Go With the Flow on the Penobscot River Paddling Trail

Join a group of paddlers as they glide through Maine’s impressive waterways in late fall and early spring.

Go With the Flow on the Penobscot River Paddling Trail

Join a group of paddlers as they glide through Maine’s impressive waterways in late fall and early spring.

by Sandy Lang
Photography by Peter Frank Edwards

Issue: October 2022

The river is wide here, not far from Medway where the East Branch and the West Branch converge. This is the main stem of the mighty Penobscot, a system with a watershed that drains and flows across nearly one third of the state.

The last of the autumn leaves have broken loose and blown to the ground in windy storms the past couple of weeks, making the scene even more open and dramatic: just water, bare tree trunks and branches, sky, and the rocks in the riverbed. The day’s temperatures are expected to top out in the upper 40s, but the sky is clear and sunny, so it will feel warmer once we get on the sparkling water. At least that’s what I’m hoping, as I place a zippered bag with an extra jacket and a water bottle into the canoe. Clayton Cole, who helped organize the trip for several of us paddlers, suggests I clip the bag to one of the canoe’s crossbars, “just in case.”

Cole, who both competes in and coordinates canoe races, lives in Corinth and is one of the board members and volunteers who’s helping to establish and maintain the Penobscot River Paddling Trail (PRPT). Begun by local paddlers over the past several years, the organization’s goal is to help others to get on the river and find their way.

Everywhere, Penobscot. That’s how it can feel in parts of Maine, from near Mount Katahdin to the midcoast. It’s the name of a bay, county, town, river, and of the Penobscot Nation itself—originating from Wabanaki words for “waters of the descending ledge” and “the people of where the white rocks extend out.” Joining these other canoers on the banks of the Penobscot River on this bright fall morning, I’m struck by the waterway’s impressive size.

The PRPT provides maps online and signage to mark a growing number of riverside campsites along an over-100-mile span downriver of the town of Medway so canoeists and kayakers can easily map out day trips or multiday ventures. While several of the PRPT volunteers participate in canoe races and events like the annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, the group paddling today is not racing but is here simply to experience a stretch of the Penobscot together.

My spot will be in the bow of a canoe with another of the PRPT board members, Linda Basilicato, an educator who’s also an experienced canoe racer in slalom events. That’s how she and Cole met, she says. She eventually moved from Washington, D.C., to Maine, where the two live along the Kenduskeag Stream tributary. Patti and Tom Rutka of Saco are another couple on the trip who paddle regularly. “There’s nothing like the feel of a canoe beneath you,” Tom says as we’re preparing the boats and gear. He mentions that he stays connected to what’s happening on this river and others in Maine through the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society, a decades-old organization that facilitates the gathering of paddlers and promotes river safety and conservation.

Chip Loring, Mackenzie Todd, and Clayton Cole canoeing on the Penobscot River Paddling Trail, which is being established on the main stem of the Penobscot River.

I dip my fingers into the water at the landing where we’ll begin, just down-stream of the Mattaseunk Dam near the town of Mattawamkeag, about an hour’s drive north of Bangor. The river’s not icy-cold, but it’s definitely chilly. One by one, our little group begins sliding into our canoes. The water rushes and tumbles, and there’s a gush of air filled with the maple-sweet smell of fallen leaves. Paddle in hand as we push out from the bank, I can feel the energy of the current below the boat, and I think of Cole’s text from a few days before. “The river is running at 13,000 CFS (cubic feet per second) at Enfield, which may sound super high, but the gradient is moderate—a pleasant 4 to 5 mph pace without paddling hard, and just enough easy whitewater to make it exciting.”

The downstream glide begins.

Where Logs Rolled

The largest river in Maine, the Penobscot River extends through central Maine from the North Woods to Penobscot Bay, and its watershed includes lakes, tributaries, and branches to the north, south, west, and east. Little developed or forested along much of the route, the Penobscot flows into urban settings at Bangor and Brewer and the town of Bucksport, then under the towering Penobscot Narrows Bridge at Verona Island. Having become tidal by that point, the river eventually flows into Penobscot Bay.

As we paddle, Cole explains some of the river’s logging history and points out remnants when he sees them. There are iron rods and rings still in some of the rocks, which were used to corral logs that were floated downstream from the 1800s until the 1970s. I think of the classic book Maine Beautiful, compiled in the 1920s by author and photographer Wallace Nutting, who recalled once canoeing on the Penobscot when he heard a rumbling then suddenly “was carried through a mass of pulp wood.”

Hydroelectric dams and paper mills of the twentieth century changed the river, harnessing its power and releasing effluent. But the river has been recovering its natural heritage in recent decades. Regional nonprofit organizations and other partners worked together on the Penobscot River Restoration Project from 1999 to 2016, and some dams have been removed or modified with fish bypasses or elevators to allow native sea-run fish, including alewives and Atlantic salmon, to return.

The PRPT’s vision is to give paddlers access to a camping spot at least every ten miles along the trail, Cole explains. “We need a few more,” he says; they’ve coordinated with private landowners and existing facilities to create access to nine sites so far.

