ago.
“This [regatta] is kind of the icing on the cake,” Phillips said. “We did all that work to bring the river back, the fisheries, and now we’re seeing recreation, people using the river. It’s fantastic.”
A dark cloud of cormorants materialized downriver on June 14, dozens of birds lifting off the water, clearing the way for the practicing paddlers. Cormorants are known to congregate where the fishing is good, Clayton Cole of Corinth pointed out as he paddled at the stern of an Old Town Canoe.
“What the river used to be, and what it is now? A free flowing natural habitat? It couldn’t be a bigger transformation in just five or six years,” Cole said.
An avid canoe racer, Cole is a member of the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization and serves on the Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta eight-person committee. On the committee, he has a number of jobs, including organizing safety crews for the races, lining up sponsors and registering racers.
Last year, about 160 paddlers from 15 different states competed in the regatta, he said, and many of them entered two or more races.
“This year I have someone registered from Canada, and we had someone from Norway last year — and Hawaii,” Cole said. “Most of our participants come from the East Coast, some from the Midwest states — Michigan or Wisconsin. We had somebody from Washington state last year from the wildwater class.”
The 9.5-mile stretch of the Penobscot where the races will be held include Class II and Class III rapids, numerous rips and quick water, and stretches of flatwater that will require some endurance.
The American Canoe Association Downriver National Championship races are divided into classes based on age, number of paddlers per boat, and type of watercraft — canoe, kayak, wildwater craft or stand up paddle board. These classes race separately so that racers have the opportunity to enter in multiple races.
For example, if someone wants to race with partner in a canoe, but they also want to race in a solo kayak, they can do that because the races are at different times.
Paddlers can register for the races up to June 28, which the official practice day for the event, as well as the day that all boats are inspected to ensure they meet American Canoe Association standards.
“There’s really no prerequisite of skill required, we have no way of assessing it,” said Cole, who pointed out that the championships is far shorter — and warmer — than the popular Kenduskeag Stream race that is held each spring and draws hundreds of participants. “We give people all the suggestions and guidance they’ll tolerate.”
For spectators, the best day to watch the racers is on Saturday, July 1, Phillips said. On that day, the sprint races will run from 9 a.m. to 1 or 2 p.m. The races start at Binette Park in Old Town and running through Great Works rapids on an exhilarating course that takes average paddler about 3 minutes to complete.
“We send out one boat every minute,” Phillips said. “So you’re not playing bumper cars going down through the whitewater, and it’s constant.”
Spectators can easily watch this excitement from the shores of the river in Bradley, where they can park in a large field off Broad Street.
Another highlight of the Penobscot races is the competition’s opening ceremony, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 28, at Binette Park. For the past two years, the Penobscot Indian Nation has performed a traditional welcoming ceremony for the racers, led by a tribal elder, and Phillips said they plan to uphold the the tradition for the third and final year.
“The racers really enjoy it because they don’t usually see something like that,” Phillips said.
The welcoming ceremony is a time for racers to think beyond the competition, to acknowledge the importance of the races to local residents and paddlers, and to acknowledge that the races truly wouldn’t be possible without the unprecedented collaboration that restored that section of the river.
Since the removal of the Veazie and Old Town dams, the river has dropped several feet, Cole said, revealing structures and debris left over from the 1800s, when logs were floated down the river in massive drives. Today, to make paddling on the river safer, local paddlers travel the waterway regularly, removing dangerous debris. Vegetation is now growing into the newly exposed riverbank, and thousands of sea-run fish have returned to the waterway.
“With the migrating fish explosion, we see more osprey and eagles flying around here,” Cole observed, pointing out a bald eagle before it soared around the next bend.
Then Cole’s eyes returned to the river. The frothing whitewater of the Great Works rapids had appeared. He dipped his carbon fiber canoe paddle into the water.
It was time to have some fun.
For more information, including the schedule of the races and a link to register online, visit penobscotriverwhitewaternationalsregatta.com or call race chair Scott Phillips at 852-0680.
Proceeds from races will go to two beneficiaries: the Penobscot National Youth Canoe Club and the Orono Paddlers Club. So far, money from the races has enabled both organizations to purchase new canoes, kayaks, paddles and other paddling gear that enables them to teach local children and teens paddling sports.