Paddle in the wake of history and discover some surprising summer solitude in the midst of a popular tourist destination: York Harbor. We recently spent six hours paddling up the York River from the town boat launch on Route 103 to within a half-mile of Birch Hill Road and then back. You will want to explore within three hours either side of high tide. If you plan perfectly you can paddle with the tide going up, and then flow with the ebb back to York Harbor.

The birding is superb. Many kingfishers flitted from tree to tree and constantly dove into the water for fish. Spotted sandpipers scoured the shoreline for food. Families of geese dabbled in the mud. A mother and eight ducklings scurried into reeds ahead of us. Osprey calls echoed from shore to shore. An immature eagle watched us pass from an oak branch leaning out over the river.

Up in the solitude of the vast upriver marshes red-winged blackbirds were everywhere. Sometimes we would see 10 within a 20-yard stretch emerging from the emerald wall of grass along the channel. This area is a great spot to get fully absorbed in a perfect summer day. We saw no other paddlers up here on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Above us barn swallows joined with tree swallows in a frantic aerial search for insects. Wispy cirrus clouds mixed with jet contrails. Distant, puffy cumulus formations worked their way coastward from the southwestern hill country, all against a backdrop of summer blue framed by fragrant marsh grasses. Linear distance is hard to come by up here as the ever-narrowing channel winds crazily back and forth, but progress was made!

If you paddle the 6-mile length of the river you’ll go under five bridges, including Route 1 and Interstate 95. For a shorter outing you can put in at the boat ramp at the Scotland Road bridge. This option puts you on the doorstep of the wilderness portion of the river to the northwest.

As you leave the boat launch in York Harbor and glide under the Route 103 bridge you will pass many lobster boats at their piers, yellow traps piled high. On river right you will pass by the historic Hancock Wharf building, owned briefly by Declaration of Independence signer, John Hancock. Two miles up the river on the right just before the Route 1 bridge you will see a white stucco building with a pipe running up to it from the river. This was the pool/exercise facility for River House, a grand 23-room mansion built for Mary Goodrich, widow of tire tycoon B.F. Goodrich.

As you head upriver, mud flat and seaweed-lined shorelines give way to ever-tightening channels of grasses and root beer-colored water. On the return it is opposite; from warm, muddy water you suddenly cross into the incoming rush of cold, aquamarine Atlantic water and start to see strands of seaweed again. Near high tide you can land anywhere on the soft, matted marsh grasses and dive in for an invigorating swim. High tide also provides many more side channels and hidden estuaries to explore.

Passing by a 20-foot high bluff on the right as you head upriver you’ll see the York Golf and Tennis Club coming into sight along the river. We critiqued all the swings along the way, and pretty much agreed they all were better than ours.

Hundreds of times we have driven over the York River on I-95 and wistfully looked out over the water with a vow to someday check it out, and here we finally were. It was a treat sitting in our canoe in a narrow beam of sunlight hidden down between the north and southbound lanes as vehicles rumbled by overhead. This is one of the few spots where you can safely be in the median strip of I-95 and no one can see you.

It was nearly high tide by the time we neared York Harbor and the boat launch. We paddled over to the Wiggly Bridge at the entrance to Barrell Mill Pond and watched swimmers jumping off the bridge into the water pouring into the millpond. Built in 1940, this mini Golden Gate bridge is often called “the world’s smallest suspension bridge.”

Consult the DeLorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (map No. 1) for help in getting to the town boat launch in York Harbor. This is a busy spot on weekends. After unloading your canoe and gear at the boat launch, park on the side of the road on Route 103. Get here before 9 a.m. or parking will be difficult.

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 for civic groups, businesses, and schools. He can be contacted at:

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