FROM HIS HOME in Mercer, the writer Wesley McNair asks simple questions in his poem, "My Town."

Who would come to this place?

What do they do here for work?

No one and nothing important, answers McNair, who lovingly calls his sleepy village "Eyeblink, Maine," a community on the way to some place else.

McNair's voice is part of a new CD audio tour that takes visitors into the disparate communities of the Kennebec River corridor, from Popham Beach up through central Maine logging towns and into the Canadian woods.

The tour, "Deep Woods and River Roads: Voices from the Kennebec-Chaudiere Heritage Corridor" [To purchase: ] is the latest effort to boost cultural tourism and local history by focusing on the arts, crafts and culture of easily overlooked communities, whose collective heritage ties directly into the historic Kennebec River and its Canadian sister, the Chaudiere.

The 80-minute audio tour - a cooperative effort among state and provincial agencies, as well as private cultural groups on both sides of the border documents charismatic people and interesting places, where lives are shaped and lifestyles formed by the flow of the river.

The tour profiles fly-fishermen, boat builders and fiddlehead hunters. It takes listeners into the woods around Jackman, onto the roaring rapids of the upper Kennebec and along the quiet inlets of Merrymeeting Bay.

It explores early European settlements and ancient trading routes. The goal is to call attention to the corridor so local people have a better understanding of its historical importance, said Erik Jorgensen, assistant director of the Maine Humanities Council, one of the funders of the project.

Preserving and interpreting the past paves the way for a better future, he said. "I think that Maine is undergoing a lot of change. This audio tour gets back to the whole notion that if people in the communities of Maine don't realize what's special about it, then there's less reason to look after it and take care of it," Jorgensen said.

The Kennebec runs south from Moosehead Lake near Greenville to Popham, in Phippsburg. Along the way, dozens of uniquely Maine communities take their cue from the river. Many are mill towns. Others attract artists. Some rely on outdoor recreation for their economic livelihood. Others are barely known by outsiders. The Chaudiere runs north, into Quebec City.

Together, both geographically and culturally, the two rivers form a 230-mile link between Quebec and the coast. The tour generally follows Route 201 in Maine, which runs from the Canadian border to midcoast, where the river spills into the Atlantic Ocean at Phippsburg and Georgetown.

For centuries, the river corridor served as passage for tribal people to the Canadian waters of the St. Lawrence from the ocean.

Europeans settled either end of the corridor 400 years ago - in 1607 in Popham, and in 1608 in what is now Quebec City.

An important piece of Colonial American history occurred here, as well. Many of us know Benedict Arnold as a traitor, but before he switched sides, Arnold led a colonial march on Quebec. The march originated from Pittston, near present-day Augusta.

For generations, thousands of French Canadians traveled the Old Canada Road, which winds alongside the upper reaches of the Kennebec, to work in Maine's woods, mills and factories, setting in motion a migration trend that continues to influence the cultures of both countries.

The CD was produced by the Kennebec-Chaudiere Heritage Corridor Corp., a nonprofit organization that consists of representatives of many of the agencies and organizations involved in the project. Among sponsors are the Maine Humanities Council, Maine Community Foundation, the Department of Transportation, the Maine Office of Tourism, the Maine Arts Commission and the Old Canada Road Scenic Byway.

Abbe Levin served as project manager. The seeds for the Kennebec-Chaudiere tour go back several years to the administration of Angus King, she said. The former Maine governor saw the benefit of promoting tourism and economic development with Canada, and put together a task force to explore opportunities.

The goal is to encourage people to better understand and appreciate their heritage, Levin said.

"The corridor tends to be a road that people travel, either on their way to Quebec or down from Quebec. We want to educate and maybe entice people who use the corridor to explore a little," she said. "We also want to attract people to travel this corridor, and give them things to do and places to visit." The Kennebec-Chaudiere corporation produced 10,000 copies of the CD.

Local businesses and cultural institutions on both sides of the border will sell the CD, and Levin is working to establish commercial distribution points throughout the state.

The tour targets visitors and local folks who are interested in cultural tourism, said Carolann Ouellette, who owns a restaurant in Jackman and serves on the Maine Tourism Commission.

