It’s April, and time to get the canoe out and go exploring near the coast while we wait for inland lakes and rivers to shed winter ice.
Like Opening Day for the Red Sox, the first time we step into the canoe we are excited to turn the page on the seasons. Fenway Park has the Opening Day fighter jet flyover; we have the osprey and bald eagle flyover.
The Sheepscot River in Alna provides many fine spring paddling options. Park adjacent to the Garrison Hill Grange on the east side of the Cross Road Bridge, four miles north of downtown Wiscasset. Depending on the tide, wind direction and how much time you have available, you can explore for a few miles up the cozy Dyer River to the east. Or you can follow the Sheepscot along the shoreline to the ledges at the Sheepscot Reversing Falls to watch whitewater enthusiasts.
We chose a third option, heading north upriver to the village of Alna. We paddled for an hour before high tide, four miles upriver to the Newcastle-Alna Baptist Church rising above the river on Route 194. The river current strengthens considerably from this point up to the historic village of Head Tide, so we turned around here and headed back. It had taken two hours to reach the church, but it only took a leisurely hour to paddle with the current back to our vehicle.
The river is wide at the Cross Road Bridge, bordered by brown grassy mats of flattened marsh grass. As we started out from the grange, 10 Canada geese feeding on a grassy islet ahead of us lifted off in a crescendo.
There are no homes along the river until you reach the Dock Road bridge a few hundred yards before the Baptist Church. For the first mile, old apple trees dot the waterside margins of the hillside pastures sloping down to the river. One of Alna’s most famous residents was Fred Albee. As a young man he learned the art of apple tree grafting from his uncle. He became a pioneer in bone grafting surgery in the early 1900s.
Gradually the river narrows to a protected ribbon of water cutting through dense stands of hemlock and pine. Persistent shelf ice clung to the shaded banking at water’s edge.
A large hawk flew out of a tree on our left, followed by two aggressive crows nipping at its tail feathers. Crows will take on any perceived threat. No creature is too big when they get annoyed. For the next 15 minutes the hawk flew ahead of us settling into tree after tree as we paddled into its comfort zone.
Later on our return, we spied two large hawks in about the same area circling in the wind above the river. We were delighted to come across wood ducks, identifiable by their telltale squeals as they arced around the next bend in the river.
Before heading home we drove up to Head Tide to check out the whitewater action. It’s not easy carrying a canoe through trees and boulders to get into the river below the concrete Head Tide dam, but one family managed just fine. The husband and a friend carried a canoe down to the river. A woman got in the stern with her two girls in the front and they masterfully glided down through the turbulent Class I-II water. They gave us a cheery wave as they hurtled under the village bridge and down toward calmer water.
Head Tide village has many historic old homes. Crocus beds were in full bloom with daffodils soon to erupt. A closed antique shop had a clever name: Wizard of Odds and Ends. The gleaming white Head Tide Church up on the hill above the river might be one of the prettiest church locales in Maine.
Consult the Delorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (maps No. 7 and No. 13) for help in getting to the put-in spot at the Garrison Hill Grange. Be careful getting your canoe down over the banking; footing can be awkward.
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.
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