HOWLAND, Maine — Pat Keliher still remembers an early morning phone call during which a professional colleague outlined a bold idea that could help transform the Penobscot River.

“[Andy Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation] said, ‘Hey. We want to take two dams off the Penobscot and build a big river around another dam. What do you think?’” recounted Keliher, who now serves as the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “I said a few words I don’t think I can say here today. But [then] I said, ‘Hey? You know what? Maybe that will work.’”

It worked.

On Tuesday, hundreds of project supporters gathered at the confluence of the Piscataquis and Penobscot rivers to celebrate the official completion of the Penobscot River Restoration Project.

The latest milestone: The construction of a fish bypass — the “big river” that was built around the Howland Dam. That achievement followed the destruction of dams at Great Works in Bradley (2012) and Veazie (2013-14) in an ambitious project that took more than 16 years and cost $60 million to complete, and which has opened access to more than 1,000 miles of river, stream and lake habitat to fish that migrate between salt and fresh water.

The Penobscot River Restoration Project was a joint effort that required the cooperation of the Penobscot Indian Nation, state and federal agencies, a power company and several conservation groups.

The latest cog, the Howland bypass, does just what it sounds like, according to Sherry White, the assistant Northeast regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We think of this bypass to being similar to a highway bypass, allowing aquatic organisms free movement up and down the stream,” White said. “This is kind of like an aquatic EasyPass.”

Just four years after the first dam’s removal began, there’s tangible evidence of the project’s effect: River herring, including alewives, and shad are among the fish that have made a resurgence in a relatively short time span.

A number of speakers pointed out that more than 2 million fish — most of them river herring — have moved upstream from the Milford Dam already this year. Before the dams were removed, there was no way for those fish to get above the dams.

Laura Rose Day, the executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, singled out many of those who had played roles in the project; in turn, many of the speakers praised her for her commitment to the effort to restore the river.

Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation, said that during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., the project was held up as a model for restoration projects that will follow across the nation. And he said the role his tribe has been able to play in its success was heartening.

“It’s important that everybody knows … what an uplifting experience it has been for the tribe to be part of a project where we were given a lot of deference and our opinions were valued. The cultural aspects of the Penobscot River were really taken into account,” Francis said. “With this, I really can’t put into words what it means to the tribe that the health and vitality of the river are coming back after the efforts of so many.”

White called the Howland bypass “the largest natural-like bypass in the nation.”

In Howland, removing a dam wasn’t an option: Residents have grown to rely on the impoundment of water that is held upstream of the dam, and were reluctant to lose it. According to Goode, the impoundment is now 5 feet lower than it was before the bypass; an upstream boat launch no longer reaches the water, but will be rebuilt so that people can still launch their boats there.

And Rose Day said the bypass was the perfect solution for Howland.

“This innovative ‘nature-like’ fish bypass reconnects the Piscataquis River to the main stem of the Penobscot and the Gulf of Maine, allowing sea-run fish to swim freely past the dam,” she said in a statement.

A few high points of the project:

— 2004: The Penobscot Indian Nation, several conservation groups, the dam owner, and state and federal agencies sign the Penobscot River Settlement Accord, paving the way to the enactment of the restoration project.

— 2008: The Penobscot River Restoration Trust purchases the three dams.

— 2012: Great Works Dam is removed.

— 2013-14: Veazie Dam is removed.

— 2015: Work on the Howland fish bypass begins.

Attendees were invited to visit the nearby bypass and look at the nearly finished product. They also were invited to attend the ceremonial planting of a chestnut tree on the former industrial land that the town of Howland is turning into a riverfront — or “bypass-front” park.

Keliher summed up the mood, and the sentiments of the crowd.

“Just good stuff. Just good stuff,” he said. “I don’t know how else to say it.”

Note: BDN publisher Richard J. Warren was the co-chairman of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust’s capital campaign.

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...