As a young boy, I was introduced to a book called “Paddle-to-the-Sea,” written and illustrated by Holling Clancy Holling and published in 1941. The copy I pulled off my bookcase today shows its age, but after 81 years the magic between its worn covers has not faded.
Deep in winter, a First Nation boy carves a 12-inch canoe, complete with paddler, and writes on the bottom of the hull, “Please put me back in the water. I am Paddle-to-the-Sea.” He places the canoe in the snow near his cabin in the wilderness north of Lake Superior so that the spring snowmelt will float it to a nearby stream and on, four years later, to the sea off Newfoundland.
The success of the voyage depends on the goodness of those people along the way who find or rescue the canoe, inscribe a new location on the bottom, repair it, and send it along.
Aside from the wonderful full-page illustrations, what made this book so interesting for a kid was the story it told about the many bodies of water and the nature, cultures, and industries of that period in North American life. Small sketches accompanying the text tell us how sawmills work, how sailors are rescued from a sinking ship, and how forest fires devastate a landscape.
It’s a treasure that probably had something to do with my obsession with boats and water and movement, and, in later years, the importance of a sense of place.
But one needn’t voyage across North America to gain an appreciation for water, history, nature, and place. Recently I’ve been turning my attention to a short stretch of a river whose narrative follows a winding path through the history of Portland and its suburbs.
The Presumpscot River may only be 26 miles long from its headwaters at Sebago Lake in Windham to where it flows into Casco Bay in Falmouth, but that short stretch is long on history.
One of my summer projects is to get to know the Presumpscot and its surroundings by boat and on foot. We see this river all the time – it would be impossible to cross Cumberland County from east to west south of Sebago Lake without seeing it. It is crossed by at least 21 bridges on its trip to Casco Bay, including major highways such as the Maine Turnpike and Interstate 295.
And it flows directly through downtown Westbrook.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time on the water fishing, birdwatching, and exploring between the lower falls and Casco Bay. And I’ve spent time fly fishing every season in the waters below the dam at Sebago Lake.
But I never really considered the river as a living, breathing, pulsing place, constantly in motion, drenched in history.
The Presumpscot has been through hell and back, though not yet all the way back. It has been constantly challenged by industrial development and abused by those who would profit from it. Its history is replete with terrible violence, including wars and a deadly string of explosions from its years as a center of gunpowder production.
And yet the Presumpscot survives despite the challenges of neglect and abuse. And it survives because there are those who care, who work to protect and improve the life of the river, to take its temperature and nurse its wounds.
My journey began with the book “River Voices,” by Will Plumley and Robert Sanford. It is a fascinating collection of different perspectives on the river, from art to history to economics to natural resources and beyond.
And I explored a lovely blog by Emma Deans, who grew up near the river in Gorham and journeyed its length with a friend by canoe. With many dams to portage around, that’s a challenge.
In it, she quotes Plumley on the darkest times in the Presumpscot’s history:
“In my lifetime this river was a total loss, a complete mess, just dead. Dead. A dead river. And something that people turned their backs on and walked away from – didn’t like the smell of it, avoided it.”
I recently heard Plumley speak passionately about the river on which he lives and which, as co-founder of Friends of the Presumpscot River, he and others have strived to protect and improve. There are plenty of people to blame for all this river has been through, and plenty to thank for its survival.
It is a treasure, right in our own backyard. I hope to see you out there.
Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.