A kayaker begins a circumnavigation of Swan Island in October 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

 Swan Island on the Kennebec River near Richmond has always intrigued me. I grew up a few miles north in Gardiner and Randolph. Since my ancestors included Native Americans who lived along the Kennebec River, there is a good chance some of them inhabited the Abenaki villages that were once located on the island.

The history of Swan Island is a colorful one. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, members of the Abenaki Nation known as the Kennebec tribe occupied villages on Swan Island and nearby Little Swan Island during prehistoric times. The influx of Europeans in the 17th century brought decades of conflict. As the numbers of settlers increased, the Native Americans were gradually forced from the islands. In the 19th century, Swan Island became a thriving community where farming, fishing, lumbering, shipbuilding and ice cutting flourished. These industries declined in the early 1900s and the population moved away.

 The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife began buying land on the island in the 1940s. In 1971, Swan Island became a state Wildlife Management Area and with the purchase of a cemetery in 1988, the entire island is now owned by the state. While providing a sanctuary for wildlife is the primary mission, it also permits camping, hiking, paddling, biking and other outdoor activities.

A kayaker speculates navigating through grassy tidal flats on southern Swan Island. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

Recently, my son Adam and I decided to circumnavigate Swan Island. Two friends, John Brower and Cath Kimball, agreed to join us. John is one of a handful of outdoor friends who is actually older than I am, so seniors were well represented on the trip.

Tides are a factor to be considered when paddling around Swan Island. Tidal ranges as high as 7 feet can result in powerful currents when coupled with river flow. The Kennebec River is unique because above Merrymeeting Bay it is a freshwater tidal zone. Six rivers converge on the bay creating an outflow that exceeds the volume of the incoming tide and prevents most of the salt from entering.

It was low tide when the four of us met midday at the Swan Island Ferry Landing in Richmond. Our original plan was to depart two hours earlier to take advantage of an outgoing tide but heavy morning rains resulted in a change of plan. By the time we arrived, the rain had subsided and the skies were clear. Three of us were in sea kayaks while John, who is an avid canoeist, paddled a solo canoe.

The island, including consequential tidal flats on the south end, is about 4.5 miles long. Moderately strong northwest headwinds were anticipated during the trip back. We decided to begin by navigating south on the east side of the island and returning on the narrow western passageway, which would provide more protection from the wind.

After rounding the northern end of the island, we began our journey south. A tailwind helped propel us through Lovejoy Narrows with the forested shore of the town of Dresden on our left. Two large eagles were observed in a tree overhanging the Swan Island riverbank. They were the first of several eagles sighted during our voyage. This seemed appropriate as some believe the name Swan originated from the Abenaki word Swango which meant “island of eagles.”

Three paddlers enter Merrymeeting Bay on the east side of Swan Island. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

We soon approached Little Swan Island. While the others continued on the east side, I chose to paddle the inside channel called Little River past the campground on Swan. Kayaking close to shore, I noticed several sturdy lean-tos at the site. All appeared to be empty. I resolved to return for a camping and biking endeavor at a later date 

The river widened as we continued along the bucolic shoreline approaching northern Merrymeeting Bay. Shortly after passing Shipyard Point, we entered the grassy tidal flats where hundreds of ducks immediately took flight. A maze of passages left us perplexed. Should we attempt to locate a route through the labyrinth or take the long way around? After some investigation, two of us decided on the protracted option. Undaunted, the others persevered ahead. We all met near Theobald Point on the southwest end of the island.

Initially, we encountered a strong headwind paddling north. However, crossing to the Bowdoinham shore provided partial shelter and facilitated an easy return to the landing in Richmond.

Our excursion stimulated my imagination. Further Swan Island explorations are in my future.

Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is now available at northcountrypress.com/maine-al-fresco.html. His previous books are...