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Whitewater Regatta Focuses Spotlight on Penobscot River Restoration

OLD TOWN, Maine - Whitewater canoeists and kayakers from across the country are in Maine for a competition event that wouldn't have been possible just three years ago. The Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta got underway in Old Town Thursday, with races scheduled to take place through Sunday afternoon.The competition, hosted by the Penobscot Nation, represents another milestone in long-term effort to restore New England's second-largest river system.

I'm standing on a little spit of land on the bank of the Penobscot River in Bradley. A bald eagle is soaring overhead. And if you look upstream, you can see the remnants of the Great Works Dam.

Construction crews began removing the dam three years ago as part of the Penobscot River restoration. And now, sea-run fish are free to swim upstream and kayakers and canoeists can ride the rapids where the dam once stood.

"Great Works is the one you're going to want to look at. Best thing is to go down here to the light and take a left." Scott Phillips is telling some canoeists from Connecticut how to get to the spot where I was just standing. The men are competing in this weekend's Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta and want to size up the rapids from shore, before a test run.

The Penobscot Indian Nation is hosting the event. Phillips, a member of the tribe, is race chair. "You look at this river - this was and is the home of the Penobscot Indian Nation for thousands and thousands of years."

Phillips notes the journey of Chief Bashebez, the first documented head of the Penobscots, who famously canoed from Indian Island to Brewer to meet with the French explorer Samuel de Champlain.

The river continued to be an important travel route for tribal members, who paddled it in birch bark canoes, until dams began bottling up the waterway in the early 1800's. "We're here to race and compete," Phillips says, "but we're also here just to be thankful and celebrate the restoration of the river, after we took the dams out."

A day before the races begin, some of the roughly 150 paddlers expected this weekend are getting their canoes ready for trial runs through the rapids.

"This is a 16-foot, Old Town Penobscot. Got a seat in the center here," says Tim Lewis, one of those guys from Connecticut. Lewis is racing his bright red boat in the Open Canoe - or OC - 1 division. "We just finished out scouting out the biggest rapid, down below here."

His buddy, Rich Weber, brought along a pair of binoculars to get a real take on the rapids. "They always look smaller from the top or at a distance," he says. "When you get in they look a lot bigger. What we're doing today is we're looking for the best route."

Out on the water, the canoes from Connecticut approach the site where the Great Works Dam once stood. Whitewater now churns around the few remaining stanchions, and some nearby boulders, creating an obstacle course for canoes and kayaks.

Dick Kelly, a paddler from from Brewer, has come down to the bank to take a look. "You want to pay attention. There's a combination of being able to keep the fast lines and to try to keep your boat out of the waves so that you don't take water in," he says. "That will slow you down and make it harder to maneuver through the waves."

The first Connecticut canoeist weaves his through the rapids, shifting his paddle from one hand to the other to prevent the water from turning his boat sideways, a position no whitewater paddler wants to be in.

"What do you need to do to win?" I ask Kelly.

"Paddle fast and stay dry," he says.

A few hours later, paddlers form a wide circle for the opening ceremony at a park by the river's edge in Old Town. Tribal elder Butch Phillips circles the fire, conducting a traditional Penobscot smudge ceremony.

The Penboscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta runs through Sunday.