In the summer of 1981 my Father took our young little family in a 16ft aluminum hell ride around Swan Island…
When I think of the Kennebec River often I remember the first time I was ever on it as a child. The memory somewhat chilling still after all these years. When I think of this I am also reminded of just how much of the foolish bullishness that makes up a part of my Father also makes up a big part of me. Always inviting adventure at the cost of foresight and common sense. Just like me.
In the summer of 1981 my Father took our young little family in a 16ft aluminum hell ride around Swan Island. This is a ten-mile river paddle. Swan Island is roughly four miles long and a half-mile wide. It sits in the middle of the lower tidal basin of the Kennebec River at the head of Merrymeeting Bay near Dresden, Richmond, and Bowdoinham.
I was just 10 years old, my sisters both a year older and a year younger respectively. We all sat in the hull tied up in our bright orange life vests; our sun-blonded heads bobbing along while my mom sat paddling from the bow and my dad the stern. As is the normal course we put in at Richmond to travel down the west side of the island and then back up river on the east side. As I remember it the morning was pleasant and the ride down river fairly swift and easy, this because of the natural flow but more so because of an ebbing tide.
It was here however that I think my Father had begun to realize that he may have made a serious error in this river journey…
After rounding the southern point of the island and paddling around the marshes with an effort that began to tire my mom, my dad began spying a spot for a rest and lunch. When he found a small cove protected by a rock outcrop he directed us in. I remember the view from here down into the deep blue bay sparkling in the sunlight. I remember running up and down this little rock strewn shore tossing rocks and clamshells with my sisters while my mom fixed us our lunches. I remember that by the time we’d finished our lunches this little cove’s shore had receded enough to expose a growing beach. On this my Mother sat sunning herself while my Father along with me and my sisters explored the shore and outcrop a bit. Everything seemed perfect and beautiful and I remember how joyous my sisters and I felt in that moment. It was here however that I think my Father had begun to realize that he may have made a serious error in this river journey; for we hung out near this outcrop by this cove for much longer than I might have expected despite my mom’s protests that it was “getting late” and she didn’t “want to be stuck out here all day.” My father was holding back and considering thing here because he’d come to realize that he’d failed to consider the timing of the tides when he’d planned this adventure. Our trip south had been swift and fortunate due to the ebb in the tide but it was so early in this ebb that the tide was still going out and would presumably continue to be running out of the river for quite some time, which was clearly evidenced by the rapidly receding shoreline. We’d have to fight both the flow of the river and the tide on our way back up. My dad couldn’t hold my mom’s protests off much longer and he knew he hadn’t a clue what time this tide was due to turn. It could be hours. We could be paddling in the dark. We’d sat long enough. We had to go. Goodbye paradise.
To add to the powerful pull of tide the hot summer sun had smashed a giant invisible sponge against the forested landscape of the area, which sopped up the land’s moisture forming thick bulbous clouds that swirled and threatened to coalesce into massive thunderheads, and a stiff and strong wind was running with the tide and the river, directly into our face…
Often when a tide is near to reaching its lowest point the stream of its ebb is at its strongest. And even at what is known as slack tide (when the water is erroneously said not to move while the turn is taking place) there will still be an ebbing stream though the flood of high tide is actually returning. Though he couldn’t be sure, it was most likely when the tide was close to it’s lowest that my dad decided to leave, for when we put in there was an immediate struggle for us to maintain a course up river. To add to the powerful pull of tide the hot summer sun had smashed a giant invisible sponge against the forested landscape of the area, which sopped up the land’s moisture forming thick bulbous clouds that swirled and threatened to coalesce into massive thunderheads, and a stiff and strong wind was running with the tide and the river, directly into our face. We were in a wide section of river that passes a large cove on the island known as Maxwell’s cove. Behind this cove is a large open treeless meadow of the island that allowed the strong winds to also blast us from the port side and keep us from the shore of the cove where we might find some measure of safety or rescue. There was nothing we could do but continue to try and paddle forward. There were huge swells and whitecaps smacking the bow where my Mother sat terrified for her life, terrified for her babies, terrified for her husband paddling for all she could muster, but her fear was over coming her. It didn’t seem we were getting anywhere. I’m not quite sure the fear had got to me as bad as it did until I heard my Father scream, “Paddle harder Gail! Goddamit harder Gail or were going to get swept out into Merrymetting Bay!!” At this I turned my head and looked over my shoulder downriver where its swells and whitecaps were racing towards the wide-open bay and my heart leapt in fear. “Harder Gail!” my dad kept screaming and by god she was, and by god we started to make some progress though scant it was. I don’t know it but I think she was crying and I couldn’t blame her one bit for it as water was splashing over the gunwale and into my lap. There were larger more capable boats out there in the wide berth of river that we could see. I began to think one might be able to save us, but lost in the swells my father feared one could plow right through us.
