The last canoe outing of the season has to be something special, to give us much to happily reflect on during the winter months.
And on the subject of reflections — one of the best spots to enjoy the last of the fall foliage brilliantly duplicated in glass-smooth waters is the lower portion of the Cathance River — a 5-mile stretch of tidal water leading from the Bowdoinham public boat launch upstream to a 12-foot-high waterfall on the north side of Cathance Road in Topsham.
The Cathance River originates in Bowdoin and winds south, then north, and then southeast 20 miles to its meeting with Merrymeeting Bay, near downtown Bowdoinham. A Native American translation of Cathance is “crooked” — an apt description.
We enjoyed a recent Saturday morning paddle, encountering during our four hours on the river only one other paddler to share the wilderness solitude with. A variety of ducks either splashed just ahead of us, or swung low in the sky behind us; mallards, black ducks and even a pair of wood ducks.
Chickadee, nuthatch and song sparrow calls drifted out of the woods, mixing with the constant banter of blue jays and crows. We heard a number of Canada geese in the marsh grasses but never saw them.
For the first two miles the river is wide, bordered by extensive marshes. Pockets of gnarled black willow trees along the river, accentuated by a brilliant sunrise light, appeared as grotesque fingers reaching to the heavens ready to snatch down the first few snowflakes of the season.
The rich undercast light coaxed out every possible hue of brown and yellow from the leaves of oaks, beech, poplar and birch in the upland forests bordering the marsh grasses.
We soon came to a broad power line swath crossing the river. Here the river narrows, and you will start to encounter more evergreens, especially on the eastern side of the river. Hemlocks and cedars predominate, with a few tall white pines added to the mix.
The shoreline is made up of low ledges much of the way above the power line. We noted the widening wet black line on the ledges, telling us what we had already figured out, that the tide was going out. Even with a light downstream breeze, we still made steady progress.
Many twists and turns ensued, with accompanying acres of flattened brown marsh grasses and reeds. We came around a corner and were met with a hillside of chestnut brown enveloping a large patch of brilliant yellow, all reflected in the water at our bow. The sun suddenly re-emerged and ramped up the radiant brilliance meter another notch.
Eventually you will paddle under a high railroad trestle at the narrowest part of the river. From here it is one mile to Cathance Road and your turn-around point.
You will hear the waterfall before you see it. It is thunderous, and very impressive. The waters downstream of it were like a whirlpool, so we paddled around to the far side of the cove to watch and listen. Pillows of cool spray were borne by the breeze out over the cove. Lens caps were quickly placed back on camera and binoculars.
The braids of root beer-colored waters in the waterfall reminded us a bit of the beautiful Tahquamenon Falls in the wilds of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, made famous by Longfellow in “The Song of Hiawatha.”
The paddle back to Bowdoin-ham seemed to take only minutes. With a stiffening breeze behind us and the help of the outgoing tide, we flew back to the launch site.
With our new downstream perspective, it was as if we were on a different river.
As we paddled back under the power line, we saw a distant white steeple on the hill above the river in Bowdoinham. Brilliantly lit by the sun it looked like Portland Head Light, a historic beacon guiding us back to town. We later walked up School Street to visit it. The Union Church from 1823 to 1883, it serves today as the Town Hall.
After your canoe exploration, take some time to walk around downtown Bowdoinham. There are a number of historic homes, churches and Grange halls.
The Town Landing Restaurant is a great spot to start and end your outing. It’s famous for its corned beef hash breakfasts, and on Fridays offers homemade doughnuts. A display of adjoining topographic maps reaches from floor to ceiling, with your route up the river at eye level. The warmth of hearth and the friendly owner and patrons make this place hard to leave.
Small Maine towns have a sense of timelessness and peace. The message board at the entrance to the Bowdoinham Grocery Store was a case in point. Posted signs advertised just what you would expect: lost cats and dogs, firewood, snowplowing, and Butcher Boys Deer Cutting and Billy’s Bottle Barn.
On the drive home we were already talking about where to go for our first outing next April.
Why not the Cathance, to see it awakening in its green spring colors, and to greet arriving birds we might have seen today?
Michael Perry is the former director of the L.L.Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools and founder of Dreams Unlimited, specializing in inspiring outdoor slide programs. He may be contacted at: