NEW GLOUCESTER – Board members at the Royal River Conservation Trust were chatting last fall about the waterway, and a question arose: Do we know anyone who has paddled the 44-mile length of the river, from Sabbathday Lake to the ocean in Yarmouth?
No one did, and that was intriguing. The trust and its predecessor, Friends of the Royal River, has been around 18 years.
Three weeks ago, 11 canoes and two dozen people gathered here at the lake’s outlet. It was the start of a weekend dubbed Sabbathday to the Sea.
That slogan turned out to be wishful thinking. Within minutes, it was clear why the journey is rarely undertaken or completed.
What also became evident is that Portland area residents don’t have to drive hours north for a taste of paddling on a wild river in early spring. Snaking through the suburbs of Maine’s two largest population areas, the upper Royal offers a surprising, challenging adventure that has the feel of a remote waterway.
The Royal River flows through New Gloucester, Auburn, Gray, North Yarmouth and Yarmouth. Many residents know the river as the boat-specked anchorage they glimpse while zooming along Interstate 295. Others have paddled the lazy flatwater above the dams in Yarmouth.
That is not how the Royal is born. At its source, the Royal is a skinny, meandering stream, choked with alder thickets and blocked by beaver dams and fallen trees.
Some members of the expedition had anticipated this. They came wearing wet suits and waders, knowing they could spend as much time dragging their boats as paddling. That attire came in handy within a mile of the outlet, in an alder tangle so thick that many in the group chose to pull their canoes out and skirt a wooded hillside to reach open water.
Other boaters brought brush saws and loppers; one participant carried a chain saw, prepared to cut a path through the clutter. Nice thought, but with debris-filled “strainers” around every bend and logs the size of utility poles, clearing the stream was futile. The only option was to portage around the mess.
The Royal River, at this point, was shaping up to be a royal pain.
It took nearly three hours to cross under the Maine Turnpike and paddle across the Royal River Reservoir, an empoundment formed by a dam at Bald Hill Road. From there, the crew portaged a quarter-mile on a dirt road, past a steep, boulder-strewn stretch of the stream.
Lou Espeaignette was watching the procession from her home across from the river.
“I’ve never seen anyone canoe here,” said Espeaignette, who has lived in her house 11 years.
Good reason. A half-mile away, the river reaches another steep pitch of rapids, littered with boulders and downed trees. With each boat facing a long portage through the forest, the group’s stronger members helped shuttle the fleet downstream. The boaters finally found runable water, below a pool where a fisherman was working a trout.
“You can see why this hasn’t been done for a long time,” said Henry Nichols, executive director of the conservation trust.
Nichols had organized the trip to learn more about the upper river and explore its recreational opportunities. Like most trust members, he had limited firsthand knowledge of the landscape here.
Nichols also wanted to highlight sections of the watershed being preserved by the trust. He found a novel way to do this for the exhausted paddlers, setting a cooler of fruit and snacks on the bank of a 23-acre parcel that’s reachable by road.
Other treats, provided by nature, appeared along the way: Riverbanks carpeted with red trillium and ostrich fern fiddleheads; painted turtles leaping from logs; an osprey plucking a fish from the stream; an otter swimming by.
midafternoon, many of the boats were just crossing under Route 100 at the Auburn line. The current wasn’t fast, but an unexpected drop under the Peacock Hill Road bridge caught Nichols and his paddling partner, Ed Gervais, off guard. Over they went, into a deep, cold pool below the rapid. Fortunately, other boats were around to help pull them out.
That was the signal to call it a day. After eight hours of paddling and dragging, most of the group had gone only 10 miles or so.
Sabbathday to Auburn just didn’t have the same ring to it.
But a few canoes had covered more distance. Farther downstream, where Route 231 crosses at Intervale, Brian Whitney and his nephew, Andrew Simpson, were planning for an early start in the morning. They were determined to dip their paddles in Casco Bay.
Only five canoes resumed the trip on Sunday. Four traveled together, turning south below the railroad tracks near Danville Junction and through the longest stretch of whitewater on the trip. This is an invigorating run that included a frothy ledge drop, where the group chose to get out and line the boats from shore.
Another foot of water in the river would have been appreciated. After a week of dry weather, parts of the rapids were too shallow to float a canoe.
Below the rips, the river slows and slices deeply into clay banks, carving twisty oxbows across grassy meadows. Fewer trees meant fewer strainers, but when downed trees did block the way, hauling boats up muddy, steep banks was hard work.
It was early afternoon as the group reached Route 231 at Intervale. This was where three boats ended the trip; a fourth continued another two hours to Penny Road. Not Sabbathday to the Sea, not this time. Call it, perhaps, halfway to the bay.
Farther downstream, Whitney and Simpson were passing through Westcustago Park in North Yarmouth. The river there is flat with few obstructions. It was a bit boring, Whitney said later, compared to the headwaters.
A stiff wind was blowing in their faces as the two men reached the waterworks and first dam in Yarmouth. They were two miles from Casco Bay. Nearly exhausted and facing four portages, they reluctantly ended their journey.
Whitney lives in New Gloucester and has fished and canoed the river for 40 years. He had this parting thought about Sabbathday to the Sea: “It has been a lifelong dream of mine, but I will probably never do it again.”
Simpson was more blunt: “I saw parts of the river that I never want to see again.”
Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or [email protected]