When our friends Lori LaRochelle and Brent Elwell invited us to join them for a kayak paddle on the Kennebec River between Sydney and Chelsea, my wife, Nancy, and I accepted without hesitation. Veterans of previous trips on this lovely section of the river, we knew it would be an enjoyable outing.
Lower Kennebec is a special place for us. We grew up along its shores in Gardiner and Randolph. A lot has changed on the Kennebec since we were kids. At the time, the river was a drainage system for municipal sewers and commercial waste. In the two decades since 1970, sewage treatment facilities were built to clean up the river. On July 1, 1999, the Edwards Dam at the head of the tide in Augusta was removed. The river between the old dam and Waterville has rebounded. Sturgeon and other fish species multiplied and began to migrate further upstream. Fish-eating birds, especially eagles, followed.
The Kennebec is a historic body of water. My Wabanaki ancestors lived in several villages along the river when European settlers arrived in the 17th century. In 1754, Fort Western was built in present-day Augusta during the French and Indian Wars. Benedict Arnold began his ill-fated Quebec expedition at Pittston in 1775. The river has been used to float logs and pulpwood downstream for generations. The log drives ended in the 1970s, but remnants of that era remain, particularly the ubiquitous logging booms dotted along the river.
Lori and Brent have assembled a small group of friends and family for the excursion. Everyone qualified as a senior but, as usual, I was the former sailor. All were experienced kayakers. Unfortunately, Brent was called back.
The Kennebec River between Sydney and Chelsea is mostly fast water, but there are some short sections of undulations that could be classed as class I/II easy whitewater at certain levels. Read exciting stories of Class IV rapids on the upper Kennebec and whitewater adventures on several other Maine rivers and streams in my book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine.”
Seven of us launched at the pier at the end of Recreation Drive in Sydney where there is adequate parking and a quality ramp. We set off paddling a variety of solo kayaks; Nancy and I used our Casco 120s in flat water.
One of the first things that impress paddlers on the Kennebec between Waterville and Augusta is the undeveloped shoreline. Very few buildings or residences can be observed from the river giving it a wild character. Wildlife abounds. During our trip, we were able to observe several eagles, falcons, herons, ospreys, ducks and other birds. On several occasions we saw eagles diving into the water after fish.
However, the most impressive and thought-provoking sightings were dozens of leaping sturgeon. They were prevalent when we entered the river and continued throughout our 10 mile journey. The seemingly primitive fish, five to seven feet long, exploded completely out of the water and landed with an explosive crash. Some were close enough to splash us on the way back. Despite determined attempts by several members of our group, no one was able to capture their prodigious flights on camera.
After a few miles the river narrows and a series of archaic forest dams announce our arrival at Sevenmile Island. A rocky beach at the south end provided a great location to stop for lunch and relax.
As we neared Augusta, the towering Route 3 bridge materialized on the horizon over the river. Beyond was the distinctive dome of the Maine State Capitol building. Shortly after, we passed the remnants of Edwards Dam and paddled under the rusted remains of a railway bridge that is no longer in use.
An ebb tide increased the current downstream and jumping sturgeon were more plentiful as we entered Augusta and passed under the Augusta Bridge, the oldest of three operating river bridges in the city. Fort Western appears on the left bank and the buildings of downtown Augusta on the right. Then we paddled under the tall Memorial Bridge and quickly saw granite structures on the left that used to be the Augusta Mental Health Institute and the Kennebec Arsenal. Stories of hidden tunnels and spooky tales of secret burials haunt the old buildings.
A short distance downstream and opposite the town of Hallowell, we ended our excursion at Butternut Park Boat Landing in Chelsea. The sturgeons were still jumping.
Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is available at https://www.northcountrypress.com/maine-al-fresco.html or in bookstores and through online distributors. His previous books are “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England”. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at [email protected]