Three kayakers pass under a tall trestle on the Cathance River. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

The Cathance River in my hometown of Topsham provides a host of recreational opportunities.

The upper sector offers easy flatwater paddling. In the middle is one of the finest coastal whitewater creek runs in Maine, rated Class III/IV in difficulty by the American Whitewater Association. Below a waterfall at head of tide, several miles of forested wetlands follow to Merrymeeting Bay. There are hiking trails along its banks and fishing and bird watching are popular activities.

The Cathance has a rich history. Early Native Americans lived in settlements along the river and used it for transportation. Cathance or “Kathanis” probably meant “crooked” in the Abenaki language. As anyone who has paddled the river can attest, the name is appropriate as it roams circuitously throughout its 16.4-mile course. In 1715, European settlers built the first sawmill in Maine at the waterfall at head of tide, and it continued to operate well into the 20th century. In recent years, the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust partnered with the Town of Topsham to purchase and create Head of Tide Park next to the waterfall.

A kayaker begins a paddle on the Cathance River in Bowdoinham. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

In the almost 30 years that my wife, Nancy, and I have lived in Topsham, we had never paddled the lower tidal sector of the Cathance. Both senior citizens, rectifying that omission was overdue. Only a Facebook message was required to convince our retired friends, Diane and John Stokinger, to join us. Since there are boat launch facilities at Head of Tide Park and Mailly Waterfront Park downriver in Bowdoinham, they were the obvious locations to begin and end our voyage.

Strong tidal currents are a factor when planning a paddle on lower Cathance. The tide was scheduled to rise for most of the day we chose for our excursion. Unlike prehistoric Native Americans, we had the option of selecting our direction of travel. Riding the tide upriver from Bowdoinham and finishing at Head of Tide Park was preferable. Ending at Head of Tide Park did have a disadvantage; a steep carry was required next to the waterfall.

Head of Tide Park is an outstanding facility. There is adequate parking, covered picnic tables and a public toilet. Our inspection of the hand-carry boat launch was encouraging; convenient metal stairs led up from the water.

We left a vehicle at the park and drove to Bowdoinham to launch. Flat water kayaks were our boats of choice; however, canoes or sea kayaks would also be suitable.

Very little water passes over the falls at Head of Tide Park due to the drought. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

Mailly Waterfront Park is a substantial boat landing with spacious parking and a quality boat ramp. Unlike the narrow forested river we left in Topsham, the river in Bowdoinham is wide and the shore grassy. The Cathance is one of six rivers that merge to form Merrymeeting Bay, which is a short distance downriver from Mailly Waterfront Park.

The weather was hot and sunny when we embarked traveling southwesterly with a gentle headwind. From the outset, it was apparent the tide was giving us a strong push. After passing under the Route 24 Bridge, signs of civilization quickly diminished. The shoreline was largely undeveloped for the remainder of the trip.

Signs of wildlife were sighted throughout our tour. We saw many species of birds but ospreys were most plentiful. Multitudes of these colorful fish hawks live along the river where their sturdy nests are built high above the water. Their high-pitched screams warned us we were unwelcome intruders in their domain.

As we progressed, the character of the river changed. It narrowed and the wide grassy areas were gradually replaced by steep forested banks.

After a few miles of easy paddling, we came upon some exposed ledges protruding out into the water that provided the perfect location to stop for lunch. While studying my map, I realized we had completed most of the journey. The tide had propelled us along at a much faster pace than we realized.

Paddlers carry a kayak from the river at Head of Tide Park. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

Around the bend, we passed under a towering train trestle and soon arrived at the foot of the scenic waterfall at Head of Tide Park. John measured the distance of our excursion to be 4.85 miles on his GPS. The carry up the stairs was easier than anticipated. Our day on the river was a delight we’ll repeat.

Read about exciting whitewater exploits on the middle sector of the Cathance in my book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine.”

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Ron Chase, Outdoors Contributor

Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is now available at His previous books are...