A father and daughter enjoy a quiet morning on the Saco River. Christine Wolfe photo

Emerging from the morning shadows of the massive brick mill buildings of Biddeford and Saco, we are paddling with a swift current 4 miles down to the sparkling expanse of Saco Bay at Camp Ellis for our June getaway.

A variety of spring greens are growing along the river bank. Christine Wolfe photo

Before we headed downriver, we practiced a few turns and braces along the shore to reassure ourselves that we were ready for the vagaries of shifting currents and eddies.

Under a clear blue sky, and bordered by an undulating shoreline decorated with a ribbon of every shade of glossy green possible, we hurtled seaward. Only an hour later we were surprised to find ourselves rounding one last point and seeing the brick buildings of the University of New England a half-mile ahead of us. The time had flown by. We had hardly taken the time to absorb the riverine beauty, captured instead by the motion magic of easy miles. That would change on the way back.

An array of anglers worked the eddies in search of fish. One fellow brought up four wiggling alewives over the side of his boat. He told us he would use them later as bait for striped bass. A husband and wife team expertly casted fly lines  from opposite sides of their boat. A father and daughter paddled their kayaks toward us from the south and passed by. A paddleboarder skimmed across a cove to the west. It was a delight sharing a beautiful day with so many other social distancing outdoor enthusiasts.

We got out at the tiny sandy pocket beach adjacent to the impressive 6,600-foot long granite jetty stretching from shore far out into the bay from the Camp Ellis Pier. We wandered down Bay Avenue to check out the infamous cottages we see on the local news whenever a severe Nor’easter barrels up the coast into Maine. A solitary brown weathered apartment building surrounded by Jersey barriers gave begrudging testimony that Mother Nature always prevails.

Spring colors of King Crimson maple trees mix with the new light greens of oaks and other maples. Christine Wolfe photo

The speedometer was stuck squarely on zero as we headed back out into the river against the strong outflow. Quickly adjusting, we hugged the shoreline as close as possible to best mitigate the tide. One hour down became two very doable hours back. It gave us the time to take in the scenery and appreciate what we had missed on the way down. Sandpipers flitted along the shoreline. Canada geese watched us pass from the green carpet of emerging marsh grass. Egrets touched down in small stream beds. Cormorants zoomed up and down the river in search for fish. Tranquil verdant marshes transitioned suddenly into shadowy 20-foot high jagged cliffs and back again.


Suddenly the skyline of mills, church steeples, and chimneys of Biddeford-Saco came into view once again. It was eerily similar to the view one gets from the I-495 bridge over the Merrimack River peering westward into Lawrence. The sobering image of thousands of mill workers toiling behind those brick walls over the decades came to mind.

A granite jetty on our right down below Laurel Hill Cemetery provided a relaxing half-hour stop. We found flat slabs to sprawl out on and soak in the midday sun. Up on the hillside the deep purple brilliance of Crimson King Maples was further accentuated by the backdrop of spring green leaves of oak and beech. The impressive 30-foot high milky white falls of the power generating station in town boldly stood out just upriver from the boat launch.  A few low cumulus clouds began to appear to the west of the twin cities.

Consult the Delorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (map No. 2) for help in getting to the boat launch on Front Street next to the Saco River Yacht Club. Be sure to save time to explore the tree-shaded grounds of Laurel Hill Cemetery up on Route 9 after your outing. This beloved garden cemetery offers a dazzling array of flowers and ornamental trees to enjoy, plus exceptional bird watching opportunities.

One last note: the lower Saco has strong currents. Paddlers will need to be confident and proficient in all moving water situations.

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. Contact: [email protected]

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