The Saco River is a small river compared to most, its runs 130 miles from Crawford Notch in the White Mountains through New Hampshire into Maine and out into the Gulf of Maine at a small beach town called Camp Ellis. Most people experience the river in bits and pieces, some float with a beer and an inner tube for a few miles, others spend a few hours enjoying rope swings or fishing. After living by the river for decades, driving over it countless times Mike Morin and I decided it was high time we do something we’ve talked about casually for a long while. Take a paddleboard on the Saco to the Ocean.
Being on the river for 5 or six days seemed really appealing to both of us, seeing stretches of water we had never seen, finding out what the whole river was like not just the few miles in our backyard. It was surprising how few people we saw on the first 50 miles, the river flows through foothills, forests, farmlands and flood plains in those first miles a remarkably diverse shoreline. Thanks to the nature of the flooding along the Saco River few houses or urban sprawl have been able to develop along the water.
With any multi-day trip camping is a challenge especially in a developed area with a patchwork of conservation land, private land and public land. Due to overuse, irresponsible users and lack of landowner respect many beaches and shorelines along our journey were posted with no trespassing signs. Of our four nights camping we spent two nights in private riverside campgrounds one night on an un-posted private beach and one night on state land. At every spot we stayed at we took care to leave the place as we found it. The huge increase in first-time campers and paddlers makes it all the more important for all of us to clean-up after ourselves and leave no trace and carry out everything we carry in.
Mike and I both agree inflatable paddleboards are one of the best ways to explore a river like the Saco. They re rugged, maneuverable, versatile and can carry a surprising amount of gear. Each of us carried around 50 pounds of gear in dry bags set up for easy carrying for our many portages. They also have a very shallow draft so during our miles high in the watershed we were able to pass through 3 or 4 inches of water without getting off our boards. SUPs are also pretty fun in the varies quick water, class I and II rapids we encountered along the way to the ocean.
Before dams and before Europeans arrived at the mouth of the Saco River indigenous people, the Abanaki, Pequawket and other people, used the river to move from the mountains to the ocean as the seasons changed, and for trade, water and food. The first dam was built in 1653 to operate a sawmill, since then larger and more complex structures have been built on the river. Since that first dam in 1653 dams have negatively impacted the river ecosystem in many ways, starting with cutting off migratory fish as a food supply to indigenous people, changing water flows, reducing dissolved oxygen in the water making the water less healthy for any fish population, increasing flood hazards, and changing the where and when sediment goes. On our trip from Bartlett, New Hampshire to the Atlantic we portaged around 10 dams including the final portage at the Cataract dam complex (4 dams) which required a 1.1 mile portage through Saco/Biddeford. There were only two portages that were due to natural falls or rapids, all the other falls have been harnessed and industrialized.
The Saco is one of the cleanest rivers in New England thanks in part to the Saco River Corridor commission, the national Forest and a multitude of non-profit organizations that help regulate, preserve and protect this waterway. Almost the entire trip we were treated to wild shorelines, birds, animals and lots of solitude. The river system as a whole is remarkable and well worth exploring on your own. There are stretches that are more interesting than others, there is lots of fascinating pre-colonial history that is worth diving into to better understand the value and importance of our waterways. On our second to last evening on the river we slept in hammocks below Limington Rips, a long broken section of rapids we portaged around. The rapids and shoreline were much like they were 8,000 years ago when Abanaki people were fishing, resting and enjoying the waters of the Saco River.