The human history of Maine can be traced along its waterways. Its wild streams and curving rivers were the main transportation routes across the region for thousands of years. Not until the coming of the railroad did significant traffic patterns begin to radiate out beyond the river valleys.
The Abenaki Indians migrated between the mountains and the coast along highways of water. In winter they camped next to rivers and mountain streams, hunting deer and moose for meat and furs. In spring and summer they dug clams and netted fish at the river's mouth. Archeological excavations along streams and estuaries have unearthed arrowheads and kitchen middens, native American garbage dumps, that mark their prehistoric campsites. These indigenous people identified portage sites where they had to carry their birchbark canoes over rapids and waterfalls, giving them names we still use today. Abol, an Abenaki word for rapids, translates to "where the water laughs in coming down." Debsconeag, meaning "carrying place", describes a stretch of rapids on the West Branch of the Penobscot River.
The first European explorers viewed the fast-flowing streams as obstacles to inland progress. But those who followed envisioned dams harnessing water power and log drives transporting timber to shipyards and sawmills. Logs, fur, fish, and ice soon floated down Maine's waterways to a growing coastal population. Gradually, this use took its toll. Eroding soil, sawdust, bark, and timbers clogged the streams and filled in their depths. Two decades after the log drives ended, much of this wood was still decomposing on the river bottom. Streams and rivers also became dumping sites for the refuse of waterfront communities. Pipes pumped raw sewage and industrial pollutants directly into the water.
After a century of abuse, the rivers reeked of offensive wastes. Communities began to invest their resources in cleaning up their waterways. Sewage treatment plants were installed or upgraded. Dams were breached or fitted with fish ladders so salmon could return to their ancestral spawning grounds upstream. New businesses based on clean water, like kayaking, whitewater rafting, and sport fishing have created a stream of tourist dollars to interior Maine. Waterfront parks next to the Penobscot, Kennebec, and St. Croix overlook rivers that are cleaner than they have been for generations. Shops, restaurants, and a riverside trail along the Royal River in Yarmouth have replaced two paper mills, a cotton factory, and fish canneries, all of which had used the tidal river to carry their wastes and produce to the sea.
While many of Maine's major rivers are becoming cleaner, thousands of miles of smaller streams are plagued by water quality problems from non-point source pollution-pollutants from diffuse sources carried by snow melt, rain water, and groundwater. Motor oil from cars, leaky septic systems, silt, lawn fertilizers, and manure all contribute to non-point source pollution. Development along the shoreline removes the trees and other vegetation that would normally buffer the stream from this kind of pollution. This habitat destruction threatens the life in and next to streams and rivers.
Our success in cleaning up our larger rivers has revealed the effect of the pollution of Maine's smaller streams. After all, a river is only as clean as the water that flows into it, and virtually all the water in a river comes from the network of rivulets and streams that pass through someone's land. Taking responsibility for activities in our own backyard is an important way each of us can help protect Maine's rivers. Now, rather than blaming industries or municipalities for most of the water pollution, we need to look at ourselves. "Non-point source pollution," notes one biologist, "is really a fancy way of saying, 'You and Me'."