Paddle ‘Round Portland: Saco River in Buxton
You don’t need to go way up north to have a canoe or kayak adventure. There’s plenty of spots right around town where you can get out on the water before or after work. Remember: every place outside your house is the great outdoors. Enjoy it.
PRP: An artificial lake on the Saco River, behind Skelton Dam, at Buxton’s Pleasant Point Park.
Get in: From Monument Square, it’s 18 miles to the start of this trip at Pleasant Point Park in Buxton. Taking outer Congress Street, depending on the traffic, should get you there in half-hour, or so.
Paddle: We put in at the hand-carry launch at the park off the Simpson Road. We paddled down Skelton Lake to an island, then upriver to an old bridge abutment. It’s a popular place for folks to leap into the river. Total paddle distance was 4.83 miles, which took us almost three-and-a-half hours. We were in no hurry.
Get out: Our route was circular. We pulled out where we put in at the park.
My BDN colleague and fellow paddler, Darren, and I snuck out of work a couple hours early one day last week for this mini-adventure. We left Portland just after 3 p.m. and had our boats on the river in Buxton by 4 p.m.
At the landing, where we put in, kids and dogs frolicked in the silty water. Tattooed parents stood in the river up to their knees, smoking and chatting. Not far away, upriver a bit, I knew there’d be teenagers clustered around 20-foot cliffs and rope swings. The boys would be doing flips and cannonballs into the dark water, showing off for the girls.
I grew up there. Buxton is my hometown. Though the rest of the town has changed in leaps and bounds, Pleasant Point Park, on the Saco River, has changed very little. I’m grateful for that. It always feels like home.
Pleasant Point Park sits on 60 riverside acres off the Simpson Road in Buxton, my hometown. It’s covered with pine trees, right to the water’s edge. There’s a hand-carry launch for small boats, a portable toilet and plenty of parking. Hiking trails crisscross the property. There’s no fee to get in but the gates get closed at sundown.
It’s a very popular local teenage hangout. It’s semi-secluded and they have a grand time — as I did at their age. It has a well-earned reputation as a party and drinking spot but I always find it friendly. If people could just carry out the wet underwear and beer cans that litter the place, it would be ideal.
Pleasant Point used to be the Woodman family estate. An old cellar hole, partly obscured by bushes, is all that’s left of them. They were some of the first folks to settle the town in the 1600s. Hidden in the pines on a trail at the south end, you can still find a graveyard filled with the unmarked resting places of some of the town’s earliest residents.
In 1923, the Woodman family put the land in a trust and gave it to the Appalachian Mountain Club. The club lost interest in the land, giving it to the state when Skelton Dam went up in the 1940s. It flooded the once-scenic gorge and waterfalls while creating a 488 acre lake.
The town of Buxton and the state then haggled over the waterfront property for 30 years. Finally, in 1989, the town took ownership of the land.
The put-in sits just where the old gorge opens up into the lake. This time of year, you go head for the open lake or paddle upstream, as there’s no real current for at least a mile. We did both.
Darren and I went down the lake to an unnamed island people used to camp on when I was a kid. We landed and explored a bit. We found evidence of campers and picnic sites. Also, there’s an impressive granite cliff face on one site of the island. It has a lovely view.
Back on the water, Darren decided to practice flipping his kayak and getting back in with, and without, my help. He reported the lake was as warm as a bath.
Paddling into a slight headwind, we made our way back up the lake and into the river proper. Several motor boats passed us. We waved at them all. We also met a guy fishing from a drugstore rubber raft and a trio of inner tube floaters coming down from the Bar Mills dam a few miles up river.
Before long, we came to an old granite block bridge abutment. It’s within sight of the current Route 202 span. We watched double-flippers come off a long rope swing as they plunged into the water over and over. It’s a scene that doesn’t seem to have changed much, except swimsuit fashion, since I was their age in the 1980s. The boys still do dumb stunts and the girls still try hard to look tanned and pretty.
We lingered for a while and contemplated going off the swing ourselves. I haven’t done it in years. It was tempting but we left it for the kids. It’s their realm.
Darkness began to creep over the flooded gorge as we made our way back to the landing. When we came around the corner on the lake, we were treated to a burning sunset to the west.
Another summer day at Pleasant Point came to an end as we loaded the boats. As the town moves forward and time hides the Woodman estate in bramble, I hope the Point never changes.