This year, 1,560 Atlantic salmon passed through the Milford Dam just south of Penobscot Nation’s Indian Island on the Penobscot River heading upstream to spawn. In 2014, the salmon hit a low point with fewer than 250 returning fish.
Atlantic salmon leave the ocean and head into freshwater to find their natal stream to spawn. Once they’ve completed the spawn they turn around and head downstream back to the ocean and repeat this astonishing feat year after year.
This summer a few of us got together to paddle a small portion of the salmon’s annual journey along the Penobscot River. The paddle began with a half-mile hike into a tiny tributary in the upper watershed named Holmes Brook. A husband-and-wife duo, a mom with two kids and I made up our group of six. We share a love for all things water and have spent a fair bit of time paddling or rowing in the waters of Maine in a raft or canoe.
These small tributaries and high narrow streams were better suited for stand-up paddleboards. SUPs let us access the skinnier waters but also prevented us from bringing too much stuff, which would make the inevitable portages easier.
For me, it was important to start at the headwaters. In 2022, Trout Unlimited/AMC and other non-profits had put in work to restore parts of the Penobscot River watershed. I wanted to see if the habitat restoration had been successful. I must say after only a year the logs and placed wooded debris looked like it was already having an effect.
These tributaries once were the destination for spawning salmon, but after decades of hard cutting and poor forest management, they no longer created a thriving ecosystem for fish to live or spawn. Thanks to efforts to restore these habitats, wild Eastern brook trout and eventually salmon young will re-populate these small pools and riffles. Hopefully getting fat and strong on the abundance of black flies and mosquitos. We certainly contributed to keeping that part of the food chain healthy during our hike-in and each evening and morning of our trip as we tried to cook meals.
The paddle from Holmes Brook down on the Middle Branch of the Pleasant River was bony and barely deep enough for our SUPs to move through for the first few miles. Thankfully it had been a wet and rainy summer here in the Northeast. Water levels were higher than normal, giving us just enough to scrape by without literally scraping the bottom.
By late morning the East Branch of the Pleasant joined the flow, and we enjoyed slow winding stretches of water passing farmlands and mixed forests, thick with streamside Alders. Any minute, we were sure we’d spot a moose wander out into the water.
As we moved downriver, an unexpected steep S-turn and drop forced us to eddy out. Mike peaked around the corner and gave it a go, but soon returned on foot along the bank with the thumbs down. The current pushed into several white pine trees. He suggested we portage this drop. We pulled over, river right, unloaded and started the slog.
For those not familiar with the Maine woods, they’re thick with spruce and fir; mud and steep banks line the waterways and ferns hide lots of stuff to trip on. The advantages of our SUPs quickly became apparent. Dragging a canoe through this portage would have been brutal.
As we portaged, and with each subsequent portage throughout the trip, we thought about how many obstacles the salmon face while traveling upstream and back down. The waterfalls are manageable, somehow those fish can leap, hover, wiggle, move and slide up through even the most improbable chutes. Ones we couldn’t navigate downstream, let alone upstream.
While were able to run lots of the easier rapids, the high flows, almost three times the average for June, created some challenges. As we moved into the Piscatiquis River more and more tributaries dumped water into the system, making one particular chain of rapids well beyond our spice level.
Miles, our 13-year-old kayaker, really wanted to give it a try. A part of me did, too—albeit a small part. I don’t have the experience with whitewater that Miles has. He’s spent most summer weekends in his kayak on the Kennebec River or paddling the local rivers in North Conway, New Hampshire. Alas, wisdom ultimately outvoted youthful exuberance, and we decided to portage.
This time a long, hot and sunny four-and-a-half mile walk. No bushwacking or squeezing under downed trees just grinding out on the side of the road. About .178 miles in, I was ready to bail on the whole trip, lie down and call an Uber.
Addie, our youngest paddler—11, thin, but strong and very capable—was carrying her board, pack and dry bags with no complaints. Her board hung just an inch or two above the roadside sand, but she kept her head down in quiet determination.
There was no “leader” in our group of travelers, but at this point, I put my board down and decided that we (and by we, I definitely meant I) wanted support for this long hot portage. I called up a burly bear of a man named James Eric Francis, the Penobscot tribal historian. He’s also a photographer, filmmaker and very talented graphic artist, and luck would have it that he was “just watching paint dry” this Saturday.
James showed up within an hour and shuttled our hot and sweaty crew around the swollen Class III rapids. Our next obstacle would be the Howland Dam, the last dam in between us and Old Town. In 2015 a natural fish passage was constructed alongside the Howland Dam. The first of its kind, it was designed to create a natural bypass around the dam that would allow safe passage both upstream and downstream without hindering the operation of the dam. This passage reconnected many of the spawning and nursery habitat that was previously unreachable by salmon, shad and river herring.
A short urban portage across Water St., down Front St. and we were on the Penobscot River. We launched amid a handful of anglers, all catching smallmouth bass but hoping for Salmon, even if just to see one. Farther downriver we ran into more locals enjoying a Saturday on the water, again wishing, and hoping to see salmon as they would have so many years ago.
By this point in our trip, the Penobscot River was wider than a couple of football fields and most of the fast fun rapids were behind us. Clouds replaced the sun and a solid drizzle mixed in with some more intense bouts of rain to accompany our last day of paddling. We wandered between low flat islands full of ferns and silver maples and a healthy covering of poison Ivy.
All the beaches were underwater, and the rain convinced us to push on instead of lingering for a meal. Like most rivers, the headwind kicks in after lunch. Things here were no different, just more rain added to the mix. All of us eventually crawled inside our heads, some of us counted strokes, some of us sang songs, and others fell into some kind of trace to make those last few miles in the rain.
The next morning, before heading out of town, we met up with James for hot coffee and breakfast. We peppered him with questions about the rivers we traveled on. In return, he told us some of the Penobscot names of places we passed. He shared stories of growing up here and the paddle trips he had taken on the Penobscot River and other Maine waterways. He conveyed how important these rivers and streams have always been to the Penobscot people, not only to move through the landscape but as an interwoven part of their culture.
Over the many decades, we’ve done a lot of damage to our rivers and streams, with dams, development, agriculture and a multitude of other abuses. In 2012, the Great Works Dam removal was started not too far from where our trip ended.
Dam removal has brought with it the return of other anadromous fish like river herring and American shad and with that some hope among the Penobscot that the Atlantic salmon will return to its former strength. There’s plenty of work still to be done to repair the damage done to this beautiful waterway, and to the Atlantic salmon that are so closely connected to it.
Thanks to the Penobscot River Restoration Project and especially the Penobscot Nation for all the years of effort to reconnect the Penobscot River from the ocean to the mountains. We’re all hopeful that the trend of more fish returning each year from the ocean to spawn will continue for decades to come.
Guest contributor Joe Klementovich migrated North to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to pursue rock and ice climbing after graduating with an engineering degree. Traveling on various climbing adventures with a small point-and-shoot camera challenged Joe to create better and better photography to tell the stories of each outing. It was during an 11-hour ascent of the Regular Route on Half Dome in Yosemite Valley that photography would overtake his interest in engineering.