by Dr. Paul Liebow
Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s visit to the Veazie Salmon Club last week gives the Bush administration’s final blessing to a project that will add immensely to Bangor’s revitalization. The Penobscot River Restoration Project is a brilliant example of how the needs of society and the environment can be balanced by intelligent and creative people working together.
Multiple agencies at every level of government have worked with the Penobscot Nation and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] of many stripes to restore our beautiful Penobscot to some of its former glory. The spawning runs of sea-run salmon and many other migrating fish species will benefit enormously from the removal of several dams, which have prevented them from reaching both their spawning grounds and the sea. The power company will increase generation at less harmful dam sites, replacing most of the green power lost. A total win-win situation!
When I first moved to the banks of the Penobscot north of Bucksport, I realized the reference to “Salmon Weir Rights on the Penobscot” in our deed was a quaint anachronism, but appreciated the historical perspective on our serene view of Mount Waldo. I had remembered the Penobscot as visually stunning ever since I first looked upriver from the great bridge to Verona as a child. But no one had looked under her dark surface for beauty for generations.
In the “olden days” the river was so filled with fish that it stirs visions of coral reef abundance and diversity. Vast homing migrations mirrored the plaintive honking of ducks and Canada Geese coming home overhead. 100,000 salmon returned from Northern Seas, and could be seen spawning in the silence and privacy of streams from Blue Hill Bay and Sunkhaze Meadow to shady groves near the Canadian border.
Uncountable alewives thrashed in the smallest brooks, surging silver in full moonlight. A billion or more tiny elvers set out heroically to find their way back to Maine’s rivers, from where their parents had set them adrift on the Sargasso Sea. Ten-foot sturgeon cruised the depths of the lower channel on red October days, so powerful that some of the less enlightened riparian inhabitants had them tow their skiffs around in a Maine version of a Nantucket Sleigh Ride!
Huge stripers cavorted upriver well beyond Bangor. As many as two million shad played upriver in the bright waters of May, as the petals of “shadblow” floated in the wind- summoning up all the nostalgia of drifting plum blossoms celebrated in Chinese poetry.
When I first came to Bucksport, my neighbors told me they never played around, let alone swam in, the river as kids. They remembered the stench, and cautioned against clamming the Frankfort Flats with vague references to poisons we now know as dioxin and mercury. They winked slyly at each other as they guffawed about their parents throwing industrial garbage and other unmentionables “into the log pond” down by the mill. Even the architecture of Bucksport had turned its back on the beautiful view out through the aesthetically sweeping lines of the bridge.
The removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta has shown that natural systems can return from the brink of extinction. Adult fish and the whole food pyramid, from microorganisms and invertebrates, to elvers and other small frye, are regenerating even faster than expected.
The Penobscot River system is fantastic economic and spiritual resource for Maine and its people. The Bucksport waterfront now looks proudly down the narrows and across to Fort Knox, lighting up the night sky. Now that the paper industry is sagging, it is time to build a diverse economy that celebrates a clean and fruitful river and our wild North Woods.
The River has come a long way since the bad old days. Back in the thirties, no one in their right mind would have predicted that droves of people would sit on the riverbank in Bangor to watch Shakespeare, and listen to folk legends from around the World. I recently watched my daughter splash about on the shore one hot July afternoon. We must build on this success to bring our Queen City back into national prominence as a destination worthy of the trip.
It will still require incredibly hard work and hard cash, but who knows- maybe someday exercising “Salmon Weir Rights” on the Penobscot will again be possible.
Paul Liebow, who lives on the banks of the Penobscot River, works as an emergency physician in Bangor.