What is the word for a fish which begins its life as an egg in a small mountain stream, hatches and swims downstream countless miles, transforms itself to survive in salt water, and journeys out through the Gulf of Maine, above Newfoundland, to Greenland, and then swims all the way back?

Awe-inspiring? Miraculous?

Thousands upon thousands of Atlantic salmon did it, made that trip, for thousands of years. The headwater tributaries of the Sandy River, down to the Kennebec, out to sea, miles upon miles upon miles, and then back to start the next generation. A migration beyond belief.

Then, we built dams. Not us, certainly, but those not long before us. The 1837 construction of the Edwards Dam in the Kennebec brought the epic migration of the Atlantic salmon to almost a complete halt. Almost. But even today, if you wade in the Upper Sandy River, at the right point in the migration, you can still see wild, sea-run Atlantic salmon.

Or, if you care to volunteer, you can take part in their restoration. Wading in late winter, with dedicated salmon biologists, to plant salmon eggs in the gravels of a streambed is to see the improbable become possible. Tiny, bright eggs tucked into gravels — could they really become majestic travelers off the coast of Greenland?

In spring, when the water temperature is just so, the little fry, the baby salmon, emerge from the gravels. Volunteering to help with counting them is a lesson in spunk and fortitude. When the fry traps are opened, the tiny salmon leap with all their might, a two-inch foreshadowing of the adults they could become. Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar. Salar. Leaper.


Strong and determined, the young of the year grow, running the gauntlet of bigger fish, hungry birds, mink, otter. Incredibly adapted, they combine sheer numbers with tricks like running downstream under alewives running upstream, the alewives becoming the easier prey. After roughly two years, the young salmon even outfox the seawater they’ll soon approach. They become smolt, capable of living in a new environment that would otherwise be toxic, saltwater, destined to be home for the long run north.

But before they can even reach the Gulf of Maine, there are the dams. Four lethal obstacles. Crushing turbines, dangerously warmed water, the concrete equivalent of the proverbial brick wall. Many make it past the first one, but no river run of Atlantic salmon has ever been restored with four dams.

If, by sheer perseverance and resilience, some do stay alive and strong past all four dams, and past the myriad of obstacles they face at sea, to return to their home river one or two years later, there are still the dams. There is no passage to swim upstream on the Kennebec. None. Waterville is a dead end. If they chance to drift to the slow current side of the river, not their historic return route but a potential path, they are trapped and then driven upstream in a truck. One that I saw released upstream splashed everyone in a take-that escape, a defiant, determined act that made me smile. Such power. But such bad odds.

One fish, just one, beat those odds by swimming to Greenland and back twice. Twice. But with four dams, the thousands upon thousands which historically made that journey won’t do it again.

Four dams between the ocean and the Sandy River. Four dams thwarting Kennebec salmon, and healthy runs of other fish that are so important to Maine: river herring, American eel, American shad, and sea lamprey. Four dams plus our regulators and Brookfield, who control the fate of these species. The bottom line is that regulators must hold Brookfield accountable for continuing harmful dams, and Brookfield needs to sell these dams for removal, as happened on the Penobscot. The volunteer hands of an individual can only do so much to overcome obstacles; now is the time to do more.

The Kennebec could be a river restoration success if we get ourselves out of the way.

Kathy Scott serves on the National Trout Unlimited board of directors and is a past officer of the Maine Chapter of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. She lives in Mercer.

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