Scarborough Marsh is the largest saltwater marsh in Maine. The 3,100-acre exceptionally scenic estuary is home to numerous species of birds, fish, mammals and shellfish.
When Shweta Galway announced a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society paddling trip on the marsh, my wife, Nancy, and I enthusiastically signed on. Six of us met at the Audubon Center on Pine Point Road in Scarborough on a partly cloudy morning. Two couples were paddling tandem canoes while Nancy and I were in solo kayaks.
Tides and the resulting currents are an important factor to be considered when planning an excursion on the marsh. The tide was scheduled to be flowing in for the entire middle of the day. Shweta’s plan was to paddle out against the flood tide, stop for a break and ride the incoming tide back.
Since it was shortly after low tide, we encountered a relatively steep carry down to the Dunstan River when launching. Dunstan is one of several tributaries that feed the marsh.
A snowy egret was warily watching us from the left bank when we entered the pushy current. We enjoyed an exceptional day of birdwatching. In addition to the snowy egret, sightings included four species of sandpipers, great blue herons, great egrets, double crested cormorants, belted kingfishers, tree swallows, northern harriers, red-tailed hawks and herring gulls. From the viewpoint of a fledgling birder, this was an impressive list for a few hours on the water.
Steady, aggressive paddling was required to overcome the strong tidal currents as we navigated through a serpentine route in the grassy marsh. High banks and a muddy shoreline resulting from the relatively low tide left the impression of paddling in an enclosed corridor with grasslands high above. The Dunstan River joined the Nonesuch River from the left as we passed near Pine Point Road.
Soon after, we arrived at the Eastern Trail Bridge. Bicycle riders, walkers and runners were seen passing above. The channelized currents were particularly powerful under the bridge. Turning left, we paralleled the trail for a short distance before rounding a bend and heading downstream toward Scarborough River and the sea.
The northern trailhead for the Scarborough to Saco sector of the popular Eastern Trail is located a couple of miles north of the bridge near Black Point Road. The segment of trail that travels through the marsh is probably the most picturesque area in the entire network. Another trailhead is situated close by on Pine Point Road.
The river widened and the character of the shoreline changed as we progressed. Tall swamp grass replaced the muddy precipitous banks and the undeveloped marsh was supplanted with housing on the right shore. Larger birds seemed more prevalent in this area.
After passing a boat landing on the right and another tributary, Mill Brook, on the left, the Amtrak Downeaster railroad bridge was spotted ahead. The low profile trestle was supported by wooden pilings with narrow passages between.
As we approached, strong currents pushed toward us under the trestle. Proceeding with some trepidation, the robust flow forced our boats against the pilings, despite our best efforts. Everyone managed to get through without additional problems.
Beyond the railroad bridge, Scarborough River entered from the left creating a wider body of water that seemed more like a bay than the mouth of a river. The marsh behind us, we decided to return.
Having the tide at our back provided an immediate benefit. Navigating between the trestle pilings was far easier paddling with the current. We stopped at a nearby landing for a snack and break. A small picnic table and a toilet were welcome accoutrements.
The flood tide helped propel us inland at about twice the speed of our paddle out. The Eastern Trail was even busier with large numbers of cyclists and walkers crossing the bridge.
As we approached the landing at the Audubon Center, there was a surprising revelation. An unusually high tide had overflowed the bank and partially flooded the parking lot. Our vehicles were sitting in several inches of water.
We were able to paddle right up to our cars without carrying up the hill — a pleasant unexpected ending to an exceptional day.