By Jaed Coffin Photographs by Fred Field
Reconsidering Maines third-largest river
For all but a few years of my life, I have lived within a mile of a river that, for the last century, was not considered very beautiful. The river I am talking about is the Androscoggin, and it runs through downtown Brunswick over a hydroelectric dam and then under an old green bridge that connects my hometown to Topsham. From below the dam the river winds along Route 1 for several miles until it feeds into Merrymeeting Bay, a confluence of five rivers that merges into the Kennebec and carries on to Popham Beach, where the river’s blended and brackish waters drain into the Atlantic. Running about 170 miles from its unofficial source in New Hampshire’s Lake Umbagog (the river actually begins in Rangeley Lake, if it “begins” anywhere at all) the Androscoggin is the third-longest river in Maine after the Kennebec and Penobscot. And yet over time the river has never been given the respect of those longer rivers, perhaps because it is not as pretty in that grand and wild and pristine northern sense, and perhaps because its passage to the sea is so intimately connected to the industrial towns—Rumford, Livermore Falls, Lewiston, Lisbon, Brunswick—built upon its banks.
As a boy, my buddies and I used to call the Androscoggin “The ’Scrog” or “The ’Scroggin,” after we learned in our eighth grade Maine studies class that the oily strip of brown that ran through our town had, at one time, been the tenth most polluted river in the United States. A century of blind industrial pollution—toxic runoff from lumber and textiles mills, mostly—had left the river plant-less and mostly fishless, and it smelled like eggs. At the base of the dam gathered an odd and unnatural looking foam that we used to throw at each other and dress ourselves in while pretending to be post-apocalyptic mutants. Back then I had a teacher named Mr. Wilson who told me a story about hooking a gnarly prehistoric sturgeon below the dam while fishing out of his canoe, but losing the fish after it leapt free just inches from his boat. The mere possibility of that—that the river might be a place where one could connect with nature in a nearly religious way—seemed so remote and unlikely, but the image in my head—the fish jumping, returning to darkness—made me wonder if perhaps the river, like the old bony fish, had some secret knowledge about the world that only the chosen might possess.
In high school, when all the girls we had grown up with started dating older guys with cars, we stuffed our backpacks full of rope and hatchets and saws and spent our aimless summer afternoons breaking into the old mills at the base of the dam—the yellow one on the Topsham side and the brick one on the town side. As we ripped open floorboards and smashed windows to gain access into the cavernous and mostly empty but ethereally lit and cathedral-like spaces, we understood nothing about the relationship between the mills, the river, and the history of our town. We had no idea who had once worked in the mills; we had no idea what the giant greasy machines were for, or what purpose the cargo elevators, which still worked, had once served. Despite the pigeon shit and molding stacks of paper and tipped-over file cabinets and no trespassing signs, we explored every room of those left-behind places, climbed up busted ladders into rickety cupolas where windows, to the southeast, offered a view of the Androscoggin as it drifted into the bay.
I’d like to think that by 16 or 17 I had begun to understand that the ’Scroggin was a complex symbol, a source of so many things. Perhaps the river had been created by the blind will of retreating glaciers after the most recent ice age, but how could you really separate that movement from our own movement as humans, as kids, as teenage boys? The seasonal journeys of Abenaki fishermen who sustained villages by way of the river’s resources; the weird toil of colonists who fought wars along the river’s banks in the name of—what, whom; the intrepid lumberjacks and river drivers who ran boxes of dynamite under log jams to keep the felled trees of western Maine moving over dams and onward to the south; the some ten thousand French laborers who came to Lewiston to work in the textile mills and who, despite a wartime boom in production, once found the river so smelly and rancid that their protests earned the attention of the state government. Whatever the hell we were doing there—was it all not a single story as continuous and flowing as the river itself? And where was the story headed? And where did it all begin?
A few weeks ago, I decided that I still didn’t know how it all fit together: by that I mean the river, and all the little tributaries of meaning that are sourced from it. Sometime in June I came up with this overly ambitious idea that I would paddle as much of it as I could, abiding by some arbitrary parameters half-imposed upon me by the demands of family life: I’d only paddle the sections of the river that were actually called “The Androscoggin” on a map. That eliminated the waters of Rangeley Lake, as well as the miles of the Rapid River which drained into Lake Umbagog. I also decided that I’d only paddle the part of the river that passed through Maine—as if the river itself could give a damn about the New Hampshire border. That left me with a start in Gilead, and a finish somewhere around Brunswick. I’d already paddled the section of the ’Scroggin from below the dam into Merrymeeting Bay a handful of times, and I had walked a great deal of it along railroad tracks between Brunswick and Lisbon, so I figured I could skip those parts.