Perhaps the fear I had in me caused a sort of mental block because I have no idea how we paddled past Maxwell’s cove and up most of the rest of island stretch that leads up to Little Swan Island and the channel known as “little river” that lies between it and the larger island. I think at one point my older sister or me may have even taken over paddling for my mom. Or maybe we just tried and she wouldn’t have any of it. At any rate somewhere past that cove I do remember my dad was able to get close enough to shore to cut the wind and finally pull us in for a rest. I remember scrambling up the riverbank with him to see if we could spy any sort of dwelling and rescue. Instead we found a huge forest ringed field with a large herd of deer feeding and frolicking across it. In the midst of such horror this sight was one of sublimity that I’ll never forget. In a way it seemed to change things, for by the time we got back down to the canoe the river had seemed to grow calmer and the tide slack, we paddled less laboriously around a little nub of shore and up into the little river between the islands, which was calm and glassy with no wind on it. We passed the boat dock and the campground with its main building and didn’t even stop for rescue. There was no need of it now. The tide had gone slack. The clouds had covered us but they threatened no rain and the sun behind them now had no influence on the winds, which had subsided now, the river finally subdued. We had lost so much time to our slow march up river, several hours of it so that there was nothing to do but keep paddling til’ we rounded the backside of the island back to the boat landing. We still had light to beat. It was nothing but sore muscles now. A disaster averted, my mom and dad paddled the rest of the way in relative silence and we finally landed back at Richmond late, tired, and quiet with a little daylight still left in the sky. Talk about exhaustion! Both physical but also mental! Us kids didn’t even scream for ice cream on the way home. The whole family slept til’ noon the next day. 35 years later I’d make the trip again, solo this time, in my kayak.
I’m deep into my summer reading right now with my nose in the classic novel Arundel by Maine writer Kenneth Roberts. The novel is an historical fiction, which tells of the Bennedict Arnold military expedition to attack Quebec during the fall of 1775. In this book Swan Island is mentioned and visited numerous times by settlers seeking trade or council with the Kennebec Abenaki whom once had a substantial village on the island’s southern end. All this reading about Swan Island in historical context has gotten me obsessed with the place for some reason. I can’t stop reading about it, thinking about it, looking at it on Google maps, wanting to be on it, or travel on the river around it again like I did so many years ago. So, a few Friday mornings ago I Googled the tide chart for the Kennebec River in Richmond. Low tide hit at 11:26am and high tide at 5:39pm. It was 10:30 and I was still in my PJs sipping coffee 17 miles up river in Augusta. I could still run down river with the last of the low tide if I hurried to dress, throw the kayak on the car, and race down to Richmond.
Ducks paddled and flapped near the marshy coves with heron while huge bald eagles, hawks and falcons soared overhead. The old brick buildings and church spires of Richmond slowly receding behind me with each thrust of my paddle…
I put in at 11:30. The morning seemed nearly identical to the morning 35 years prior, gorgeous, mild, peaceful. Ducks paddled and flapped near the marshy coves with heron while huge bald eagles, hawks and falcons soared overhead. The old brick buildings and church spires of Richmond slowly receding behind me with each thrust of my paddle. By the time I’d reached the bottom portion of the island near Theobald’s Point the tide seemed past the slack stage and was beginning to turn as the paddling got harder and I decided against going all the way around the point of the marshland on the southern tip of the island and decided to try and paddle directly across the marsh up one of the swails that cut hard into it. It’s very pretty in that marsh looking down towards the bay with the island banks looming dark and thick with forest behind you. Down here are many waterfowl hiding among the wild rice and bulrush that makes up the majority of this partially submerged point. I didn’t get far up a swail before having to step out of the kayak and attempt a drag through the marshland. It wasn’t going as planned. My feet were sucking down into the stinky muck of the marsh nearly pulling off my sandals. I bee-lined for the rocky high shore of the island and dragged across there to a little strip of sandy packed shoreline where it was easier going. On the other side of the marsh I put down back in the river and paddled up to the little cove my family had lunch at 35 years earlier. Unlike years before the beach I pulled up on to was slowly disappearing in the river’s waters. I made sure I pulled the kayak far up the bank and sat on the outcrop to eat my lunch. The view down river no less gorgeous than it was in my memory all those years ago. The air was dry too. No invisible sponge in the sky, hardly a cloud in sight, nary a breeze to be had.
The river was swelling noticeably by the time I got back in it, and my paddle (if you could call it that) across Maxwell’s cove was nothing like 35 years ago. I was able to lean back with the sun on my face, the paddle in my lap, and float right by the damn thing riding the tide! What joy! What peace out there. A boat here and there, a few jet skiers raced by downriver, twenty minutes later they buzzed back by. Out in the swelling river I tried paddling directly to a strip of tree snarled shoal that guards a wide marshy stretch to the other shore and found I couldn’t even keep a direct line to it, the tide that powerful so that when I got to it I was already at the top end of it. It was an easy swift paddle to little river from here and I even had plenty of time to stop on Little Swan and explore a bit. I rounded a bend and spied the new bridge that spans the river between Dresden and Richmond at the top of Swan Island just before 3:00.
Here massive sea run striped bass and Atlantic sturgeon were splashing all over the place. I couldn’t however spare any time watching such majesty as those fish because of the pull of tide. It took me a little over a half an hour to paddle the last few hundred yards back down river to the landing in town. The tide was crazy powerful right there! My burning arms tired I wanted to rest them there but couldn’t lest I get swept up under the bridge up river all the way to Gardiner! At 3:30 I landed. Breathing a huge sigh of relief I jumped out the kayak, took my life vest and shirt off, and then took a celebratory dip in the Kennebec. What a day! I can’t however state that it satiated my obsession. If anything it’s stoked it. Swan Island hasn’t seen the last of me.
You can find out more about Swan Island here: http://www.maine.gov/ifw/education/swanisland/