GREENE — The giggles of children playing, swimming and jumping into Gulf Island Pond on the Androscoggin River competed with the roar of a nearby float-plane one morning last week.
The pilot was practicing takeoffs and landings alongside the southern end of the new Androscoggin Riverlands State Park on the Turner side of the river.
Elizabeth Roesner of Lewiston and her daughter, Ari, sat with others on the fine sand and silt beach basking in the sun. Snapping turtle eggs were incubating nearby, under the sand, the Roesners said.
On the northern end of Gulf Island Pond near Twin Bridges in Leeds, Betsy Delavan of Jay and her daughter, Kristen, stopped to eat lunch on Googins Island beside the river's ledge-drop rapids.
Just north of them, bass angler John St. Pierre of Winthrop strung neon-green fly-fishing line on his pole before hiking down to the river to try his luck.
This section of the Androscoggin River, just north of the Twin Cities, is fast becoming a destination for swimming, fishing and bass fishing tournaments, boating, hiking, camping and bird-watching. For those who remember when the river was choked with pollution, it's a surprising and welcome change.
Last Saturday, Rosaire and Lisa Roy of Turner were camping on one of five islands in Gulf Island Pond for the holiday weekend. They've taken camping trips to the islands for more than 10 years, Lisa Roy said.
Others have, too, despite the fact that NextEra Energy, formerly Florida Power and Light, isn't licensed to allow camping on the islands.
However, the utility's 2008 recreational and trail management plan for the Gulf Island and Deer Rips dam projects states that “camping is neither prohibited nor encouraged on the islands.”
It also requires campers to get permits from the local fire warden for campfires, but Roy said they've checked with area fire chiefs only to learn that such permits aren't needed on the islands.
Some islands have signs that allow camping for 14 consecutive days; others are posted "No Trespassing," and some have no signs at all.
Jonathan LaBonte, executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust, said camping on the islands is illegal and NextEra's property is day-use only.
However, recognizing that people are camping overnight and have been for years, the trust is working to create a management plan for such use.
Roy, however, said there is no enforcement of campers other than some islands getting posted. People then move on to the next unposted island to camp.
Roy said most islands have one campsite, but the one their family uses has two. To reserve it for the weekend, they have to stake it out during the week.
“We love it out there,” Roy said. “It's peaceful.”
Their children enjoy fishing from the beach and watching float-planes from Twitchell's Airport practice landings and takeoffs along the river.
Today, starting at 7 a.m., the Western Maine Anglers will hold a bass tournament at the pond. The event — with fishing between Twin Bridges and Gulf Island Dam — is scheduled to end at 3 p.m., with a weigh-in to determine the winner.
According to club president Jackie Hudson, the club has held such tournaments there in the past, and is returning this year after a three- or four-year hiatus.
Sunday's event is one of five fishing tournaments scheduled for the pond this season, as anglers are increasingly drawn to Gulf Island Pond and its strong bass fishery.
John Volkernick of Dixfield said he could remember fishing for bass in the pond from Twin Bridges to Gulf Island Dam many years ago.
“When I first started fishing it, it was bad,” he said of water visibility. “And now, you can see five, six, seven feet down.”
That's due, in part, to air pipes that NextEra has installed to pump oxygen into the pond's depths, he said.
That, and the continued improvements in water quality, are making a difference and getting people on — and in — the water.
According to LaBonte, “the bass fishery here is pretty phenomenal, which is why the tournaments are so successful.”
Volkernick, youth director and web master of the Androscoggin Bassmasters, a Lewiston-based bass angling group, said the club attracts hundreds of anglers to the pond each year to compete in its charity Bassmasters fishing tournament, raising more than $10,000 for the Children's Miracle Network since 1993.
Last year, the tournament drew 90 anglers. “We usually average from 100 to 110,” Volkernick said.
The club's Androscoggin River Open will be held Aug. 21.
Other tournaments include the Maine Country Bassers tournament July 23, the BronzeBack Maniacs tourney on Sept. 18, and the Mainely Bass tourney on Sept. 24.
Aside from the opportunity to catch large bass in the 5- to 7-pound range, bass anglers are also catching pike weighing 20 to 30 pounds, but as far as Volknernick and Hudson know, pike fishing tournaments have yet to appear.
And with the tournaments and events like the Source to the Sea Trek on the Androscoggin, which is now making its way downriver, and the Great Falls Balloon Festival that draws kayakers and canoeists to the waterway, the rate of boating on the river is rising fast.
Cruising the river
“Typically, when people are paddling Gulf Island Pond, the pond acts like a pond,” LaBonte said. “River current is negligible, at best, typically. Obviously, river conditions can always change on a major river.”
“You could put in at Center Bridge, you could paddle downstream, you could paddle back without an issue,” he said.
Last year, a new boat access was created at Googins Island. And, when the state Department of Transportation rebuilt the Twin Bridges on Route 219, the alignment of the bridge was moved slightly, creating space for a new parking area and portage trail there.
This summer, a new hand-carry will be built in Leeds for access to the river, LaBonte said. And, last year, portage trails around Gulf Island Dam and Deer Rips Dam were constructed for paddlers.
“So, say if paddlers are starting in downtown Lewiston-Auburn and want to make a full-day trip, they would be able to walk their boats around both dams for the first time,” LaBonte said.
At about 3,000 feet, “they're relatively long portage routes, but given the size of the dams, there really wasn't much of a choice at this point,” he said. “As use grows, there may be justification for a shorter route that would include stairs or ramps, but right now they're just walking trails."
