Watching the River Flow
As it nears the Atlantic, the Saco River reveals its salty side.
Seventy-five miles downstream from the raucous canoe parties in western Maine that have come to define the Saco River for many people, there is another Saco, where osprey hover overhead scouting for striped bass and harbor seals chase sea-run herring, their heads bobbing like shiny black beach balls between dives. This is the Saco tide-water, the river’s final five mile-stretch before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
The transition from freshwater to brine is uncharacteristically dramatic. When it reaches Biddeford and Saco, the famously placid river splits in two and tumbles through a half-mile redbrick canyon – the massive nineteenth-century textile mills of Biddeford and Saco Island. Emerging from beneath the Main Street bridge, the Saco is flat water once more, but it is a changed waterway, infused with seawater and the strength of the tides.
For decades, this part of the estuary has been concealed by the mills that tapped the Saco’s power and poisoned its water with red and blue dyes. Now a restored river promises to energize the local economy again, this time with its beauty and recreational opportunities.
As the Saco courses east past Cow Island and Gordon Point, the roar of the falls fades and the urbanized banks give way to dense greenery interspersed with manicured lawns sloping upward to manses and modest ranch-style homes. Snowy egrets, blue herons, and harbor seals, not to mention the two pairs of nesting bald eagles who wowed boaters with their flyovers this summer, are common sights.
After it slips past Meeting House Cove, site of Maine’s busiest boat launch, and the leafy campus of University of New England, the Saco changes one last time. The ledges and earthy hills yield to the flat salt marshes and white, sandy beaches of Saco’s Camp Ellis and Biddeford’s Hills Beach and tony Biddeford Pool. Bathers on both shores splash in the surf where the Saco spills into the sea.