November 7, 2010

Canoeing: Cathance leads to fall's beauty

By MICHAEL PERRY

The last canoe outing of the season has to be something special, to give us much to happily reflect on during the winter months.

click image to enlarge

The waterfall at Cathance Road in Topsham is an impressive turn-around point for paddlers exploring the Cathance River.

Michael Perry photo

click image to enlarge

An autumn paddle along a 5-mile stretch of the Cathance River, starting in Bowdoinham, provides smooth water for foliage reflections, along with plenty of birds.

Michael Perry photo

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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