This is Steve Brooke’s (former Kennebec Coalition Project Coordinator) account of his canoe trip down the Kennebec the day after the Edwards Dam breach – July 2, 1999.
Early last Friday morning (the morning following the breach of the Edwards Dam), a caravan of cars with canoes headed north from Augusta. By 8:30 AM, 20 canoes and kayaks launched in Winslow, just below Taconic Falls — the first natural barrier on the main stem Kennebec — over 60 miles from the open ocean.
Paddling was not easy because of a gusty headwind that kicked up standing waves with white caps.
For the first six miles of the river the water levels had not changed at all. I had paddled this section two weeks before to catch my first glimpse of lower water levels. Since mid-winter the Edwards Dam had operated without the four foot flashboards that created the full impoundment. The low flows of this dry spring and the lowering of the water level had already revealed some of the Kennebec’s hidden treasurers.
Petty’s Rapids, just below Messalonskee Stream, are easily passable on river right. Two weeks before we had seen ten anglers fishing here. The rocky ledge pools are the home of some of Maine’s largest brown trout – trout that grow fat munching baby river herring as they pass downstream on their way to the ocean. This area has already been discovered by some of the area’s professional guides. They are already using jet drive boats to ferry their sports through the rips. This morning with the strong and gusty wind no one was fishing.
We hugged the east bank below the Petty’s rips, doing our best to keep out of the wind. This is the area that used to be the head of the Edwards impoundment and you can see where the water level is a little lower. The area that had been exposed all spring is already bright green with grasses and weeds growing. The river bends slightly and the second rapids come into view. Carter’s Rips are not as steep or fast as the first set – in fact we have to paddle against the wind to navigate them.
All the way down to Six Mile Falls the Kennebec runs swiftly. Ledge shows regularly along the shore and boulders are scattered across the eastern third of the river. Some rocks have huge steel pins sticking out where loggers and boat-men of an early era moored their cargoes. This part of the river is swift and deep. I could not find the bottom with my paddle.
Six Mile “Falls” is spectacular! It is really not a water fall. Three rock ledges come across the river from south west to northeast forming multiple pitches. This is where the water levels have changed dramatically since I saw them two weeks before. Clearly the ledge and rocks at this point in the river controls upstream water levels. Even with over three feet of drop at this point in the river, the river is plenty deep for comfortable kayaking and canoeing.
Below Six Mile, the river broadens out and the wind picked up. Gravel islands were beginning to emerge as the water level behind the dam came down. We had to work very hard against the wind and chop. Most of the party gathered on the east shore for a short break. The drawdown from the breach must have been almost five feet at this point. The banks were sandy with cobble rock sloping to the river and terraces from the glacial runoff were very clear. Looking out across the Kennebec, this section of the river reminded me of the lower Miramichi in New Brunswick. This is clearly a river for Atlantic salmon.
At the Sidney Boat Launch we saw a few people taking out. Looking across the river from the east side, the boat launch was high and dry. We were beginning to see a strong weather front and squall line forming just to our west so we paddled even harder against a growing gale. Two weeks before ithad taken us just over two hours to paddle from Ticonic Falls to the Sidney boat launch. Today with the strong headwind it had taken us well over three hours to cover the same distance even with the Kennebec flowing much faster.
We pulled into the mouth of Seven Mile Stream to take cover as a thunder storm approached. Lightning on the water is a serious threat. We took cover under mixed growth with multiple levels of trees above us for protection. Rain came down in sheets for over a half hour. By the time the thunder and lightning had passed, our canoe was half full with rain.
The torrential rain on the newly exposed banks cut away at the sand. The edges of the small stream where we pulled out eroded slightly as the water level rose from the deluge. The main stem Kennebec turned cloudy with the silt load from the storm but the water level did not change.
By the time we reached Seven Mile Island the drawdown from the dam breach seemed to be close to eight feet. The rock and timber piers surrounding the island from the logging era towered above us and made the river seem narrow and deeply cut into the landscape. The rapid called Bacon’s Rips just below the island and Babcock’s Rapid another two miles downstream were not yet visible. Large boils in the water indicated where Bacon’s Rips will be but the remaining 8 – 10′ of drawdown at the dam leaves this part of the river still incomplete. We will have to wait until later in the summer to see this clearly.
Paddling past the lower timber crib at Seven Mile Island we looked back and saw a sign that had just been posted high up on the wooden timbers. It was a message for all the returning natives of the river —”Welcome Back.” I have to believe that some have already swum through the breach at the dam and are exploring their restored habitat.
It will be some time before we see the all of the results of this effort. The river herring spawned this spring will be at sea for two years before they return. Their populations will be the first to rebound. Sturgeon will take a while longer. They have to grow for 15 years before they return to reproduce. By then the banks will have filled in with grass and brush and the Kennebec between Augusta and Ticonic Falls will look much like it did before the dam was built.
What surprised me the most about this trip was the lack of flotsam and trash. All along the way I only saw a few car tires, one sofa, and one abandoned refrigerator. There are very few places where you can see houses. And there are a very few small areas, natural eddies, where log and tree debris from the river has gathered. I also found a few “dead heads” or logs with one end sunken and the other floating, but we have always found these in this river.
As we took out in Augusta, we all had a feeling of accomplishment. Our Coalition has paddled into the wind for the past fifteen years with this project. We had faced challenges and barriers along the way but in the end had arrived at our destination. Over the next several months the rest of the Edwards Dam will be removed and the next chapter for this section of our Kennebec can begin.