Leaping Ganoids on the Kennebec

Having grown up along the Kennebec River in Randolph and Gardiner, I have many special memories of that significant waterway and its history. Two youthful misadventures remain distinct. About sixty years ago three friends and I “borrowed” a rowboat and paddled upriver from the mouth of Togus Stream to Brown’s Island in Farmingdale on a quest to locate pirate treasure reputed to be buried there. Following a futile search, we were recipients of an exhausting paddling lesson struggling mightily against a powerful incoming tide on our return trip. On another occasion, the late Tim Smith and I crossed the river from the old Randolph Ice House to Gardiner on thin ice. No one ever learned about our treasure hunt but the grammar school principal Teresa Hamlin spotted Tim and me during our reckless escapade. Mrs. Busybody dutifully reported the wayward behavior to our Dads. The outcome was not pretty.

Our Togus Stream launch was just a short distance from where Benedict Arnold and his small army embarked on their epic march to Quebec in the fall of 1775. Arguably one of history’s most unfairly maligned figures he failed in his attempt to capture Quebec City. Had he succeeded, Canada might be part of the United States. The study of Arnold and his men was mandated in Mrs. Busybody’s Randolph Grammar School. Kenneth Roberts’ historical novel Arundel recounting the heroic trek remains my favorite book.

When the Edwards Dam in Augusta was removed in 1999, the Kennebec became a free flowing river from Winslow to head of tide in Augusta. Built in 1837, demolition of the dam provided an eighteen mile stretch of paddling much of which had been submerged in deep water for 162 years. Now a fast flowing section of river, it is largely undeveloped with an abundance of wildlife.

Recently, a retired friend and I decided to revisit the paddle we had completed shortly after the dam was removed. Taking advantage of our semi-retired status, we waited for a favorable forecast for our adventure. After selecting what appeared to be a near perfect day, we posted the trip with the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society and another member signed on.

Leaving two vehicles at the boat landing in Augusta just downriver of Fort Western where Colonel Arnold spent his last night in civilization, I shuttled the three of us and our boats to Fort Halifax Park in Winslow. While the trip is suitable for canoes or kayaks, we chose kayaks for our expedition. I recommend durable plastic boats for the excursion as there are numerous shallow rapids.

We savored a beautiful sunny day with multiple bird sightings throughout. Hoping to avoid strong winds that were forecasted for later in the day, we started early. Alas, the mercurial river gods frowned on our endeavor sending us a surfeit of gusty headwinds beginning in the morning. The last few miles provided a strenuous but manageable workout.

Musings of Arnold and his intrepid little army were often on my mind during our undertaking. Unlike us, they poled seven hundred pound bateaux loaded with food and equipment upriver against strong currents. That was the easy part. They suffered through snowstorms, long portages, a hurricane and near starvation before reaching French Canadian settlements on the Chaudiere River in Quebec. Still they persisted on and almost captured the heavily fortified city of Quebec.

Sturgeon encounters were the undisputed highlight of the trip. Referring to them as prehistoric fish is a substantial understatement. Their evolution began at the end of the Triassic period about two hundred and fifty million years ago and they look the part with their distinctive bony plates called scutes. They grow eight feet or longer and can weigh over two hundred pounds. The primitive appearing ganoids seem incongruent on the Kennebec especially when jumping completely out of the water displaying their spindle-like bodies.

About four miles north of Augusta, we began observing airborne sturgeon. They majestically cleared the water by what appeared to be as much as six feet. While thoroughly enjoying the surprise close encounters, we began contemplating the consequences of a direct hit. In fact, they have injured several boaters particularly on the Suwannee River in Florida and at least one death has resulted. No casualties on our trip despite more than a dozen proximate sightings.

Approaching Augusta, we left the wilderness environment behind. Buildings and bridges began to dominate the scenery. Passing Fort Western, we arrived at the landing after a five hour eighteen mile journey. Despite some rigorous paddling ours was a very pleasant outing. Arnold’s trip was 350 miles long and required almost two months.

Ron Chase

About Ron Chase

At age 70, Ron Chase is old. But, he’s not under the grass…yet. Retired from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he has embarked on a new life as a freelance writer and tax consultant. Don’t be misled; in reality, he works a little and plays a lot. When not busy kayaking, canoeing, biking, mountain climbing and skiing, he sometimes finds time to write and assist his tax clients. A lifelong Mainer now living in Topsham, he is the recent author of The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery, a biography of Vietnam War hero and bank robber Bernard Patterson.