by Corey Norman
When people think of Portland, Maine, the word ‘whitewater’ is not the first word that comes to mind. But, within one hour in any direction, rapid-filled playgrounds await the eager boater. Below are some of the top whitewater destinations that southern Maine has to offer — all only a stone’s throw away from Portland. From ledge drops to surfing holes, these destinations are hot spots for boaters of all skill levels. As you venture out to explore these sites, make sure to keep safety in mind. Always paddle with a buddy, and make sure you never paddle without all of your protective gear. Scout all rapids and use your best judgment when deciding whether or not to run them.
Spring water levels only come once a year, so get out there and have some fun!
Mousam River (Mousam Lake to Estes Lake)
Maine is a state that has developed around industry. From fishing to logging, towns have formed around the lifeblood of these industries, the mighty Maine River. The Mousam River is no exception. With an old mill towering in the background, this stretch provides some great ledge drops, but is only worth running in high water. Located about 55 minutes from Portland, you can find the launch site by turning off ME 11/109 at Emery Market, where you will put in just below the dam. Look for a boiling at the base of the dam. If this is not present, then the river is too low to run. Within the first three miles of this trip, there are three sharp ledge drops — one below a set of power lines, another 1.25 miles below the ME 11 /109 bridge, and a third drop about a mile further. The second drop is a steep Class III in high water and should be scouted from a bridge about 150 feet downstream. If the water is too low to run this drop, then the level is too low for the rest of your trip. You can take out shortly after this last drop at Holdworth Park on ME 11 /109.
Crooked River (ME-118 Rest Stop)
Located just over an hour from Portland, Maine, the upper section of the Crooked River presents paddlers with a great section of whitewater, including several epic ledge drops. Before reaching these, paddlers are presented with a Class III rapid next to the roadside rest stop. In low water, this first rapid can be run, but in high water, large waves form around the boulders making the channel vanish. Because of this, it’s recommended that you put in just below this rapid. This remaining 0.75 miles are home to two solid Class II ledge drops. These rapids should be scouted from the Route 118 Bridge. To get to the put-in, take I-95 to exit 63 in Gray, Maine. Continue down Route 26 for just over 26 miles, before merging with Route 118. Stay on this road for 6.4 miles until you cross the Crooked River.
Pleasant River (Rt. 302 to River Road)
Located a half hour from Portland along Route 302 in Windham (just past the rotary), the Pleasant River is a section of water only worth running in the high water months. During the drier months, most of this river has to be walked, but when the spring runoff is at its highest, this river affords some great ledge drops in a country setting. Your first major rapid is a Class III ledge drop that comes in two stages about two miles from the put in. This rapid is best scouted on the right. A mere quarter of a mile later, you come to another set of double ledge drops, this time a Class II+. This spot is known by locals to be a great surfing location as well. Watch our for the potential of fallen trees as you make your way down this four-mile stretch of river that ends at Loveitt Bridge on River Road. Make sure you have a car ready to shuttle your boats back to the put-in.
Royal River (Sparhawk Mill Rapid)
The closest patch of whitewater to Portland is the Sparhawk Mill Rapid at only 14 minutes away. Follow Route 1 into downtown Yarmouth until you cross over the Royal River. In high water you can put in just below the bridge at the fishway. This put-in will give you access to a strong Class II-III rapid that flows past the mill parking lot. During low and medium water levels, this spiny section of water is best portaged, but at high water it is a rapid to be thoroughly enjoyed. On the outset, you will experience 200 yards of quickwater followed by some fun Class I rips. Close to home, this location is ideal when you only have a few hours to play.
Steep Falls, Saco River
Steep Falls, ME
Set to the backdrop of a waterfall, Steep Falls on the Saco River is definitely a spot for the more experienced paddler. A Class I-II+ (V+) in lower water, this stretch develops a massive hydraulic as the water begins to rise. In the spring season, expect this stretch to boast a high watermark of 10,000+ cubic feet of water per second. Because it only lasts for 0.3 miles, be ready to walk back upriver a few times during your session. For you beginner paddlers out there, this is a great set of rapids to learn on in the summer months when the water levels are lower, but novice boaters should avoid this section during the high water months. Located 52 minutes from Portland, take Route 25 to the town of Standish. There you will come to the intersection of Route 25 and Route 113. Follow this for about 5.5 miles, and then take a left onto Route 11. After half a mile, you will have arrived at your destination.
Limington Rips, Saco River
If you’re looking for the hottest spot to paddle this spring, head 45 minutes outside of Portland along Route 25 and you’ll find it. The Limington Rips is nearly a half-mile of continuous Class II whitewater, which, in high water, quickly transforms into a set of gnarly Class III rapids. This is a park and play section of river that’s run-able all seasons, but due to its large waves, is ideal for spring paddling. Although there are a few ledge drops and play spots before the bridge, most serious springtime riders choose to surf the holes that are closer to the parking lot. Watch out for “Prom Date,” the massive hydraulic on the river’s left that can turn into a nasty Class IV during this time of season.
Freelance writer Corey Norman is also a professional film maker and adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College. His article ‘In The Drink,’ about riverboarding Maine’s Penobscot River, appeared on SixStates.net in October 2009.