Written by Zack Anchors
TRIP LENGTH: 8.5 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Paddling through three distinct environments (Casco Bay, a salt marsh and a river gorge), Presumpscot Falls, swimming in the river, bird watching in the estuary, riding the tides in and out of the river.
DEPART FROM: East End Beach
WATCH OUT FOR: Mud flats at low tide; strong currents passing under the bridge and elsewhere; lots of exposure to strong winds from the southwest.
Riding up a river with a flood tide and riding back out with an ebb tide is one of the unique joys of paddling on a coast with strong tides. If you time your trip just right, you can get a nice push from the tides both ways. If your timing is out of synch with the tides, you'll probably still have a good paddle – you just might need to use more muscle.
The Presumpscot River, which empties into Casco Bay about one mile from the East End Beach, offers a great opportunity for paddlers to use the tides to their advantage. A paddle up the Presumpscot is also a fun trip because it allows you to experience three very different environments: The open waters of Casco Bay, the wildlife-rich salt marsh of the Presumpscot River Estuary, and the narrow, densely-wooded river gorge where you'll find roaring Presumpscot Falls.
Coordinating with the tides isn't necessary for this trip, but it will make for an easier paddle and it's a good way to get some practice at reading the currents of the Maine coast. Knowing how to use the tides to your advantage is a valuable skill in sea kayaking -- especially when paddling in areas where the tides really rip.
To get the timing just right for this trip, you'll probably want to leave a couple hours before high tide so you get a boost from the incoming tide. Then you can hang out at Presumpscot Falls, and maybe take a swim or have a picnic, before beginning the paddle back. If you leave at least an hour after high tide you'll get a boost from the outgoing tide. Keep in mind, though, that strong winds could easily counteract any boost you get from the tidal currents. So watch the weather, as always.
To begin the trip, launch your boat at the East End Beach and then gaze north to Mackworth Island. To the left of the island you'll see the brand new bridge that crosses the mouth of the Presumpscot River. Head to the left of the bridge past Martin's Point. There's a beach at Martin's Point that's a nice place to stop if you need an early break. Mackworth Island itself is also a nice detour.
Look out for swift currents as you pass under the bridge into the Presumpscot River estuary. On many days you'll see fishing rods extending over the railing above, so wave to the fishermen and steer clear of any lines and hooks dangling down. They're for striped bass -- not kayakers!
Crossing the Presumpscot River Estuary
Now you've entered the estuary environment that separates the freshwater of the Presumpscot River from the saltwater of Casco Bay. This salt marsh is a rich habitat for many species besides fish. Off to the right you'll see Gilsland Farm, an Audubon sanctuary that has several miles of trails alongside the water. The meadows alongside the estuary provide nesting habitat for bobolinks and meadowlarks and hunting grounds for red-tailed hawks and other birds of prey. You're likely to see large flocks of shorebirds near the water, and it's also common to see migrating warblers, thrushes and finches. At high tide there's a small beach on the Audubon sanctuary that's suitable for landing.
On the opposite side of the estuary from Glisland Farm is Interstate 295. You'll hear the hum of traffic, but it shouldn't keep you from enjoying the wildlife and the beauty of the landscape. To continue on the route, paddle across the open water diagonally towards the I-295 bridge. Just before you get to the bridge you'll pass Brickyard Point, a nature preserve with a few miles of trails that are only accessible by boat.
Now head under the bridge (watch the currents!) and into the much narrower waterway ahead.
Entering the Gorge
Now you're getting to the part of the route that feels like river. As you paddle ahead, the banks will get increasingly closer until you reach the Allen Avenue bridge that's about two thirds of a mile from I-295. Just before the bridge on the right is a dock that's for public use. This is Walton Park, and it's a good place to take a break. You can also launch from here if you'd like to do this trip in reverse, or if you'd rather run it as a one-way route and have someone pick you up at one end.
You've probably noticed at this point that the current is moving downstream, and that's true regardless of the tides, which aren't able to push any higher than the falls that are about one mile upstream.
It's fun to paddle against the current up into the narrowing gorge to Presumpscot Falls, but be careful. There are usually some big waves as you get closer. Use the eddies along the sides of the river to avoid the currents. Just below the falls on the south side of the river you'll find a rocky spot where you can land. From there you'll have access to the trails of the Presumpscot River Preserve, which runs West along the river for a couple miles. This is a great place to swim, picnic, explore trails and lounge on a rock.
Enjoy riding the waves below the falls as you begin the paddle back to the East End Beach. You'll take the same general route, but you can mix it up slightly by starting your crossings at different points and paddling along different sides of the river. You could also consider stopping by Mackworth Island on your way back if you'd like to extend the route.
When you paddle under I-295 and back into the estuary, you may start to feel to pull of the outgoing tide if you've timed it right. However, winds around here often come from the southwest, and that's right where you're headed. So if it's breezy, you might have a rigorous paddle ahead of you.
Once you've crossed the estuary and pass under the bridge back into Casco Bay, look far out onto the horizon and you'll see Portland Head Light, the iconic Cape Elizabeth lighthouse. To the left is the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, which on a clear day you'll just barely be able to see.
A NOTE ABOUT SAFETY: Sea kayaking responsibly on Maine's coastal waters requires preparation, skill and knowledge. Casco Bay is a potentially dangerous environment due to its very cold waters, busy boat traffic and exposure to the conditions of the Atlantic Ocean (including sudden fog and strong winds). This is why we encourage people to take our lessons or join our guided trips before venturing out on their own. One fundamental skill that is essential for sea kayaking is the ability to rescue someone from a capsize. It can be extremely difficult to re-enter a kayak in cold and turbulent water. Anyone who paddles in the exposed waters of Casco Bay without this knowledge (or someone else who has that knowledge) is taking an extremely high risk. Sign up for our "Rescue Clinic" to learn these rescue skills.