RUMFORD, Maine — Forty years ago, the Androscoggin River was one of the most polluted waterways in the country.
Today, it’s clean enough for kayaking.
On Thursday, nine paddlers jumped into their canoes and kayaks for a 9-mile journey along the river from Hanover to just above Pennacook Falls in Rumford.
Thursday’s paddle was the eighth leg of the Androscoggin Source to the Sea Trek, a 170-mile journey from the river’s headwaters near the Canadian border to its terminus at Merrymeeting Bay in Brunswick. The trek, in its 17th year, is run by the Androscoggin River Watershed Council.
“The purpose of the trek is to introduce, or reintroduce, people to the Androscoggin, a river that a generation ago was treated more like a sewer than the beautiful natural area it is today,” said Jessie Perkins, program coordinator for the Androscoggin River Watershed Council. Participation in this year’s trek is up 30 percent over last year, Perkins said.
At 10 a.m. Thursday, Perkins and her fellow paddlers set out from a boat launch in Hanover. One of those paddlers, Don Nodine, had paddled in nearly every leg of the journey since its start on Lake Umbagog. A resident of Millinocket, Nodine intends to paddle the full length of the river, camping along the way in his Dodge Grand Caravan.
“I’m camping along the way in my minivan that I’ve converted,” Nodine said, gesturing to a van carrying two kayaks, a mattress and piles of paddling gear. “I call it a mini motor home.”
Nodine knows Maine’s rivers well. He spent 31 years working at Great Northern Paper, where he participated in efforts to clean up the chemicals and other pollutants that once streamed freely from the area’s paper mills.
“When I went to work in 1966, anything they didn’t want went right into the river,” Nodine said.
All that changed in 1972, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act. Championed by the late Gov. Edmund Muskie, the legislation was partly inspired by the polluted Androscoggin. Though portions of the river are still polluted 40 years later, the waterway is much cleaner than Nodine remembers.
“It’s clean,” Nodine said. “You wouldn’t be aware that it was one of the dirtiest rivers in the country prior to the Clean Water Act.”
On Thursday’s trip, the boaters encountered calm water as they paddled their way past Rumford Point and into Rumford. It’s a stretch of the river that winds past verdant farms and forests, and is home to numerous eagles and other forms of wildlife — a far cry from the region’s polluted past.
“You wouldn’t think that Rumford has that reputation,” Perkins said. “It’s one of those sections that you wouldn’t think is as beautiful as it is. You get away from the road and you see eagles, you see herons, sometimes you see turtles — anything.”
To Jim Bourque of Gilead, the Androscoggin is a gem. A Massachusetts native who recently retired and moved to Maine, Bourque doesn’t take any stretch of the Androscoggin for granted.
“I think it’s pristine, because I’m coming from Massachusetts with the Charles River and stuff,” Bourque said. “They talk about it still being a little dirty from the mills, but to me this is fantastic.”
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