BANGOR, Maine — For thousands of years, the Penobscot River has twisted, turned, meandered and roiled its way through the Maine woods toward the Atlantic. It has been home to fish that fed thousands, provided the electricity that has powered industry and carried logs to mills that have provided jobs to generations. It’s also the home of the Penobscot Indian Nation.
Once upon a time, there were Atlantic salmon in the river.
Then, thanks to the decisions of humans, there were none.
And now, the salmon are back. Not in their original numbers. Not in a self-sustaining run. But they’re back.
That’s the tale that author Catherine Schmitt sought to tell in her book, “The President’s Salmon: Restoring the King of Fish and Its Home Waters,” which was released by Down East Books in 2015.
Schmitt, the communications director for Maine Sea Grant, admits that the project was ambitious: In the book, she traces the river’s past from the post-glacial era to the present day, and explains how humans harnessed that river for their own needs, often at the expense of the Atlantic salmon.
Part history, part science, with a good helping of content that fly fishing enthusiasts will love, “The President’s Salmon” was a product of work Schmitt began when the Penobscot River Restoration Project began back in 2003.
A graduate student at the time, Schmitt began by preparing a “white paper” that explained the need for a scientific component in the project. That morphed into a project compiling a bibliography of research that had been conducted on the river, and some freelance writing about related topics. Eventually, the idea for a book of her own was hatched.
“I just realized that you could put [all the freelance writing that I’d been doing] into a book,” Schmitt said. “[Then] it went through several different evolutions. It started out as a really academic environmental history, and then it was more a personal essay.”
Now, it’s a combination of many things: Schmitt’s storyline traces the river’s history from prehistoric times, at times focusing on different stretches of the river and the environmental decisions that led to a less productive Penobscot, and then its ongoing rejuvenation.
Every other chapter, she focuses her attention on an angler who caught the first fish of the season — the Presidential Salmon — and arranged to have it delivered to the sitting president. Those presidents, as Schmitt wrote, were sometimes friends of the nation’s rivers. At other times, they were far less concerned with the environment and more focused on helping the country’s industries thrive.
Schmitt walks a delicate balance, mixing hardcore science with in-depth history. She said some readers have told her that they like learning the river’s history, but get lost in the science-oriented parts … or vice-versa.
There has been a common response, however, that has been heartening: Many readers have shared her outrage.
“I’ve had readers say that my book made them angry, and that’s a good thing, because it means I’m doing my job,” Schmitt said. “But what keeps you going through writing about environmental tragedy is that [the river] came back. And being able to tell that story, that it was capable of coming back after nearly having been written off.”
Many proposed new dams on the river, Schmitt points out, were defended by industry leaders on the basis that there was nothing left to save on the Penobscot. Others, including the Penobscot Indian Nation, saw things differently.
The plight of the tribe, which desperately sought a healthy river, was another key thread that Schmitt focused on in the book.
“You can’t write about the river without writing about its people,” Schmitt said. “So it was the most important thing about writing this book, that their story be there. And not just the past, but it’s led up to the present day.”
Through the late 19th and early 20th century, salmon were a cash crop, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish were caught in the river. Pollution and dams that shut off spawning grounds decimated the fish population, Schmitt explains, itemizing the insults that humans inflicted on the river throughout the book.
“There were zero [salmon] in the 1960s at one point. Zero fish above Bangor in the Penobscot,” Schmitt said. “ But they came back. And that’s why you tell stories: People need to know that they can come back. ”
Catherine Schmitt will sign books on Sunday at the Cabin Fever Reliever, which will be held at the Brewer Auditorium from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.