I got a high school kid from my neighborhood to give me a ride from Brunswick to Gilead—about a two hour drive—and by nine o’clock that morning I was paddling toward Bethel. It is not easy to write about a trip on a river like the Androscoggin—you paddle, and paddle, and paddle, and sometimes you sit down and paddle and sometimes you stand and paddle and sometimes you kneel and paddle but that is basically it. Really, you just watch out for rocks and occasionally handle some minor rapids, and most everything looks the same: in summer, the banks of the ’Scroggin are covered in lush overgrown vegetation that is all a sleepy mint-shade of green. The islands in the river are uninhabited and mostly nameless, blooming with deciduous trees whose branches arc finger-like into the water.
As a statement, or out of vague principle, I had not brought a map with me; a map, I figured, would give names to things that should remain nameless, and so at some point, I skirted west around an island, and got caught up in an irrigation canal that runs through a series of fields. Soon the water became so shallow that I had to drag my boat across mud and gravel for yards at a time. I passed beneath a metal cable with wooden slats hanging off it like busted teeth; an old Ford truck had just been driven across the river and was parked on the bank. I had the feeling that something sinister was waiting for me. As I drifted under the cable, it dawned on me that long ago it had been a homemade suspension bridge, but the slats had all rotted out, and now it was this broken thing, and just in the image of that broken thing I could imagine a whole past of people doing other things in computer-less, phone-less, manual ways.
A few miles into the canal, I finally broke down and called my brother-in-law, who works from home on a computer all day, and told him where I was, roughly, and asked him if I was headed away from the river or back into it and if that was even possible. I had just seen a tractor mowing a field, and some geese, too, and I didn’t want to be stuck on someone’s private property. My brother-in-law assured me I’d be back on the river if I just kept at it, so I did, and then I came out of a narrow passage at the Route 2 overpass in Bethel, to a turquoise view of a water slide park.
It was afternoon. I dragged my boat under the bridge and walked to a convenience store. I hadn’t brought any food with me; planning and packing appropriately, I have always felt, gets in the way of good stories and healthy trouble and danger. I bought a few bottles of water and Gatorade and a dozen or so candy bars and a cold case turkey sandwich and a bag of chips and then surrendered and bought a Maine gazetteer. The clerk, I think, assumed I was a criminal on the run until I told her what I was up to. She laughed. I don’t remember what she said but she called me “honey” maybe a dozen times in our short conversation, and then sold me two Kit-Kats (the store, she said, was overstocked with ’em). When I got back in my boat, a man on a riding lawnmower looked at me judgementally over his sunglasses and I felt like telling him it would do him some good if he got off his damn go-cart and got in my boat and ate a Kit-Kat.
I cannot remember very well what the river was like for the next 40 miles, as so much of it looked the same from the water. It doesn’t even look like Maine, really: the woods are too droopy and lush, too farmy and too pastoral and too lethargic. The Maine you see from the upper Androscoggin looks like the Mississippi of my imagination: a fecund world of growth and abundance that knows nothing of winter. Sometimes the water was very still and flat and the sun was high and it beat down on my shoulders and made me want to quit paddling. I was getting sunburned but in that stupid way I liked the feeling of getting sunburned, as if I was shedding winter skin and taking on a new coat.
I could not see the road but there was always the sound of cars. On the southern bank: a railroad track but no trains. By the time I had paddled past Newry and Hanover I had seen a dozen or so bald eagles—gazing at me from high branches, I kept thinking one might swoop down and try to eat my shoulder. I did not see humans on the river until Rumford Corner: a father and son, I think, were fishing. It dawned on me that no one uses this river for much.
There is a strange happiness one feels while paddling alone on a river like the ’Scroggin. That you can see traces of the human world frequently somehow makes the human world more forgivable. I passed at some point a convenience store called Gordie Howe’s along Route 2; I think the place was out of business or maybe it just looked that way, and I felt sympathy for the dreams of the person who had once owned it. Now and then there was a house perched on the banks, and sometimes there were two chairs sitting in the grass, positioned such that they faced the river, and I imagined a couple sitting there, sipping cocktails, holding hands, growing old.
By the time I got to the first dam in Rumford, it was nearly seven o’clock, and I suppose I had paddled about 30 or 40 miles. The river bottom, despite the fact that I was still north of the big mills of Rumford, Jay, Livermore, Lewiston, and Lisbon, had begun to reveal trash: old tires and beer cans, metal frames of cars, vague half-sunk objects rising out of the mud like fossils. This was the ’Scroggin I knew.
At the Rumford dam, where a string of orange danger buoys corralled a pasture of flotsam, the river began to stink. It did not stink with the odor I recalled from my youth on the river, but instead smelled like dead pogies rotting on the shore. I paddled up to the boom, played with the idea of paddling over the dam, then hauled my canoe through poison ivy onto Route 2, dragged it down a snowmobile trail, and hung out at an intersection where a Sam’s Italian Sandwich shop sat next to a row of run-down tenement houses with chipped paint. The river from here is hard to navigate; you can either follow the river through downtown Rumford, which is a real slog, or beg for a ride over the mills and detour downtown completely. I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t feel like stopping anyway, so I got an unspeaking man to give me a ride back over the bridge to Dixfield. I put in again below the mill and as the sun set I paddled through a broad stretch of sliding water, the late light dusking at my back. In the safety of the imminent night, animals broke through the woods recklessly. I passed between two islands, across a gravelly sand bar where a deer stood knee deep in the water, its brown back ignited by a final of pink sunlight. The animal became an unearthly flash of gold before stealing off into the woods. Then it was dark.