Canoe rests along the route offer spots for breaks and, in the Switzerland Road area, there's a place to have lunch along the river, LaBonte said.
Boaters also use the river to experience its remoteness, the peace and quiet, and for wildlife sightings of moose, deer, bald eagles and loons.
On Tuesday, at the East Waterman Road boat access site in Auburn, the stillness of the river was broken by a personal watercraft bombing along downriver, which surprised Mike Auger, director of land protection and stewardship for the Androscoggin Land Trust. Although there are plenty of motorboats on the river, he said that was a first for him to see a Jet Ski-style craft on the river.
For the most part, the pond's coves provide an upcountry experience, LaBonte said.
“I remember talking with some people a few years ago and I said, 'If you've never been to the North Woods and you want to have a remote experience, you can get there 20 minutes from downtown Lewiston-Auburn,'” LaBonte said.
“And those folks didn't believe me until we got them out on a 20-minute drive from here at Center Bridge Road. Some of these coves really give you a sense of remoteness that you won't find anywhere else.”
A refreshing swim
For the Roesners and several young men, women and children in swimsuits, Cherry Pond in Greene was that special place Tuesday.
Hanging on knotted ropes tied to a tree, many launched themselves over and into the river. A few braver souls climbed the rope tree to a platform on branches 35 feet above the water and jumped in.
“We come here quite often every summer, because it's usually quiet and there are friendly people,” Elizabeth Roesner said.
“It's one of the more entertaining places to go around here, especially with the rope swing,” said Ari Roesner, 14.
“The first time that we came here, we saw some gigantic turtles ... so we've always called this Turtle Beach,” Elizabeth Roesner said.
Ari was two years old then.
Auger told Roesner the site is known locally as Cherry Pond, and Elizabeth Roesner told two women in the water that, yes, they were swimming in the Androscoggin River.
The site has become so popular that the town of Greene has drafted a plan to provide parking for 10 vehicles and a boat ramp at Cherry Pond, on the river side of the River Road causeway. That plan will be subject to a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 12, at the town office.
The plan also includes a dock, picnic tables, barbecue pits, Port-O-Potties and handicapped access to the site. Immediately after the public hearing, the Planning Board will convene to discuss the plan.
Greene Town Manager Charles Noonan, who used to be the town manager in Jay, said he had left the area for a long time and, when he returned, he was “very surprised” by the improvements along the Androscoggin.
That's how many people react, Auger said, once they get out to the river and Gulf Island Pond.
“It's like having a huge lake just north of town,” Auger said.
'A unique corridor'
“The future of recreation out here is trying to get folks out to these areas,” Auger said.
“Part of what we're dealing with here is the past history of the river," he said. "So many people of my age and older grew up being told by their parents, 'Don't touch the river.'”
“Now, as you see today, it's a wonderful resource right in our backyard,” Auger said. “And once you get people out here, it's amazing to see how they change their whole perception.”
They see it for what it is: a unique corridor with virtually undeveloped shorelines, LaBonte said.
“If there is a silver lining from the mills' waste that really killed the river for a period, it is that it was not attractive for waterfront development and people are just now starting to realize it,” he said.
Social media sites such as Facebook are playing a large role in getting people onto the river, as word spreads about the tranquility and available recreation.
“The last five to six years, use has continued to grow at a faster pace, mostly because of new technology and word of mouth,” LaBonte said. “I think word is getting out that this still is an untapped resource.”
Riverlands State Park
Along this Androscoggin River recreation corridor is Maine's newest state park, Riverlands.
Anglers fish from the shoreland, bird watchers and hikers move through the woods, sharing space with mountain bikers.
Ultimately, Riverlands could be a mecca for mountain biking, Jared Buckingham of Greene, said. But it's still a long ways off.
"Right now, Bradbury is the mecca," he said, of the single-track trail at the state park in Pownal.
"There are some mountain bike trails in Riverlands, but they're catering more to ATVers and hikers, as weird as that sounds. There's some good riding out there, but I wouldn't call it a 'mecca,'" he said.
Most of the parks' biking trails are shared with hikers, ATVers and horseback riders, which can be a little congested.
Buckingham and other mountain bikers have been working in the park to create more suitable trail, including pushing for more signs directing traffic, although before the park opened he and others preferred riding the Homestead Trail and the Ridge Trail.
The Homestead Trail is now hiking-only and Ridge Trail is a shared-use path for mountain bikers and hikers.
The Maine Conservation Corps has scheduled a series of work days for the hiking and biking trails at the park, including a three-day session this Tuesday to Thursday, July 12-14. There are four more sessions planned this season, two in July and two in August.
This kind of efforts organized by the MCC and mountain bikers, along with dozens of other groups who are working to improve the river and shorelands and to raise awareness of recreational opportunities there, are working. But, "it isn't easy," LaBonte said, for these efforts to erase the river's past reputation as a dump.
It's not a dump any more.
The town of Greene will hold a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 12, on a plan to provide parking for 10 vehicles and build a boat ramp at the River Road causeway, across from Cherry Pond. Immediately after that public hearing, the Planning Board will meet to discuss the plan.
Riverlands State Park
The Maine Conservation Corps will hold a series of work days to improve the biking and hiking trails at Riverlands State Park in Turner. The dates are: July 12-14, July 20-21, July 26-28, Aug. 2-4 and Aug. 9-10. To volunteer, contact MCC Volunteer Coordinator Sarah Gaffney, 624-6092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.