the penobscot river, maine
“Not very many people take their families camping anymore,” she sighted. “People just don’t spend as much time out in nature on the rivers as they used to.” Susan Adams is the property manager at Big Eddy campground, a pristine camp nestled long the west branch of the Penobscot River in Maine. A warm breeze carries the misty rush of a nearby rapid, and is you pause just long enough, you can almost hear nature smiling.
Maine, the north eastern most state in America, is dubbed ‘the vacation land’. Although our purpose takes us here for more than a holiday, the phrase attempts to capture a state of lush woods, more than 6,000 lakes and ponds, over 31,000 miles of rivers and streams, a huge diversity of wildlife and a fresh seafood shack every three miles.
Phase II of 70 Degrees West brought us specifically to the Penobscot River, Maine’s largest watershed. However, the Penobscot River is more than just a massive network of waterways. As one of the largest inputs into the Gulf of Maine, the mighty freshwater river and its tributaries are crucial ecosystems for eleven species of sea-run fish, freshwater species, birds, mammals, the Penobscot Indians, and the many recreational activities it provides for people.
Freshwater is one of the most important natural elements for human and animal life, and yet, freshwater habitats are more impacted by humans than any other marine or terrestrial system across the globe. Only a small fraction of our planet’s water, less than one hundredth of one percent, actually exists as liquid freshwater.
Freshwater organisms are among the most diverse groups of species in the world. Despite their importance and richness, they are some the most endangered species on the planet. In North America, the projected mean future extinction rate for freshwater animals is five times greater than that for terrestrial animals and three times the rate for coastal marine mammals. Living in fresh water, they are confined to the banks of the rivers or lakes, and if there is a dam or toxic pollution, there are limited alternatives. Because of this, these freshwater species, from snails to cray fish to freshwater mussels, are most in peril.
The Penobscot River is one of the few rivers in the world that the endangered Atlantic Salmon, American shad, alewives, blueback herring, and seven other sea-run species of migratory fish come to spawn. Anadromous fish—such as the Atlantic salmon—migrate from the sea into freshwater rivers to spawn. These fish, prized as a food source, depend on the river as migration corridors. The Penobscot River has many dams throughout the river and its tributaries. With decades of damming and toxic dumping from paper mills and logging, Maine’s rivers and freshwater environments are strained. Over time, populations of anadromous fish have declined as they haven’t been able to make the journey back to freshwater spawning grounds.
The river supports more than fish and other freshwater inhabitants. The Penobscot River has been the ancestral home to the Penobscot Indians for more than 10,000 years. Journeying into the heart of a culture that survived upon an intact freshwater ecosystem will provide a glimpse into Earth’s past. We will document the conservation efforts in place to remove dams and build functional fish ladders while also addressing the importance dams play in providing renewable hydro electricity to the nation. Protecting the freshwater biodiversity is essential, especially in the context of global climate change and increasing human demands. With many sides to any story, we move along the 70th degree line of longitude from Greenland’s arctic ice into Maine’s dense woods and powerful rivers.