Friday, June 21, 2024

Where did Dundee Pond go?!

Aaagh! where did dundee pond go?

Early Wednesday morning June 19th, I started paddling the Sebago to the Sea trail from Sebago Lake in Windham down to Casco Bay. Somehow nobody mentioned that Tuesday evening they had COMPLETELY DRAINED DUNDEE POND! No warning, no notification, no signs. That seems like a kind of important thing to advertise. I paddled down lazily past North Gorham Dam, over to the Dundee Pond put in at Windham Center Road recreation area.

I was paddling along scenic, boring Dundee Pond, Serene water with no flow at all. I actually took off my life vest in the heat. But after about a third of a mile, I started hitting some new class I rapids.Then by one half mile in, with no warning the river dropped into a deep canyon of mud:

Now there were constant rapids, steadily getting bigger. This section is normally just a slow glassy pond, but the roar started getting louder so I put my life vest back on.

The rapids suddenly became steady class II verging on class III, and by Dundee Park the river had dropped rapidly into a strange muddy alien ravine, 20 - 30 feet high!

I was trapped in the middle of this: nowhere to pull out, trying to process what my brain was showing me: Somebody clearly opened up the dam! Were the kids at Dundee Beach supposed to practice whitewater rescue this summer? How was this a safe family swim spot?!

By the time you round the bend, the river that remained in the exposed pond bed gurgled to a crawl through a muddy apocalypse of thousands of tree stumps rising from watery graves. There in the distance, Dundee Dam: completely drained! I kept playing my responsibilities through my mind: Was I supposed to call each of the 7 dams each time before I go down the Presumpscot? Are we supposed to check if any dam owners randomly drained river sections overnight?! Was all this somehow an agreement to give the kids at Shaw Park, Windham Train Trestle and Babb’s Covered Bridge more water to swim in on a 90 degree day?

There was no way to pull up the steep 30-40 ft hill at Dundee Dam: this was a real problem. I looked for the flattest shore line and sloshed my way into the buttery deep pond bottom-scum (900 feet from shore!) Each step went right to the top of my boots (18 inches: thank God I wore boots today!!!) but it took max effort to pull each leg back out, pushing down on the boat for purchase. The boat made a sick slow-mo mud wave. And let me tell you, this is not the cool, fun mud puddle we all dreamed of playing in as kids: it was steaming hot, noisy and splurging, and smelled like Stink Creek in old Pittsburgh. I could tug the boat about 1 foot with each step. I pushed on until I heard low jackhammers pounding: it was my heart. I took pauses, but could not sit down anywhere.

And I saw some sad sights: in one impounded pool, schools of guppies swam desperately for their lives from a big, circling pickerel. They would be eaten, one by one, till the survivors died of heat or slow suffocation.

After each soul-sucking hill, there was another swamp of custard-like mud… pictures of quicksand danced in my head, but I had something those victims never do: a BOAT! It didn’t look like I was getting anywhere… but after about 3 hours, I finally hit some semi-solid mud leading up to the shore. I left my heavy but trusty old Penobscot 16 there and layed down in the woods by a beaver pond and I called my one-man wrecking and towing crew, Jojo, to come get me out of this mess.

It was still 3-4 inches of mud right up to the woods. But we dragged the boat through the woods to the off-road trail to Dundee Road.

In retrospect… with hindsight and videos to study… I wonder if I MIGHT have paddled right up to that giant rock pile just to the left of the dam… that would have been a hard climb, but maybe more doable to drag the canoe up than the mud shoals… but i just had no clue what dangers were right at the dam gates: weird man-eating machinery? sieves, gears, sharp metal rods? I just couldn’t risk it…

Dundee Pond was last drained back in 1989 for dam repairs. There’s a good video explaining the complicated underwater roads, paths and canals that you can now see again on the lake bottom: 1989, Windham, Maine, Dundee Pond Drained - Presumpscot River - Dundee Pond Without Water

I know it’s cliche for any long river trip to bring to mind “Deliverance”. Hell, I did it on my last trip (2 weeks ago)! Crashing through woods to find a portage, I yelled out “We’ll find it!!!” I played air-Dueling Banjoes over and over. But callbacks and images of Deliverance are even more poignant after this adventure. The similarities and connections are intrusive in my brain: In Deliverance, they want to paddle the wild river and its rapids one last time before it is flooded to make more hydro power and recreation. The old tree stumps and the long hidden rapids rising from their watery graves is almost exactly that plot in reverse: like Ecnareviled (or Ecnar-Eviled if you will…). It feels weird, like I’m an intruder into Nature’s kingdome: I’m still not quite sure it was all real.

I love this dirty little old river: it reminds me of my childhood in Pittsburgh. But each time on it has been… complicated. A few weeks ago doing Sebago to the Sea, I ran into complete blockages shore to shore in Westbrook; I got lost portaging on the streets of Westbrook when my phone died…

The PRLT recommends portaging around several entire sections: from Sebago lake to Eel Weir Falls; the entire section from Little Falls to Mallison Falls; the entire section from Cumberland Mill Dam to the rt 302 Forest Ave trailhead boat launch…

On Father’s Day last week, paddling my favorite easy section with my kids from Mallison Falls at Canal Street down to the Lincoln Street Boat Launch in Westbrook, we arrived at the dock to a nightmare scene… like a war zone: flashing blue lights everywhere, rafts, Police, Fire, and scuba teams filled the park and the water, and even down past Saccarappa Falls… a twelve year old went under water just before we arrived, and never came up. I still cannot process that sadness and it still feels unreal. I needed to reconnect with the river and the woods, so I decided to paddle the whole river again on the hottest day of the year.

My relationship with the Presumpscot is very… complicated

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