Bangor In Focus
Bangor was one of Thoreau's favorite places to visit in New England. "There stands the city of Bangor," Thoreau wrote in "The Maine Woods," "50 miles up the Penobscot, at the head of navigation for vessels of the largest class, the principal lumber depot on this continent, with a population of 12,000, like a star on the edge of night, still hewing at the forests of which it is built, already overflowing with the luxuries and refinement of Europe, and sending its vessels to Spain, to England, and to the West Indies for its groceries -- and yet only a few axemen have gone 'up river,' into the howling wilderness which feeds it."
Of course, the impetus for Thoreau's interest in Bangor and the northern Maine woods were his cousins Rebecca Jane Billings and Mary Ann Thoreau Billings, and aunt Nancy (Thoreau) Billings, who lived in the Queen City. Thoreau referred to his Bangor family as the "Penobscot tribe" in his writings. The "relative" to whom he often referred as accompanying him in "The Maine Woods" was Rebecca's husband, George Augustus Thatcher.
During his travails to Bangor, Thoreau often hiked along the Kenduskeag Stream and noted the plant and flower life along its shores. Even today, almost 150 years later and through the modern development of the Bangor region, it is easy to see Thoreau's attraction to the still-wild stream.
The Kenduskeag -- American Indian for "eel catching place" -- begins about 20 miles west of the Penobscot River and follows a relatively straight path with gradual curves as it cuts through craggy rocks exposed in the stream bed after the recession of the glaciers that once capped much of Maine before receding at the end of the ice age to create the unique beauty that is the Maine landscape.
Despite the enormous development since Thoreau first visited Bangor, the Kenduskeag has retained much of its natural character. In fact, the disappearance of the dozens of sawmills that once lined the stream in the mid- to late 1800s may have enhanced the stream's beauty to being even greater than when Thoreau walked its banks. The stream has survived the pollution and environmental damage wrought by Bangor's once-affluent and prodigious lumber industry, it has survived the dumping of raw sewage in the early to latter part of the 20th century, and it made it through the Urban Renewal movement of the 1960s that threatened to conceal the stream's path through downtown Bangor with pedestrian plazas and malls overhead.
Today, the stream is famous for the annual Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, held the third Saturday of April and featuring some of the best canoeists and kayakers in the Northeast.
Through winter and early spring, the stream swells with ice floes that cake its banks in a thick crust and brush against each other in the middle to form a natural jig-saw puzzle. When the snow thaws in the hills and the ice melts and gives way, the Kenduskeag rises over its banks and rushes for the Penobscot and the Atlantic Ocean. Ideally, at the stream's peak thaw, thousands of people line its banks and watch the more than 700 canoeists and kayakers navigate 16 miles from the town of Kenduskeag to the finish line in downtown Bangor.
But after the early spring cheering and water runs have stopped, the Kenduskeag settles down to that of a shallow but graceful tributary of the Penobscot. Despite an interstate crossing and bisecting a city of 33,000, the stream is a remarkably tranquil place to reflect on the past and ponder the future; there is no push to think of the present.
Although most people see the Kenduskeag by driving along Fourteenth Street Extension, Valley Avenue, or across the more than half dozen bridges in Bangor that cross it, the only way to truly experience and appreciate the stream's genuine beauty and solitude is to park in downtown Bangor and walk the 2 ½-mile Kenduskeag Stream Trail, which hugs the stream's banks and offers two lookouts that jut into the stream, benches to rest, covered picnic tables to snack, and trees to relax under.
The trail doesn't begin officially until the Franklin Street bridge in downtown Bangor, but you can begin hiking along the stream at the Pickering Square parking garage. The official start of the trail is on the west end of the Franklin Street bridge, where the trail descends into a relatively thick wooded area. The path is marked clearly with cinder and dirt and is level for the most part, except for a few hilly spots between Franklin Street and the footbridge not far beyond the rear of the Federal Building, on the opposite bank. The rusty iron and wood bridge replaced the Morse Covered Bridge in the mid-1980s after arsonists destroyed the landmark.
After crossing the footbridge, the trail follows the stream on the east bank to the Harlow Street bridge, where it crosses the stream, sending pedestrians back to the west bank. About 1/4 mile farther, hikers can rest at the covered picnic tables along Fourteenth Street Extension. A little farther up from that, the trail connects with Valley Avenue and offers a lookout over the stream. Here, Lovers Leap emerges into view from the east bank. Legend has it that two American Indians forbidden to be together leapt to their deaths from the 150-foot cliff.
After the lookout, the trail crosses the stream again, over the Valley Avenue bridge, putting hikers on the east bank. It is here that the trail and stream offer their most peaceful escape. There are no homes nearby and traffic on Valley Avenue is sparse. Another rest area is beyond a second lookout. It is at this second rest area that you can sit along the Kenduskeag and experience hearing the soothing trickle of water between and around the rocks in the stream, birds singing, and grasshoppers chirping in late summer.
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