Spring has sprung, the snow is melting, and the Kenduskeag Stream is now fast-moving and briskly cold, making its way from rapids upstream to calmer waters in downtown Bangor. The stream has shaped the history of the region for centuries — from the Penobscot people prior to first European contact in the 17th century, to its current status as a scenic natural attraction and home to this weekend’s Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.
Here’s some facts about the stream you might not know.
The Kenduskeag Stream runs 36.2 miles in total, taking a winding path from the town of Garland, through Corinth, Kenduskeag, Glenburn and finally Bangor, ending at the Penobscot River. After the last ice age, receding glaciers revealed the rocks that comprise the stream bed and banks; mostly sandstone, quartzite, schist and limestone.
The Penobscot River below Eddington is is a tidal river, which means that the Kenduskeag is a tidal stream, though the tidal effects only reach as far as the Harlow Street bridge. As snow and ice melts off in the spring, the stream’s water levels are much higher and the rapids upstream are more powerful; it starts to peter out around late June and stays fairly low for the remainder of the summer and fall.
Eels! Eels! Eels!
Kenduskeag — a Penobscot Indian word that translate roughly to “eel weir place,” “eel catching place” or “little eel river” — was spelled by European colonists in various ways before settling on its current spelling.
For the Penobscot, the name accurately described the stream from which they fished for both eel and salmon for centuries. The British and French settlers spelled the word many ways, from Kadesquit to Condeskeag to Conduskeag to, sometime in the late 18th century, Kenduskeag.
Bangor itself was originally called Conduskeag Plantation, until it was officially incorporated as a town in 1791. There are still eels in the river, though they are immature ones that migrate out to salt water before they reach full size.
Telling stories, streamside
The first major writer to find inspiration in the Kenduskeag was famed transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s aunt and cousins lived in Bangor, and in the 1840s and 50s he frequently came up to visit them. While in town, he would often walk along the banks of the stream, remarking on its beauty and its abundant wildlife, his thoughts on which can be read in his book “The Maine Woods.” Other, wilder stories emerged from these early decades in Bangor history, like the legend of Lover’s Leap — the 150-foot cliff near Valley Avenue from which a pair of Penobscot lovers supposedly jumped to their death, sometime in the mythical past.
Bridges, mills and dams
For nearly 200 years, the Kenduskeag was lined with gristmills and sawmills, including a very large sawmill near downtown — Morse’s Mill, just upstream from a covered bridge built by the same company. By the mid-20th century, most of those mills were gone, along with the once-vital Maine lumber industry. The covered bridge stood for another few decades, until it burned down in 1983. A footbridge replaced it, which still stands today, as does the remnants of the mill, which now functions as a pedestrian lookout over the stream.
From Bangor to Derry
A version of the Kenduskeag Stream appears in several of Stephen King’s books that are set in Derry, a.k.a. Bangor’s doppelganger. Most famously, the stream appears in “IT” as part of The Barrens, the patch of land roughly analogous in real life to the upper part of the Kenduskeag, where the Loser’s Club construct its home base in the fight against Pennywise.
Also in both “IT” and in “11/22/63” are the canals, based on the real-life canal that routes the Kenduskeag through downtown Bangor. We assure you: there are no immortal homicidal monsters lurking anywhere around the Kenduskeag. We’re pretty sure, anyway.
The fish came back
Though we now enjoy the clean, tree-lined stream that meanders pleasantly through town, 60 years ago the Kenduskeag looked (and smelled) very different. Decades of unchecked pollution had left the stream from around Griffin Road south a foul mess, choked with human waste dumped into the stream. As a city report published in 1960 stated, the stream was “hazardous” and posed a “major public health problem.” By the mid-1960s, extensive work had already been started to improve Bangor’s sewer and wastewater treatment systems, and by the 1980s, the stream was measurably much cleaner. Today, activities like running, biking, fishing, birdwatching and boating along or in the stream are popular.
Kenduskeag, by boat
According to organizers, the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe race was started in 1967 by two old pals, Sonny Colburn and Lew Gilman, who worked with the Bangor Parks & Recreation department to put together some sort of fun community activity; a canoe race sounded neat enough. Today, it’s the largest canoe race in New England, attracting more than 1,500 paddlers each year and many more spectators. This year’s race is set for this Saturday, April 21, starting in the town of Kenduskeag and ending in downtown Bangor.
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