Cole was right: the paddling is pleasant in these fall grays and golds. No other boats are about. We focus on paddling technique and on observing the natural elements and riverside scenery—a cabin here and there, the sound of a train whistle, glimpses of deer on the wooded shore and the occasional passing car when Route 2 is near. Somewhere near Winn, we tuck in our boats along a sunny bank and step onto land to stretch and rest and enjoy a shared lunch: kale salad, a charcuterie board and crackers, and macaroons from Little Lad’s Store and Cafe in Corinth. Everything is particularly tasty, I think, in this good company and glinting light.

The food fuels us for the rest of the easygoing 12- or 13-mile paddle, then we pull the boats out and take them up the bank at a land-ing in North Lincoln just before dusk. While some of the group drives out to retrieve the trucks we used to shuttle the canoes to the start at Mattawamkeag, I stay behind to help pack up the gear. The temperature drops to the upper 30s, and I watch the river, thinking of the night coming on with a shiver. I’m cold but in an exhilarating way—some of us are already talking about returning to the Penobscot together on another day. Maybe in spring?

Second Paddle, Springtime

In early May, Cole and some other local paddlers are talking about a possible weekday trip. The conditions look good, Cole reports: “The current is running a robust 18,000 CFS, which should make for a fast, effortless 20-mile trip to Old Town.”

I like the sound of that, and when the day arrives with a forecast of high temperatures into the 70s, photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I drive up to join them, passing the headquarters of Old Town Canoe Company, the canoe and kayak maker, along the way. The iconic boats manufactured here were first made in 1898 of wood and canvas designs inspired by the watercraft of the Penobscot Nation. A longtime popular Old Town canoe model is named Penobscot.

This is so cool. We’re here to paddle the Penobscot to the town of Old Town, an epicenter of canoeing, and the landing is within minutes. I can hardly wait. It’s like what Nutting wrote after his Maine river adventures: “When we see a canoe, we live again our childhood.”

We meet up with Cole and Basilicato again; also along this time is kayaker Dan Baumert from Levant and Mackenzie Todd, who’s a graduate student at the University of Maine in Orono. Todd says her parents began taking her out on canoe trips when she was a toddler in upstate New York, and she’s been paddling ever since. On this trip she’ll be in an Old Town canoe with Chip Loring, an elder from the Penobscot Nation who grew up on the Penobscot’s Indian Island, across the water from where we are gathered in Old Town.

We all pile into cars to shuttle to our starting point, upriver where the Passadumkeag River meets the Penobscot. From a roadside parking area and landing just off Route 2, we push boats into the water and soon begin the rhythm of paddling. New leaves aren’t yet emerging from trees, but we find the green we’re all watching for in the unfurling ferns on the river banks: it’s fiddlehead season. And it’s a beautiful day, warming up to T-shirt weather. We hit a little more whitewater this time, and I wouldn’t say it’s effortless; plenty of paddling is needed to weave down the river and around boulders and large and small islands—some spanning many acres and topped with trees, obscuring the river’s shoreline on the other side.

When we see one of the PRPT signs marking a campsite on private land, we all pull ashore. We follow footpaths to a picnic table and unpack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and salads, everyone talking all the while. At 75, Loring has stories and memories to share. We ask questions. He’s been traversing the river all his life, in all seasons. He hunted and fished on the river as a child, on river camping trips with his father. He’s stomped through snow to retrieve a canoe stashed at the edge for winter paddling. He holds out his arms in a circle to show the size of a turtle he once saw on the Penobscot River. “It was green, as big as a sea turtle.” And he also remembers the pollution on lower parts: “Back when I was a kid, everything would go into the river.”

The Penobscot River means a great deal to Loring. “As the Japanese with karate, and the energy rising from the earth—I think the energy comes from the water,” he explains. Loring recalls nights when he’s ventured out canoeing on the Penobscot, whether there’s moonlight or not, and stopped on an island to sit awhile and meditate. I try to imagine that as we continue paddling through the afternoon all the way to Old Town. At one point Basilicato and I have just navigated a nice little run of rapids when we see a bald eagle in a tall tree. The majestic raptor turns its head, observing us. What a special river this is, I think in the quiet of that moment. What a perfect place to be in a canoe.

Paddle On

Ready to get on the water? Begun in 2016, the Penobscot River Paddling Trail is a volunteer organization that’s creating a water trail on the main stem of the Penobscot River. The group’s website offers general river information, maps, and guides about boat landings and nine camp-sites (so far) for kayakers and canoeists. They also share details about how to join in building and maintaining the trail at penobscotriverpaddlingtrail.org.

The Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society, founded in Bangor in 1969, holds annual gatherings and trips and also publishes an online calendar and river information at paddleandchowder.com.

Beyond the Penobscot River, other established water trails include those of the Maine Island Trail Association (MITA) along the coast and nearby islands (mita.org) and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail network (northernforestcanoetrail.org).


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