Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Recap: ACA Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver National Championships

by Zane Havens, ACA Stewardship Coordinator and whitewater open canoe downriver competitor. 

The mighty Penobscot River runs through the center of Maine, originating near Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, and entering the Atlantic Ocean amidst the rocky islands southwest of Acadia National Park. During its journey to the sea, the river runs through the towns of Old Town, Bangor, and through the heart of the Penobscot Nation’s ancestral territory. The river is truly abundant with environmental, historical, and cultural resources.

This year, the ACA Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver National Championships were held on the Penobscot River as part of the first annual Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta. Competitors who paddled the 9.5 mile stretch from Old Town to Bangor, ME encountered four major rapids, the occasional Bald Eagle, and the remains of the logging industry that was once booming in the area. However, 4 years ago, paddlers would have also come across two features of the Penobscot River that are non-existent today: the Great Works and Veasie dams. Constructed in the around the turn of the 20th century, these dams were at one time crucial to central Maine’s industry, but had since become antiquated and non-functional. Additionally, the dams blocked the passage of salmon, shad, and other sea-run fish to their historic spawning grounds.

In the summer of 2012, the removal process of the Great Works Dam was initiated. A year later, Veasie dam was removed. The project was accomplished by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, a group of organizations that that banded together with the goal of returning the Penobscot to its original free-flowing state. The trust managed to realize this goal by simply buying the antiquated dams; once they were the rightful owners of the dams, removal was made simple. This opened over 1000 miles of the Penobscot River to fish passage and exposed rapids that hadn’t been traversed in almost 150 years. 

The Penobscot Nation, one of the organizations who spearheaded this project, has a keen interest in the success of this project. A riverine people, the Penobscot traditionally relied heavily on fish caught in the Penobscot River. When fish were blocked by dams and not able to spawn in the Penobscot, the Penobscot Nation was robbed of this important facet of their culture. Furthermore, the section of river between Old Town and Bangor is historically significant as a travel corridor for the ancestors of the Penobscot Nation; the first Penobscot leader documented by European explorers, Chief Bashabez, paddled these rapids to meet with French explorer Samuel du Champlain. The return of the Penobscot to its pre-industrial state has allowed for the Penobscot Nation to continue to pass on the traditions and history that help to define their heritage.

The evening before the first competition, an elder from the Penobscot Nation held a traditional smudging ceremony, waving an eagle’s wing to spread the smoke from burning sweet grass around a circle of participants. This served as a welcome to the race participants, as well as a celebration of the Penobscot River and the Penobscot Nation. Following the ceremony, speakers held lectures dealing with the Penobscot way of life, the history of the Penobscot River, and other subjects.

While the competitors at the Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta were all competing to win their respective races, it was clear that the real victory was that they were paddling a section of river that would not have existed in a free-flowing state if it wasn’t for the efforts of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. The race in many ways was an environmental and cultural triumph, and the ACA is proud to be the sanctioning organization of such an event.

For more information on the Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta, please visit

To learn more about the work that the Penobscot River Restoration Trust has accomplished, please visit

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