Seventy-two days, as I write this, until Opening Day of the 2017 fishing season. But in Maine, especially in the northern reaches, only fools rush in to fish on April 1, when there’s usually plenty of snow and ice on the shores and banks. I won’t cast a line onto my home water, the legendary Upper Dam Pool, until around mid-May when the four-and-a-half mile road from Route 16 to the dam is firm enough to support traffic. When I finally lock the gate behind me and drive the rest of the way down the hill to my camp, I will find a changed place. Some of the changes will be welcome, one big one will not: we have a new dam. Upper Dam, as I and generations of anglers have known her, is gone.
The corporate masters of the Androscoggin watershed have taken down the old dam, a glorious relic of 19th century engineering. The new dam is corporate-looking – charmless and characterless, concrete and steel replacing granite blocks and stout hemlock gates. Gone is the picturesque 200-foot-long, mortised-and-tenoned damhouse.
Gone are the wood-and-stone cribs, or aprons, that jutted downstream from the dam, from which many anglers took many trout over the decades. It was from one of those stout fingers that Carrie Stevens made the
first casts with her new creation, a streamer fly she named the Gray Ghost, and landed a 6 pound, 13 ounce brook trout. That was in 1924, when Upper Dam was an angling destination reached only by lake steamers from Oquossoc or South Arm. The Gray Ghost and its descendants still catch a lot of fish at Upper Dam, and Carrie Stevens is memorialized on a bronze plaque that stands beside the carry road, facing Midway Camp where she tied so many of her great flies. The old dam and its ancient swaybacked damhouse presided over many decades of angling history.
Upper Dam is not a hydropower dam, so it has never been disfigured by turbines and power lines. It was built in the 1850s as a water impoundment dam by the logging companies. Log booms towed across Mooselookmeguntic and sluiced into the pool below the dam waited there until spring, when the water would be released in a rush, carrying the logs into Mollychunkamunk, now Richardson Lake, for the next leg of the journey to the mills downriver in Berlin and
Rumford. The log drivers discovered that the pool they had created below the dam held great numbers of huge brook trout. Word spread. A hotel was erected, and a row of camps, and Upper Dam became a destination resort for sports. In the heyday of the pool, the Rangeley boats would be anchored practically gunwale-to-gunwale in the current, Maine guides at the oars and anglers who had traveled to this remote spot by rail, buckboard and steamer flogging the moving waters with flyrods. Nowadays anglers from Maine and away park outside the gate on the camp road and walk in to wade the edges of the pool and cast to the trout and salmon that still populate the pool in good numbers.
Every summer too, numbers of non-angling visitors walk down the dirt road and into a different century. They pass the venerable barns, the weathered camps named Blacksmith Shop, Hangover, One Horn, and emerge beside a greensward. To the east, the blue waters of Mooselookmeguntic, framed by forested shores and mountains, stretch for miles toward Haines Landing. To the west, Upper Richardson Lake with its own backdrop of hills is on its long slow run southward to Middle Dam. The row of neat gaslit camps with their screened porches facing the pool across the sloping lawn completes a picture so perfect that many an artist would reject it as improbable. But that picture has been altered dramatically during the last five years, when our peaceful retreat was invaded by massive trucks, cranes, cement mixers, pile drivers, dust, mud, and incessant noise six days a week.
Giant steel plates were fashioned into cofferdams. The damhouse was dismantled, then the dam itself, its massive wooden gates hauled out and cast ashore. Forms were built, concrete was poured. A new dam took shape, and was finally finished in late 2016.
The most welcome change, of course, will be that tranquillity will have returned, and the heavy equipment will have departed for another project. Also welcome: the road past my camp has been moved about ten feet away and the space has been loamed and seeded, so that I will have a front yard for the first time. The new dam will release water in almost exactly the same places as the old dam, meaning that the familiar currents and eddies of the pool will return to what we knew as normal; that’s also good news.
So, hail and farewell. Farewell to beauty, hail modernity. I suppose we’ll get used to it.