When our friends Lori LaRochelle and Brent Elwell invited us to join them for a kayak paddle on the Kennebec River between Sidney and Chelsea, my wife Nancy and I readily accepted. As veterans of previous trips on that delightful section of river, we knew it would be an enjoyable outing.
The lower Kennebec is a special place for us. We grew up along its banks in Gardiner and Randolph. Much has changed on the Kennebec since we were kids. Back then, the river was a drainage system for municipal sewage and commercial waste. In the two decades after 1970, wastewater treatment facilities were constructed to clean up the river. On July 1, 1999, the Edwards Dam at the head of tide in Augusta was removed. The river between the former dam and Waterville rebounded. Sturgeon, along with other species of fish, burgeoned in numbers and began migrating farther upstream. Fish-eating birds, especially eagles, followed.
The Kennebec is a historic body of water. My Wabanaki ancestors were living 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 expedition to Quebec at Pittston in 1775. The river was 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 scattered along the river.
Lori and Brent assembled a small group of friends and family for the excursion. Everyone qualified as a senior but, as usual, I was the ancient mariner. All were experienced kayakers. Unfortunately, Brent was called away.
The Kennebec River between Sydney and Chelsea is predominantly quick water, but there are a couple of short sections of ripples that could be rated easy Class I/II whitewater at some levels. Read about exciting tales 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 boat landing at the end of Recreation Drive in Sydney where there is adequate parking and a quality ramp. We departed paddling a variety of solo kayaks; Nancy and I used our flatwater Casco 120s.
Left to right, Paddlers pass under the Memorial Bridge in Augusta. Paddlers begin a trip the Kennebec River in Sydney. Two kayakers watch for sturgeons while Paddling the Kennebec River. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase
One of the first things to 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 wilderness character. Wildlife abounds. During our voyage we enjoyed multiple sightings of eagles, hawks, herons, ospreys, ducks and other birds. On several occasions we witnessed eagles diving into the water after fish.
However, the most impressive and stimulating sightings were dozens of leaping sturgeons. They were prevalent when we entered the river and continued throughout our 10-mile journey. The outwardly primitive fish, many 5 to 7 feet in length, would blast up completely clear of the water, and land with an explosive crash. Some were close enough to splash us when reentering. Despite determined attempts by several in our group, no one was able to capture their stupendous flights on camera.
After a few miles, the river narrowed and a series of archaic logging booms announced our arrival at Sevenmile Island. A rocky beach on the southern end provided an excellent location to stop for lunch and relaxation.
As we approached Augusta, the towering Route 3 Bridge materialized on the horizon high above the river. Beyond, the distinctive dome on the State of Maine capitol building could be observed. Soon after, we passed remnants of Edwards Dam and paddled under the rusted remains of a no-longer-operating railroad bridge.
An outgoing tide increased the downstream current and leaping sturgeons were more plentiful as we entered Augusta and passed beneath the Augusta Bridge, the oldest of three operating river bridges in the city. Fort Western appeared on the left bank and the buildings of downtown Augusta on the right. Next, we paddled under the lofty Memorial Bridge and soon observed granite structures on the left that were once the Augusta Mental Health Institute and Kennebec Arsenal. Tales of hidden tunnels and chilling stories of secret burials haunt the old buildings.
A short distance downriver and opposite the town of Hallowell, we ended our excursion at the Butternut Park Boat Landing in Chelsea. Sturgeons were still jumping.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Sidney.