I wanted to paddle on—I had just two days on the river until my wife and daughter expected me home—but then, while standing and squinting at the dusk, I crashed into a rock and almost capsized. I don’t always depend on this rule, but just when things get ugly, things tend to turn a bit better: in the distance, on the far side of a series of silver ripples, the white face of a cliff rose out of the river like a church. I paddled to it, put my bowline in my mouth and climbed up the cliff. I dragged my canoe over the face and made camp. The little island was perhaps the size of a Portland city block. On the map, it had no name.
I was back on the water by 5:30 a.m. I don’t know why but I felt like I was in a hurry. Somewhere past a town called Canton Point, which I never saw, I passed a pasture of small grazing cows. When they saw me, they began to run at my pace. I tried to outpace them but they kept up. Even when they had to descend a gully and scramble up a rocky knoll, they would not stop running until they came upon an electric fence.
By afternoon, I was in Jay, at the Androscoggin Mill, watching logging trucks haul full loads through the mill checkpoint emerging minutes later, their beds empty. Behind them a tall stack pumped white smoke into the sky. I paddled up to the string of buoys above the dam, and then paddled to Route 4 and 17. Without noticing, the ’Scroggin had diverted from Route 2. I dragged my boat through a stand of woods and asked two teenage girls cleaning out their mother’s Ford escort if they knew how far it was to town. I was dirty, wet, and sunburned and they had probably been trained to not talk to people like me. The girls didn’t say anything. I asked them again. “I have no idea,” one of them said and then she shut the door.
The house next door had a garage attached to it, with a tarp over a broken roof. Inside the garage, a young man wearing a welding mask and a “Gut deer” shirt was working on a 1978 Ford F150. I called out to him. He lifted his mask. There were two other trucks in the garage as well—both of them rusted out, both of a very old vintage. I asked the young man what he was up to. The young man explained that his grandfather had just died andleft him the truck. “It’s my favorite thing I own,” he said. His face and hands were covered in grease, he was holding a short, threaded rod. “I figure I’d fix it since it used to be my grandpa’s.” I asked the kid to show me the work he was doing—the recent welding on the quarter-panels—and then he started the truck to show off the new glass pack he’d just put in. I told him I’d give him 20 bucks if he’d take me around the dams to the other side of Livermore Falls. He agreed. We loaded my canoe in the bed of the truck, bought some Gatorades along the way, and drove down a back road and dropped me along the west bank of the ’Scroggin. At some point on the ride, while discussing his grandfather and his plans for the truck, we’d become friends. He’d told me he was no good at school, didn’t want to waste his money on college, and was headed to the Army because most people he knew didn’t have jobs in town. “The old mill,” he said, “there’s a coffee shop there, now.” As we parted we shook hands. “My name’s Nick,” the kid said. “But people call me Smiley.”
By evening, I had passed several beautiful sections of the ’Scroggin, the most memorable of which was the Tolla Wolla Wilderness area, where two fishermen waded into the rapids and greeted me as I picked my route through a garden of boulders. By four o’clock, I’d pulled my boat onto a portage above a falls on Route 219. I don’t even know what it was called. I swam in the river, in the foam, until my father came to pick me up. I made it back home in time for dinner. My wife asked me if I was tired. I was, but I told her I wasn’t.
I never did get to paddle the section between 219 and Lewiston. I have heard the water is very flat and difficult to pass through. I did put in again in Lisbon, though, right beneath Worumbo Mill near the Moxie store, where the old ruins of some building whose roof has caved in run along the banks of the ’Scroggin and look as though they were the legacy of some war. I paddled at night, home to Brunswick. The trip was uneventful but pleasant. As I made my way back to the final portage above the dam, I began to think about the past: not in the usual way, which is often centered upon myself and contained within some historical narrative that I got off the internet, but of people who, somehow, had fallen out of history and, for whatever reason, begged to be recalled.
So that night I thought of an old friend who died a few years ago. Growing up, she was the funniest girl I knew, although she always seemed haunted by a distant sadness that back then we did not have the words for. The last time I saw her happy and light was perhaps fifteen years ago, the summer before I went to college, right before we lost touch. The summer had gotten long and people were starting to leave town and we’d kind of run out of things to do, so we borrowed a neighbor’s canoe, hauled it down to the end of Water Street to the boat launch, and paddled all the way to Merrymeeting Bay. On the ride home she got tired of paddling, so I sat in the stern while she lay in the bottom of the boat sunbathing and singing Pearl Jam songs, one arm dangling off the gunnels as her fingers dipped into the dark water in a gesture that I can only remember now as a kind of benediction.