old town maine

Photo: Gabor Degre/Bangor Daily News

For thousands of years, the Penobscot people have lived in central Maine, traveling the waterways for much of that time in birch-bark canoes. Those versatile craft inspired the wood-and- canvas boats that A.E. Wickett began building in 1898, behind George Gray’s hardware store in Old Town. Five years later, Wickett’s and Gray’s canoe enterprise became the Old Town Canoe Co., and paddling hasn’t been the same since.

This part of Maine is, without doubt or hyperbole, the birthplace of modern paddling. Yet even as the canoes made in Old Town (pop. 7,800) carried settlers and sports into the wild country of Maine and beyond, the town’s home river had long been tamed. More than half a century before Wickett bent his first stick of cedar, the first of many dams blocked the Penobscot’s path to the sea. The obstructions decimated the historic Atlantic salmon and shortnose sturgeon fisheries, and drowned the rapids.

In 2012, the Great Works Dam in Old Town was removed. A year later, the Veazie Dam came down. Soon the rapids emerged from a bed of sediment. Then the fish began to come back.

In July, the Penobscot Nation will host the 2015 Whitewater Open Canoe National Championships on rapids that had been submerged for nearly 200 years.

“To be able to paddle down through the river the way my ancestors paddled it, I can’t even describe it,” says Scott Phillips, a member of the Penobscot tribe who started working at Old Town Canoe Co. in 1989. “It has a very good spot in my heart to be part of this project.” — Matt Sturdevant

See more: NORTH AMERICA’S BEST PADDLING TOWNS.

This story will appear in the June 2015 issue of Canoe & Kayak.