Perhaps the best kept whitewater secret in coastal Maine is a three mile stretch of the Cathance River in my hometown of Topsham. Located in the northeastern, rural part of town, it is a Class II through V creek run that consists of four rapids followed by four runnable waterfalls. Most of the action occurs in about a one mile section in the middle.
My whitewater friends and I have been paddling the Cat for almost thirty years. A free flowing river, we launch from a boat landing at the end of Old Augusta Road next to I295 where there is a painted gauge on a bridge abutment and take out at Head of Tide Park just beyond Cathance Road. Immediately below is a vertical waterfall that ends with an abrupt rocky landing. Abrupt rocky landings are not recommended.
I could write a book about the adventures, misadventures and escapades that my paddling companions and I have experienced on the Cat. Icy descents, rousing runs, boat pins, unpleasant swims, whitewater injuries and more have been part of the journey. Excitement is the attraction.
Lobbied by my youngest son, Adam, and an equally youthful friend, a few years ago I reluctantly agreed to a memorable early March paddle with deep snow on the banks and only a narrow ice-bordered opening at the take out. Concerned that we would encounter river wide ice in unseen areas, we seal launched from a snow bank at the put-in. My fears were validated when ice was encountered about a half mile downstream. Fortuitously thin, we were able to break through with our paddles. Remarkably, all of the rapids were clear but the shores were lined with menacing ice shelves. Setting up safety at every rapid to protect against getting washed under the ice, we warily but successfully ran everything excluding a Class V falls boaters call Little Gorilla.
Little Gorilla has been the scene of multiple mishaps. The worst that I’ve experienced was when Adam dislocated his shoulder there. Unable to reset it, he needed to be assisted around the one remaining falls, towed in his kayak to the takeout and transported for medical attention. It was a painful, unpleasant episode that none of us, particularly Adam, ever wants to repeat. On another occasion, a paddler fell and cracked his ribs while carrying around Little Gorilla, leading us to conclude that it is a Class V falls and a Class V portage.
A couple of years ago, the Cathance River Education Alliance (CREA) asked me to speak at the Topsham Library about my knowledge and experiences with whitewater on the Cat. We had a fairly large turnout including quite a few folks from Highland Green, a retirement community on the south side of the river. Using a video, slides, maps and a narrative for my presentation, they were an attentive audience and we had a lively discussion after.
Recently, one of the attendees at my talk who resides in Highland Green and maintains the Cathance River Trail for the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust (BTLT) contacted me to relate concerns about conditions on the river. He reported that the late October wind storm had deposited a significant amount of debris, particularly in the rapids.
The Cathance River Nature Preserve and the BTLT maintain an extensive trail system in the area including the Cathance River Trail which closely follows much of the whitewater section. Although having scouted rapids from the trail, I’d never hiked it. This seemed like the perfect excuse to do so.
Notifying the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society about my intentions, three members agreed to join me. Chowderheads are always ready to go out and play. Departing on the Vernal Pool Trail near the CREA Ecology Center, we connected with the Highland Trail and hiked to the western terminus of the Cathance River Trail.
Persisting east for a short distance, our group encountered the first two rapids where there were some minor obstructions. Turning the bend, a rapid named S Turn was littered with blow downs that paddlers call strainers. Abundantly clear that paddling S Turn would not be possible without significant assistance from Mother Nature, we rambled downstream.
The scenic two mile Cathance River Trail is clearly marked and well maintained. While the remaining rapids had some nuisance debris, at present everything else appears to be runnable. Continuing beyond the final falls, we crossed unique Clay Brook Bridge to Head of Tide Park. Coupled with the access trails, our trek was about 2.5 miles.
We’ll be back to paddle the Cat next spring despite the probable portage around S Turn. Expect that I’ll return to the Cathance River Trail much sooner. It’s a most excellent walk in the woods.