Dusk descends on Gooch's Beach as Mark Spaulding carries his paddleboard back to his truck after an afternoon riding the waves in Kennebunk. In York, locals are finding that use of kayaks and paddleboards on the York River has more than doubled from 2017 to 2018. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty

YORK, Maine — A Harbor Board paddlecraft survey was brought up by proponents and opponents during the recent debate over whether to give the York River a special Wild and Scenic River designation, and for understandable reasons. The survey shows a near doubling in the use of kayaks and paddleboards on the York River from the summer of 2017 to 2018.

Both summers, the survey was conducted one weekend day from late July through the first weekend of September, on the better weather day of the two days. Spotters on Strawberry Island counted every kayak, paddleboard and canoe that traveled past that location.

In 2017, 182 paddlecraft were counted; in 2018, that number jumped to 384. At least half to three-quarters of those were kayaks, according to the survey.

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“This is my fifth year down here, and I’ve seen a huge increase in that time,” said Harbormaster Drew Donovan. “You used to see a couple of kayaks here and there. Now they’re everywhere.”

It’s unclear whether the paddler numbers swayed the town’s Wild and Scenic River designation — on Election Day voters convincingly supported the measure, which could open the door to new federal help on a preservation strategy for the river.

Donovan said a number of reasons likely contribute to the increase in paddlers. For one, kayaks are becoming less expensive and more accessible to more people. “They’re so cheap now,” he said. “And you can get them everywhere. Even someplace like Ocean State Job Lot is selling them.”

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In addition to counting the paddlecraft, the workers hired each summer also surveyed kayakers who got out on Strawberry Island. Statistics from the 2017 and 2018 surveys indicate more than 90 percent of those who answered said they owned their craft.

Donovan also said paddleboard sales are skyrocketing. According to marketing forecaster Fact.MR, paddleboard sales are expected to increase 11.9 percent a year through 2028. That jives with what a friend of his in the recreational sports industry told him. “He said paddleboard sales were higher than any other recreational sales,” said Donovan.

And there is no charge to use the river. Most local towns including Kittery, Wells and Kennebunk charge $5 to $10 to launch a kayak. He said when the Harbor Board made an unsuccessful attempt to implement a permit fee two years ago, “it was not so much for us the money, but we were thinking if we charged people, could we reduce the numbers?”

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Another reason might simply be the weather. Summer was better this year than in 2018, which drives numbers, he said. That is why he would like to see the counts continue for another couple of summers. “That way we can average out the years and come up with some pretty solid numbers,” he said.

If the Wild and Scenic River designation goes through to enactment by Congress, he said one recommendation in the stewardship plan is for a river ranger — similar to the person now in place on the Cliff Walk. “The biggest thing we see with paddlecraft is general lack of experience and lack of knowledge,” he said. “This person could educate people, and could be the bridge between us and them.”

He said the Harbor Board is also looking to hire someone who could give members an idea of whether the river is being overused, underused or is at capacity. Wild and Scenic grant funds might be used for that work as well, he said.

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