The River. Thoreau. The Dam … and the River

(Sandra Neily writes) In September I lived at the  Penobscot River for a week. For 35 years I’ve camped by its rapids and under its pines. My husband and I caught landlocked salmon and brook trout, releasing them to shove off our hands the way competitive swimmers urgently buck against a pool wall to return to the water.

It was so cold at night I read under the sleeping bag as my husband slept. I suspect he’d deputized me to dispatch large caddis flies throwing themselves at my headlamp. (I will purge the library book of caddis wings before I return Louise Penny and all her amazing Three Pines’ characters and take out another one of her novels. Like a class for me.)

You’ll find the Penobscot in my latest novel and, below, here’s a taste of it. (I’m editing Deadly Turn for a late fall release, but this part where the narrator Patton lets down her guard … stays in.)


(Excerpt) Whenever life stacked up against me, I went to the Penobscot to feel clean and whole—better than someone dressing me in a white robe, dunking me in water, and praying over my head. It was also kind of a cautionary zoo—the last wild rapids—saved—so we could see, hear, touch and smell the real river and know what we’d lost behind dams that clogged its other arteries.

It was past time to get baptized. and no one was around. I left my fly rod by the edge of the pool and stripped down to a black sports bra that covered way more than just my chest, tied a tighter knot on my short’s drawstring, and kicked off my rubber sandals.

Luscious cold bubbles crawled up my arms and legs as the current shoved me around the pool, massaging my skin into goose bumps. Goose bumps. I hadn’t felt cold for weeks. When the drawstring floated free and my shorts slipped to my ankles, I realized whole parts of my body were missing a free wet massage. I tossed my shorts and bra up on shore and floated in the current until my dog’s bark made it through the water in my ears.

Somehow, in the middle of the river, he’d crawled onto a rock and was tugging at drift wood snagged low on one ledge. When I climbed up to fetch him, I left skin from my toes, knees, elbows, and tender parts on the rock’s sandpaper face.

I didn’t look back at my car because I couldn’t bear to see if anyone enjoyed the show of a naked woman begging her dog to behave. If I had, I might have seen the rising river lick my tires in a warning.

It rained on Thoreau, too.


You’ll also find the Penobscot River running through Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods where he writes, “On the 31st of August, 1846, I left Concord in Massachusetts for Bangor and the backwoods of Maine … “

The Penobscot rapid Thoreau describes below is still alive and “rippling.” (This is my favorite passage.)

“In the night I dreamed of trout-fishing; and, when at length I awoke, it seemed a fable that this painted fish swam there so near my couch, and rose to our hooks the last evening, and I doubted if I had not dreamed it all. So I arose before dawn to test its truth, while my companions were still sleeping. There stood Ktaadn with distinct and cloudless outline in the moonlight; and the rippling of the rapids was the only sound to break the stillness. Standing on the shore, I once more cast my line into the stream, and found the dream to be real and the fable true. The speckled trout and silvery roach, like flying-fish, sped swiftly through the moonlight air, describing bright arcs on the dark side of Ktaadn, until moonlight, now fading into daylight, brought satiety to my mind, and the minds of my companions, who had joined me.”

Ripogenus Gorge

We almost lost this last vestige of the wild Penobscot with its deep gorge, misted rare plants, leaping salmon, and fierce rapids. (Nineteen dams have already changed the river forever.) This video takes you into the middle of the fight to save what remained from a proposed dam. There’s a much younger me in the footage and the amazing Nick Albans. We, and so many others, fought so hard.

(For more on Thoreau’s Maine woods travels, enjoy this CBS Sunday Morning’s segment,

Sandy’s novel, “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” won a national Mystery Writers of America award, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, and she’s been a finalist for a Maine Literary Award. Find her novel at all Shermans Books and on Amazon. Find more info on the video trailer and Sandy’s website. The second Mystery in Maine, “Deadly Turn,” will be published in 2019.


About Sandra Neily

Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass” received a Mystery Writers of America award, was named a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, a finalist in the Mslexia international novel competition, a runner- up in Maine’s Joy of the Pen competition, and recently, an international SPR fiction finalist. Sandy lives in the woods of Maine and says she’d rather be “fly fishing cold streams, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there—unless I’m sharing vanishing worlds with my readers. "
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8 Responses to The River. Thoreau. The Dam … and the River

  1. Great post about a wonderful river.

  2. It is no surprise to know you were in the middle of fighting the Big A. You are heroes, each and every one of you who were in the trenches (the rips?) on that one. It was such a big win for the State of Maine and all who love its wild places.

    I love the excerpt from DEADLY TURN and am so looking forward to reading the whole book.

    • Sandra Neily says:

      Brenda! Thanks soooooo much! It’s so clear about your love of wild places, too. And thanks for kind words on the excerpt. Eager to get it out there. My best to you….

  3. As children, we used to swim in Maine rivers, letting the current pull us between slippery rocks like a carnival ride. And fish! Of course back then, we didn’t realize this was anything but normal and the way life should be. Thanks for reviving those memories.


  4. bethc2015 says:

    Great introduction to your new book.

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