By plane, you can travel the 173 miles of the Androscoggin River in about half an hour. By car, it would take about three hours. By canoe, you have to allow for about 13 days.
That’s how long it took Jen Deraspe. Deraspe launched in Errol, New Hampshire, an hour west of Rangeley, on June 2, and she completed her trek where the river meets the Atlantic in Topsham, Maine June 14. And Deraspe was on a mission.
“It is an inspired journey to see what could happen in the way of healing and restoring this river,” Deraspe said.
Each day, she blogged about her voyage on what was once one of the dirtiest rivers in the country.
Deraspe also raised $5,327 for the conservation group Maine Rivers. Executive Director Landis Hudson said that Maine Rivers hasn’t yet specified a use for the money, and the money may be put toward installing better signage on the Androscoggin.
“We’ve certainly been listening to what Jen has said about her experiences on the river, particularly how hard it’s been for her to find areas to portage around dams,” Hudson said.
Deraspe says she first paddled a canoe at the age of five on the Swift River in Mexico, one town over from Rumford and the polluted Androscoggin.
“I had a hard time looking at it,” she said of the river, “it was brown and had a very strong odor, and so did the air. It was something to be ignored. I could see the mill above it, the stacks above it, and the smog.”
Those stacks belonged to the Rumford paper mill. Deraspe’s father and many members of her family found well-paying jobs at the mill, which employed hundreds of workers in the area. But regulations on dumping waste products into the Androscoggin were virtually nonexistent. The water became so polluted that locals used to say you could bounce a quarter off its smelly foam, and that its sulfurous odor could peel the paint off houses.
From the opposite bank of the brown, foaming Androscoggin of Deraspe’s childhood, Democratic U.S. Senator and Rumford native Edmund Muskie was inspired to take action. In 1972 Muskie introduced the Clean Water Act, which regulated what could be discharged into rivers like the Androscoggin. The act built on momentum that began with earlier legislation, including the Water Quality Act of 1965, which required states to issue water quality standards for interstate waters.
On her journey, Deraspe has noticed the change the legislation brought to the river and the land around it.
“I’m seeing it come back to life, or I’m coming back to life with it,” she said. “I’m getting over my stigma of the Androscoggin River, which I grew up with and had turned away from. I’m really seeing its beauty.”
But traveling the river’s stretch wasn’t easy. Many portages around impassable sections of the river are not well-maintained and have limited signage. In some spots, Deraspe had to ask the advice of locals while wheeling her canoe around dams or falls, and one portage route took her through a junkyard.
Deraspe wants to push Muskie’s work forward and see more done to protect the Androscoggin. On Tuesday, she paddled up to Gritty’s Brew Pub in Auburn and met with Mayor Jason Levesque, along with officials from the city, the Androscoggin River Land Trust and Maine Rivers.
“You could actually influence change in a neutral way by bringing awareness up the river,” she told the group. She said the “old consciousness” of the river existing only to serve the mills must change.
“From a policy standpoint,” Levesque agreed, “it’s the heartbeat of our community. We’re prepping for our 150 year anniversary as a city, and most of our activities are centered around the river. It’s one of our largest assets.”
“I see it as a federal, inter-state river system where there really could be lots of nature-based jobs, fishing, boating, AMC huts and campgrounds, even parasailing,” Deraspe said.
But, she continued, “The water needs some love, and the sediment does. I think we’ve got to get real about [the river] below Berlin, New Hampshire, with what I’m hearing from local accounts.”
From Rumford to Merrymeeting Bay in Topsham, the river has a water quality of Class C, which according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has “the least restrictions on use and the lowest (but not low) water quality criteria.” Class C waters “are still good quality, but the margin for error before significant degradation might occur in these waters in the event of an additional stress being introduced (such as a spill or a drought) is the least.”
More can be done to improve the quality of the Androscoggin, she said, but “the process of changing the classification of a river takes a lot of intention, and then a lot of work.”
Much of this work would fall to committed volunteers who would collect data and present it to the legislature.
Before people begin to fully utilize and appreciate the Androscoggin, Deraspe wants to make sure that contaminated sediment isn’t hurting the river’s returning ecosystem.
“As far as sustainability and economic development, this is just something waiting to happen,” she said. “We could do it really right.”
The city of Auburn is working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency which oversees hydro-power dams, to improve recreational access to the river, Hudson said. And conservation groups like Maine Rivers and the Natural Resources Council of Maine will continue working to install more fish passageways, which allow migratory fish to move past obstacles like dams or falls, in the Androscoggin and other rivers in Maine.
Celie Deagle and Lucia Helder are the 2018 Dowe Interns at Maine Public.
This story was originally published June 16, 2018 at 1:17 p.m. ET.