Already, many communities in the corridor celebrate their local heritage with festivals, and 78 miles of the corridor - along Route 201 from Solon to the Canadian border - is designated as a National Scenic Byway.

That means the groundwork is in place to boost tourism.

"With the increase we've seen in heritage tourism, this lends itself really well to that type of visitor. There is so much history along the route," said Ouellette. "You forget what is hidden away in the hills."

Nick Spitzer, a folklorist and host of Public Radio International's "American Routes" radio show, narrates the tour.

He has family in Maine, and has been involved in various arts initiatives in the state for several years, including the National Folk Festival in Bangor and the Creative Economy summit in Lewiston two years ago.

The audio tour feels like a radio program, with Spitzer easy-flowing voice introducing Mainers and their stories.

"We really wanted it to feel like you were at a roving pot-luck supper," said producer Rob Rosenthal, who teachers documentary radio at the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland. He interviewed hundreds of people, and includes the voices of more than 30 Mainers on the CD.

Don Roy, the Muddy Marsh Ramblers, Benoit Bourque and others provide the music.

"I just dropped in on people's lives and spent time with them. I was not only talking to them about what they do, but doing what they do," Rosenthal said. He went ice-fishing on a 10-degree February morning in the north woods, and tagged along with lobsterman Jack Tarbox when he hauled traps early in the season in the mouth of the Kennebec.

"They'll bite you good," Tarbox tells Rosenthal as he bands a lobster. "They'll make you bleed."

Rosenthal also spent a lot of time fly fishing with Abbott Meader, an artist and retired Colby College art professor.

Meader speaks eloquently of the life he has made near the river, in Oakland. He talks about "the inhospitable nature of the north," and how the awe-inspiring environment of inland Maine pushes artists to look anew at familiar things.

But mostly, Meader talks about fishing.

For him, fishing and painting occupy a similar niche.

"Nothing is ever like yesterday," Meader said, explaining that fishing and painting feel completely new each day, depending on one's location, the weather and the outlook of the day.

Meader grew up out of state, and spent summers in Maine. In the early 1960s, he moved to Maine to live year-round.

When he was younger, Meader trolled for bass and perch on Unity Pond. Nowadays, he fishes for brookies in the tributaries of the Kennebec.

No matter the quality of the catch, the fishing is always good, Meader says. Through the tour, listeners are introduced to artists Abby Shahn of Solon, and they hear about the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, which Shahn's parents influenced during the school's early years.

We learn that Solon, next to Athens, takes its name from Greek mythology, that Moxie means "dark waters" and that Caratunk is an Indian name for crooked stream.

We learn that Waterville is among Maine's most diverse communities, with large groups of Franco-Americans, Jews, Lebanese, Polish and Italian people living in the city.

We hear Richard Russo, Maine's Pulitzer Prize-winning author, read from "Empire Falls," his novel set in a fictional mill town in central Maine. It could be Waterville. It could be Skowhegan. It might be Madison.

Finally, we hear Popham historian Jane Stevens talk about America's first European settlement, in 1607.

It's true that the colony didn't survive its first winter and had to leave the coast and return to England, Stevens says. But that journey back to England affirmed the success of the Popham colony, she argues, because it set the region's future course.

"It always upsets me that people write about it and they say, 'The Popham colony was a failure.' It was not a failure. It was a tremendous success. They built the first ship, the Virginia of Sagadahoc, and sailed it home to England. This was the beginning of this world-famous shipbuilding of ours on the Kennebec River," she says.

Rosenthal said the tour gives Mainers and visitors a chance to learn something more than surface-level information.

He cites Wesley McNair's poem as a personal highlight of the tour, because it sums up the reality of those who make their living along the river.

"Basically, what Wes McNair says is, 'What do these people do here for work?' I would shorten that and simply ask, 'What do these people do here?' As an in-state tourist, you drive through these places and you can't help but ask, 'What do these people do here?

'

"This helps answers that question. It's not right on the surface. You have to scratch the surface. But once you do, it all comes bubbling up. It isn't obvious looking through the windshield."

Source: http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/audience/stories/061112river.html

Bob Keyes is a staff writer for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in which this article first appeared, Sunday, 12 November 2006

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