Labor Day — At Upper Dam, the End is Near

The leaves are turning. Not much, yet, but here and there we see adolescents that haven’t got the hang of it yet and have jumped the gun — a flame-orange sumac bush, a reddening sapling maple. The adults are biding their time. We are hearing that the hot, dry summer may delay and dull this year’s variety show; instead of Technicolor® we’ll have sepia.

Fall foliage in Rangeley  a couple of years ago. Will this fall be this good?

Fall foliage in Rangeley a couple of years ago. Will this fall be this good?

This would be bad news for the innkeepers, tour operators, and souvenir sellers who count on the arrival of the leaf peepers for a profitable “shoulder season” after the summertime tourists have decamped. The State of Maine, not unaware of the economic heft of a maple tree full of bright red leaves, has a website devoted to the turning of the foliage and tracks its north-to-south progress.

As the leaves turn, so do the trout, the boys flaunting their spawning colors. But the trout can’t be happy about the drought, either. They would like a week of steady, cold rain to fill the streams for their upstream excursions to the spawning beds. At Upper Dam, my home water, the legendary pool has been low, the water, warm. Rain would be welcome. But maybe not until next week. We Upper Dam denizens are eagerly awaiting the completion of the reconstruction of the dam, which has been a work in progress for what seems like fifty or sixty years, though it has actually been five.

The new Upper Dam, in progress in June, 2016. Note the cofferdam, and the auxiliary spillway at the far right

The new Upper Dam, in progress, in June, 2016. Note the cofferdam.

The Upper Dam Pool is a wonderful fishing hole, known far and wide to the brothers and sisters of the angle, but the pool has been hard used these past few years. The constructors drove large plates of steel, a double row, down through the rocky bottom of the pool to form a cofferdam and filled the space between the plates with gravel and rock to make a roadbed for their cranes and trucks. A second cofferdam was constructed above the dam, so the old dam’s wooden gates and spillways could be dried out, dismantled, and replaced with concrete. Meanwhile the water from Lake Mooselookmeguntic has been coming into the pool through an auxiliary spillway, over on the south side, changing the way the currents circulate in the pool. When the cofferdams are pulled, and the new gates put into service, the pool should behave like the pool of old. The new dam, unfortunately, will never be mistaken from the dam of old, which was originally constructed in the 1850s.

The old Upper Dam.

The old Upper Dam.

Upper Dam is not a hydropower dam; it impounded water for log drives. In the springtime, when the pool was full of winter-cut logs, the water behind the dam would be released in a rush to flush the logs downstream into Upper Richardson Lake, once known by its Native American name, Mollychunkamunk. From there the logs, lassoed into a boom, would be towed and winched down to Middle Dam, then floated down the Rapid River to Umbagog and finally into the Androscoggin, to be fed into the machinery of the great mills that awaited them downstream. No log has passed down the spillways of Upper Dam for quite a few years, but spring still brings a flood of anglers to the pool to jostle for casting space.

I’ll be at Upper Dam for Labor Day Weekend, for the Upper Dam Camp Owners’ Association’s annual meeting and picnic. For the past five summers we have endured the noise, dust and disruption of the reconstruction; for the past five Labor Day Weekends we have met and picnicked in the shadows of heavy equipment. We have seen our beloved old dam torn down and have watched its characterless concrete replacement take shape. When I say that we will be happy to see the tailights of the ASI Constructors leaving Upper Dam, that doesn’t begin to express the depth and breadth of our relief.

I just hope the fish will be as happy.


Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.