BY STEPHEN B. COLLINS
Special to the Kennebec Journal
As astonishing as it was to paddlers and fishermen, no one was more surprised than the beavers when Edwards Dam was breached 10 years ago.
It was July 2, 1999 — the day after. A green Old Town Penobscot canoe carrying two Homo sapiens bobbed on swift current where a day before had been deadwater. High on the Sidney riverbank, an elaborate lodge of sticks and mud now perched incongruously a dozen feet above the new waterline — home of unsuspecting Castor canadensis.
It’s hard to say which species was more startled when the large beaver scrambled out his front door, stretched as if to land a belly-flop and swim away, but found himself tumbling tail over teakettle down the steep embankment to the water below. Just downstream, another entrance dislodged another perplexed aquatic rodent. Then a third, all in less than a minute. For 162 years their entrances had been underwater, but the dam removal changed that, literally overnight.
Somersaulting beavers were one of many surprises following the precedent-setting removal of a major dam on a river so significant it appears on a standard schoolroom globe of the world. In the intervening years, more than a dozen canoe trips from Waterville to Sidney or Augusta have revealed other surprises.
And now there’s a whole new area opened up to archeological paddling trips. The river formerly impounded by the Fort Halifax dam on the Sebasticook offers easy access, strong current and interesting revelations, all within minutes of downtown Waterville.
In the mid-1980s, when I launched a canoe in Waterville it was to paddle to Augusta and camp overnight on an island along the way. Lack of current made it a long trip. My young son and I met Hank, a friend, at the Hathaway parking lot. Hank had planned to take a birchbark canoe, but with the Scott Paper mill still churning out tissue, he worried his priceless heirloom might end up pink if they happened to be making pink toilet paper that day. So he brought a fiberglass boat.
I started paddling the Sebasticook River years before that, in the early 1970s. Benton Falls was a Class III-IV rapid (the Benton Falls Dam flooded that in 1988), and you could still see chicken feathers if you opened your eyes underwater before rolling the kayak upright.
It’s no stretch to say that Maine rivers — the Kennebec and Androscoggin in particular — inspired the Clean Water Act since its author, Edmund Muskie, spent much of his life in river cities along the Androscoggin and Kennebec. He grew up in Rumford, attended college in Lewiston, and served as mayor in Waterville and governor in Augusta. Today the improved water quality in local rivers is testament to Muskie’s vision and a monument to the act’s beneficial effects. But Muskie didn’t live to see the rivers flow freely.
Now, with the two dams removed, there are surprisingly interesting paddling trips offering good scenery, bald eagles thicker than black flies and long-hidden secrets — all within minutes of home.
By canoe it’s about two hours from Waterville to Sidney and another hour and a half to Augusta. In low water you can see iron rings in mid-river rocks — hardware reportedly used to pull bateaux against the current when Jeremiah Chaplin came north to establish Colby College in 1818.
The star of a trip last summer was a three-foot sturgeon that leapt a couple of feet clear of the water. At Six Mile Falls (greatly exaggerated by Kenneth Roberts in Arundel, which chronicles Arnold’s 1775 trip upriver to Quebéc), a diagonal ledge forms an easy rapid, and there’s an old channel on the Vassalboro side evidently constructed to provide passage in low water.
Until 1999 no one could argue with Roberts’s overwrought description; it lay out of sight, sunken under the Edwards Dam impoundment since 1837, almost 100 years before he wrote the account.
More recently the liberated Sebasticook in Winslow has revealed treasures, too. A fellow with a metal detector found dozens of musket balls and scores of coins, some dating to the late 1700s, on riverbanks near the former dam. Old oaken stumps and roots, flooded for 100 years, form ornate riverside sculptures. Outlet Stream, which drains China Lake and enters the river a mile above Fort Halifax, has a fun new half-mile-long rapid slicing through deep silt, and the rushing water is excavating 100 years of old bottles and debris, a safe tossed off the bridge, even old clay smoking pipes.
But more valuable to me than old coins and artifacts are five miles of brisk current, immature eagles too numerous to count, and knowledge that, even after 170 years, fish species have found their way home, apparently with surprising ease.
Stephen B. Collins is college editor at Colby College and a former Morning Sentinel correspondent. He has canoed throughout Maine and as far north as Labrador and Arctic Canada.