A New National Monument on the East Branch Penobscot River

On August 24, 2016, President Obama designated 87,500 acres of northern Maine as Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument. The new public land encompasses much of the East Branch Penobscot River. I visited the area in 2014 while researching Chapter 5 of The President’s Salmon. Here’s an excerpt.

The East Branch Penobscot River begins at the northern edge of the watershed, on the far slopes of Katahdin, and has always been the wildest country. The East Branch falls eleven times between Matagamon and Medway, a total drop of 408 feet in less than fifty miles: Stair Falls, Haskell Rock Pitch, Pond Pitch, Grand Pitch, Hulling Machine, Bowlin, Whetstone Falls, Crowfoot Falls, Grindstone, Meadowbrook Rips, and Ledge Falls. Salmon surmounted all of them in their desire to reach the spectacular spawning grounds, gray, cobbly islands and bars that also extended up the Wassataquoik and Seboeis streams.

But big business found its way here, too. By the 1830s large-scale logging operations were moving up the East Branch of the Penobscot. Logging began on the Wassataquoik in 1841, and tote roads pushed in toward Katahdin. The Telos Cut allowed logs to be transported down the East Branch.

In 1835 Mr. and Mrs. William Hunt established their homestead on the East Branch, across from the mouth of Wassataquoik Stream. They cleared land for growing crops, and fished for salmon in the river in summer and early fall. The Hunt Farm became a stopping place for woodcutters and river drivers, Indians and tourists, including artist Frederic Church and writer-tourist Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau traveled down the East Branch in summer of 1857. According to his guide, Joe Polis, Wassataquoik meant “salmon river” and was applied to the entire East Branch Penobscot; the East Branch also translates as Wahsehtek, stream of light. At Hunt’s Farm on August 1, they found the family had left but a few men were staying at the house while cutting the hay. “I do not remember that we saw the mountain at all from the river,” wrote Thoreau, in reference to Katahdin. “I noticed a seine here stretched on the bank, which probably had been used to catch salmon.”

The East Branch Penobscot River, “Stream of Light.”

Other travelers reported encountering salmon on the East Branch.

Louis Ketchum had dark, piercing eyes and high, strong cheekbones. A native Penobscot, he knew how to pilot a canoe, and he knew how to catch fish. In August 1861, Ketchum was working as a guide for investigators with the Maine State Scientific Survey, including naturalist Ezekiel Holmes, geologist Charles Hitchcock, assistant and Maine woods authority Manly Hardy, and young entomologist Alpheus Packard. They had traveled upstream from Old Town in a batteau and three canoes. The men were hungry and unhappy with their cook. Louis fashioned a spear along the way and caught what he could for supper. Packard wrote in a letter to his father, “We have had two messes of pickerel and eels, which Louis, our Indian guide has speared. We hope to get some salmon farther on…”

They went up the East Branch, and stopped for a few days at Hunt’s Farm. The party split up, with one group going off to climb Katahdin and a second group staying at the river to collect mineral specimens. That left “Lewie” with some free time. In the evening he made a spear and caught two salmon, one ten pounds and the other seventeen pounds, which were cooked into a salmon and partridge stew. The next night, Hardy went along with Lewie. He wrote in his diary, “We went about two miles above the mouth of Wessaticook [Wassataquoik] and waited until after sundown. I shot a kingfisher and a muskrat; we then lit our torches and commenced to run down, I steering and Lewie standing erect looking like a fiend as the showers of burning bark burnt by the wood fell upon him.” Lewie eventually speared a seven-pound salmon, which the cook boiled fresh and served with potatoes and coffee with milk. They moved farther up the East Branch and caught more trout, so many that young Packard was getting tired of them.

The East Branch Penobscot River is ideal spawning habitat for Atlantic salmon: wide, fast water, with lots of gravel along the river bottom, the kind of rubble that washes from melting glaciers and piles up in their wake. The river banks are sandy; today, the river has carved into the bluff at Hunt’s Farm. Drift and eroded glacial deposits of sand and gravel are important sources of much of the Atlantic salmon’s spawning and nursery habitat…In long, steep rivers like the Penobscot, salmon have to enter early in order to have enough time to swim the hundreds of miles to the upper reaches of the river by the fall. They travel through the estuary and lower river after the high flows of spring runoff, but before the water gets too warm—by July, the water may have reached 70 degrees or more. But early entry also means the fish spend up to five months in the river before spawning, seeking refuge in deep aerated pools, springs, and tributary mouths and beneath boulders and fallen trees. Early migration leaves the fish vulnerable to predators…

View of the mountain from the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument.