50th birthday river rescue

A story from my book of hunting and fishing stories.

Fiftieth birthday one day. Rescued from the Kennebec River the next. It was that kind of week.

Achieving the half-century mark, one would expect to contemplate life’s meaning. Have I accomplished enough, been all that I can be, to justify five decades on this planet?

A family dinner celebration at an Augusta restaurant demonstrated what is important in life and I built on that with a fishing expedition the next afternoon on the Kennebec River.

As rescues go, it wasn’t all that daring – but the turnout and response from the Augusta Fire Department was impressive, if terribly embarrassing.

Stripers were few and far between, so I motored the boat up to the Edwards Dam a couple of times, up and down river, looking for those tell-tale splashes that signal active stripers. The tide was very high and a lot of water was coming down the river with a current so strong my anchor wouldn’t hold.

Then the gas tank ran dry. Floating freely and fast down river, I quickly switched to the other full tank, but the motor wouldn’t start. Panicked, I gave it a lot of gas – too much as it turned out. Speeding past the railroad bridge, nearly colliding with an abutment and cursing the fact I’d left my paddle at home, I pulled and pulled and pulled the starter cord. Nothing.

Finally, after sweeping under the old downtown bridge, the anchor took hold, pulling me to a stop right in the middle of the river, about even with the boat launch where this adventure had started. I caught my breath, tried the motor again unsuccessfully, and looked wistfully toward shore. There wasn’t a single boat on the river but surely someone would come along who could tow me to shore.

Grabbing a rod, I decided to make the most of my dilemma and started fishing. Periodically I’d try the motor again, but no luck. No luck fishing either.

After an hour, with no boats in sight, a young fellow on shore in the Water Street parking lot shouted out, “Do you need help?”

After thinking about it a minute, I decided I was ready to go home and could indeed use a tow. I knew the fire department had a boat and thought perhaps they might be willing to help me out. “Yes, I need a tow to shore,” I shouted back.

About two minutes later, sirens and alarms went off all over the city. “Oh God, please don’t let that be for me,” I prayed.

Too late for prayer. The troops were coming. If all of Water Street was on fire, I doubt there’d be a bigger response. Up and down the hillsides of the city on both sides of the river, sirens wailed. A fire truck pulled in to the riverside boat launch, then an ambulance, then another ambulance, and more trucks than I could count.

One fireman ran to shore and began scanning the river. Sheepishly, I tried to ignore him. Then it occurred to me that they must think someone was in real trouble on the river.

Using hand signals, I conveyed my need of a tow to shore. With a short wave, acknowledging his understanding, the fireman pulled out his walkie-talkie and called in the boat crew. But no one left. Indeed, a crowd had gathered by now, pulled in by the sirens and excitement of a river rescue.

Gosh, was I embarrassed. As the rescue boat pulled alongside, one wide-grinning fireman inquired, “How’s the fishing?”

“Not good,” I replied.

For a brief moment, I fantasized that no one would recognize me. But as I stepped onto the dock, fireman Dan Guimond, who I know well, greeted me with a, “Hi George!”

“Dan,” I said, “today I’m Harry Vanderweide, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, Harry’s boat does look like yours,” he kindly replied.

Later, with the boat on Maranacook Lake’s calmer waters, I got the gas working through and the motor purring. But I haven’t shown my face on the river since the rescue.

I have spent some time contemplating the future and looking into the past, considering how fortunate we are to have firemen and rescue squads, ready to respond promptly when needed.

There’s a lot of rescuing that needs to be done these days. I’m starting to feel disoriented in a world that’s changing so fast. Last Tuesday’s Kennebec Journal reported that this November, only 150,000 resident hunters will join me for Maine’s fabled deer hunt.

That’s 75,000 fewer than hunted Maine’s woods in 1981. It’s also the smallest percentage of the state’s population with big game hunting licenses, just 15.8 percent, since I was born.

Some days I feel like I’m at anchor in the middle of a swift river, life moving quickly past, unable to get my motor going. But please, no more rescues.







George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.