Merrymeeting Bay, Maine
January 17, 2017
What’s worth a 12-mile side trip inland from Maine’s coast? Merrymeeting Bay, of course. As a unique body of water comprising rivers, swift currents, marshes, several towns and darn few other boats, Merrymeeting is as its name implies: A place you could spend a week exploring with decidely happy results.
Located some 10 miles up the Kennebec River estuary from the Gulf of Maine, Merrymeeting requires some careful navigation, but rarely is fog a problem—relatively speaking. The first hurdle is making your way through The Chops at the southern entrance to Merrymeeting Bay.
The passage can be confusing. Two headlands—Chops and West Chops Points—constrict the drainage of 2 major inland rivers, plus 4 minor estuaries, while the daily sluicing of Gulf of Maine tides adds to the confusion. Whirlpools, back eddies and upwellings roil the choppy waters, making passage through The Chops, even on a quiet day, a bit rocky, but it stirs up the fish, too.<
As you ascend the Kennebec River toward Merrymeeting Bay, you may see everything from great blue herons to bald eagles. Below the surface are striped bass, sturgeon, herring and seals. Once through The Chops, Merrymeeting Bay opens up, but note that most of the water is very shallow—less than 4 feet except in the channels—so proceed with caution.
The town of Bowdoinham is located on the Cathance River, which flows into Merrymeeting Bay from its northwest corner. A great spot for swimming along the way is the shallow area about midway between Brick and Sturgeon Islands. The place looks like it might be in the middle of the bay, but it’s only 2 feet deep, with hard-packed sand underfoot. Here you can anchor out and drift with the flow of the Androscoggin River, which cuts across the sandbar at about 3 knots.
Continue north along the winding Cathance River and you’ll reach Bowdoinham, which features a handsome waterfront park with a town landing and a launch ramp. Free concerts are held at the gazebo on certain nights during the summer. You can tie up at the landing and go ashore to stroll around or grab a bite to eat at the Town Landing Place. Bowdoinham harbormaster John McMullen allows visitors to tie up overnight for free, space permitting. Directly across the river from the landing is Jim’s Marina, which offers transient slips, along with water, toilets and electric hookup. Jim’s also rents smelt shacks during the winter.
Another worthwhile side trip for Merrymeeting mariners is Richmond, on the Kennebec’s western bank north of the bay. Along the way, however, you might consider stopping at a great swimming and fishing spot called The Sands.
The Sands is located south of Abagadassett Point, but you won’t find any mention of it on the charts. That’s because it has always been a local secret, a little bit of coastal Shangri-la, complete with clean warm water, fine white sand underfoot and no crowds. The Sands has remained unknown and little used primarily because it exists only at low tide. Like a mythic castle in a child’s fable, it disappears twice every day when Merrymeeting Bay piles 6 feet of tidal water atop the chart’s regular soundings for mean low tide. (Note: In previous years the shoals that make up The Sands have been washed away by heavy runoff, but usually reform during the season.)
Continuing upriver past Abagadasset Point is Swan Island, home to the Steve Powell Wildlife Preserve. The preserve has kept about 3 square miles of woods, fields and farm buildings safely frozen in the late nineteenth century, and offers superb birding and overnight camping in Adirondack-style shelters. Visits are by reservation only and must be arranged at least 7 days in advance.
As you pass Southard Point, the Richmond anchorage will come into view. Richmond offers town floats along the waterfront park, along with a public mooring for transients close to the landing. Harbormaster Chris Smith can accommodate 2 boats along the floats (space permitting), and overnight tie-up is free. Pump-out is available, as well. Ashore, Richmond offers 3 restaurants (Railroad Café, Bakers and The Old Goat brewpub), plus an ice-cream shop.