March 6, 2020
For many boaters, a trip up Maine’s Damariscotta River is like taking a step back in time. By Ken Textor; Photography by Joe Devenney
As you approach Damariscotta some 12 miles north of Pemaquid Point, 19th century church spires gleam in the late-afternoon sun, hinting at another era. However, this town is not some cutesy, self-conscious Disneyland. Nor is it a mug-and-a-tee-shirt tourist trap, with a few shingled buildings thrown in for effect.
Rather, Damariscotta is worth the long trip up the swirling Damariscotta River, because it’s a town that knows where it came from and continues to enjoy its roots just fine, thank you. Thus, when you come ashore at the public floats— conveniently located in the middle of town—you step into a world that Hollywood often tries to replicate: the all-American downtown.
The Store with More
“My father believed in the downtown,” says John Reny, president of one of Maine’s best-known retailers. “He supported the idea of a community represented in its downtown and did his best to keep it going.”
As the town’s mainstay and funky department store since 1949, Renys has anchored a thriving Main Street that includes a cozy theater (both live performances and cinema), an independent bookstore, numerous restaurants, an all-season hardware store, a superb deli and, well, you get the idea. It’s a real downtown, with brick buildings constructed to last for centuries. Sidewalks are spacious and pedestrians dominate the downtown traffic flow. It’s a place built for retail.
But that doesn’t mean it’s expensive, like some of the suburban centers farther south and west of the Pine Tree State. In fact, Renys bills itself as “A Maine Adventure,” primarily because its pricing can compete with nationally known, big box superstores. The “adventure” part is finding what’s on sale that week, day or even hour. Other stores on Main Street have similar competitive aspects. In short, it’s still a town for middle-class Mainers.
Going with the Flow
Thus, for the visiting boat captain and crew, a genuine downtown means you might be tempted to stay in Damariscotta a few days, making the trip up the eponymous estuary even more worthwhile. At the mouth of the river are diversions just as enticing as those found at the head of navigation. If you decide to ascend the river on a favorable tide (highly recommended), you can wait for the flood at either Christmas Cove on the east side of the river or East Boothbay on the west, both of which are good destination ports in their own rights, well worth an afternoon or even an overnight investigation.
As you follow the flood tide, you’ll appreciate your “go with the flow” decision when you reach Fort Island, where either channel around that mid-river obstruction can offer countercurrents and even small whirlpools that are bound to tug playfully at your steering gear. The eastern channel is the widest and best marked.
Once beyond Fort Island, the Damariscotta loses its edgy reputation and becomes as bucolic and cooperative as any river you’ve ever dreamed of. Both shores still feature a surprising number of saltwater “farms,” which current summer residents maintain as fields extending to the water’s edge from rambling old Cape-style homes attached to large cow barns going on their third century of life.
Bass & Bivalves
Life in the water can be pretty fascinating, too. This is striper territory, and fishermen troll the river daily for sizable versions of this coveted anadromous species. Tinker mackerel, tommy cod and the occasional bluefish also call the Damariscotta home. But most importantly, this river is the source of Maine’s long-standing oyster fishery, evidence of which you’ll see not only in the river itself, but in town as well.
On reaching the head of navigation, you’ll see boats moored both to the west and east of the prominent Main Street bridge, with the lion’s share of commerce on the east side. Oddly, it is Damariscotta’s sister town, Newcastle, on the west shore, that handles arrangements for use of vacant moorings. Contact harbormaster Paul Bryant, who also runs Riverview Boat Yard on the west shore, for details. Or just drop your anchor in a clear spot south of the moored boats. The muddy bottom is very good holding ground.
Oh, and about those oysters: They can be found at nearly every restaurant in town, the local fish market, the local farmers’ market (Friday mornings) and at the longest-standing purveyor of the tasty local shellfish, the King Eider Pub on Main Street. Moreover, if you want to attend the annual Pemaquid Oyster Festival, set aside the last Sunday in September for some small but tasty activities—which, come to think of it, is sort of like the Damariscotta itself: Small but “tasty.”
Damariscotta Names & Numbers
Harbormaster, (207) 563-5168
DOCKAGE, MOORINGS & SERVICE
Riverside Boat Company, (207) 563-3398
Mooring rental, boat repair, and service on the west shore of the Damariscotta.
Schooner Landing Restaurant, (207) 563-7447
Transient slips may be available through this dock-and-dine restaurant at the head of navigation.
Damarsicotta Town Landing (207) 443-5563
Short-term tie-up and dinghy dock.
Boaters may find room to anchor in 11 feet of water just outside the mooring field near town.
A free public launch ramp is adjacent to the Schooner Landing Restaurant. Parking is limited.
Midcoast Kayak, (207) 563-5732
Rents kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards on the harbor. Lessons are available, too.
WHERE TO EAT
King Eider’s Pub, (207) 563-6008
Menu highlights include seafood pot pie, raw bar, smoked salmon BLT, and a wide range of microbrews.
Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe, (207) 563-3207
Fun, cozy bookstore for kids and adults, with a wide range of titles, plus coffee, smoothies, sandwiches and cookies.
Schooner Landing, 207) 563-7447
Large dock-and-dine restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. Specializes in lobster, fried clams and other seafood items.
Weatherbird, (207) 563-1177
Coffee, wines, cheese, candies, accessories, kitchenware, gifts and more.