It is at night when I feel the presence of the Penobscot River most palpably, when its music courses past my home and surrounds me. The sights and sounds of our small community fade as the hours get late, and there is a moment of time around three a.m., in the hours just before the songbirds wake, when all I hear is river. The sound is many things at once—the sound of water birthed on Katahdin, our greatest mountain; the sound of the sky mixed with the cycles of rain and rumbling thunder; the sound of life itself.
But closest to my house, the sound is created by Shad Rips, a stretch of the Penobscot now freed by the removal of the Great Works Dam last year.
Shad Rips is so-named for the fish that historically migrated upriver from the sea in the spring and summer to spawn in the cool, upper reaches of the watershed. The rapids that form here around the rocky bottom and ledges of the river slowed down their passage, making it an excellent gathering place for the Penobscot people to draw sustenance from the water. The abundance of American shad and other migratory fish, combined with the powerful force of the river, attracted European settlers and created the foundation of many of the communities that still exist here today. For close to two centuries, infrastructure built to harness the force of the Penobscot River for sawmills, transport lumber downriver, and, beginning in the late 1800s, produce electricity, halted the migration of shad, the iconic Atlantic salmon, alewife, and eight other species of native sea-run fish. The construction of multiple dams, combined with decades of pollution and overfishing, had a devastating impact on these fisheries.
But today marks the beginning of a new era on the Penobscot River. This morning, people will gather in the hundreds to witness the breaching of the Veazie Dam, the lowermost dam on the river, and watch as the river is reconnected to the sea. The dam’s removal is another critical milestone reached in the Penobscot River Restoration Project, a landscape-scale effort to restore self-sustaining runs of native sea-run fish and rebalance hydropower on the river. The Penobscot River Restoration Trust, the organization I work for and the owner of the dam, has been working in close partnership with six other conservation organizations, the Penobscot Indian Nation, state and federal agencies, two hydropower companies, and local communities for nearly a decade to make this day a reality.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up early, as I often do, and hear the river. I will know it as a new sound, a sound of a river freed from just above this island where I live, flowing all the way to the sea. I will imagine American shad, Atlantic salmon, alewife, blueback herring, shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, rainbow smelt, tomcod, striped bass, American eel and sea lamprey—all in their own time making their way up from the Gulf of Maine to do what they need to do, enriching the life within and along this river, and then returning back to their ocean home. I wonder how the sound of the river will change when it is filled bank to bank with fish swimming, fish leaping, fish becoming part of a renewed song.
Watch a live broadcast of the Veazie Dam removal below:
Streaming Live by Ustream
Cheryl Daigle, a past Orion contributor, directs communications and coordinates outreach for the Penobscot River Restoration Trust.