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 The Saco River rises in the White Mountains near New Hampshire's Crawford Notch, then wends its way to the sea and in to the Atlantic Ocean from its

File:SacoConway.jpg

headwaters at Saco Lake high in the White Mountains, the river drops nearly 1500 feet in elevation as it flows for approximately 40 miles through the towns of Harts Location, Bartlett, and Conway before entering Maine and continuing on through Fryeburg, Lovell, Brownfield, Denmark, Hiram, Baldwin, Cornish, Standish, Limington, Buxton, Saco, Biddeford and on to the Atlantic Ocean. As it runs down on in to Maine passing through gentle farmlands around Fryeburg. The river is slow-moving but steady for much of its run, with gentle rapids, which make it interesting but rarely threatening. The land flanking the river is mostly privately owned, but some owners graciously open their lands to quiet recreation and camping.

The Saco River was designated into the NH Rivers Management and Protection Program in June 1990. Its basin is the only major river basin in New Hampshire which is currently meeting all of the surface water standards of the federal Clean Water Act. The watershed of the Saco River upstream from the New Hampshire-Maine border encompasses approximately 427 square miles, of which 80 percent is within the White Mountain National Forest.

With the exception of some scattered residential housing, private lands in the river corridor are generally undeveloped and forested. The town centers of Bartlett, North Conway, and Conway are located near the Saco River, but land use along the river has remained a mixture of agriculture and low-density residential uses.

Thanks to glacial deposits, the river is notable for its numerous sandbars, which make for superb lounging. Bring a beach towel.

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The pristine Saco River lures recreationalists from throughout the Northeast who wish to engage in the fine fishing, canoeing, kayaking,

sight-seeing, and camping opportunities which abound on its waters and banks.

Until 1725, the Saco River was the main artery for the Pequawket Indians traveling in canoes to and from the Atlantic. Soon thereafter came trappers, followed by loggers, who harvested the colossal white pine and sent the logs floating down the river to sawmills mushrooming all along its course. By 1871, the Portland and Ogdensburg Railroad had reached Fryeburg, fifty miles from Portland, thus linking the Upper Saco River with Boston and beyond. Soon, a steady stream of summer visitors began arriving in the region and the White Mountains beyond. Upper Saco River Valley: Fryeburg, Lovell, Brownfield, Denmark, and Hiram visits the days when logs floated down the river and trains thundered up and down the valley. The first stop in Maine is Fryeburg, home of Fryeburg Academy and the Fryeburg Fair, the oldest and largest fair in Maine. Next is Lovell and its many lovely brick homes and Kezar Lake,  then journeys to Brownfield, largely depicted before the devastating fire of 1947. Denmark was the home of Rufus Ingalls, the quartermaster general under Ulysses S. Grant. Then ventures in to Hiram, the home of a famed Revolutionary War general who was also the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Throughout the region there was once nine covered bridges that once spanned it.

After running through Baldwin, Cornish, Standish, Limington, Buxton, and six hydropower stations after entering York County, the river crosses under Interstate 95 and passes between Saco and Biddeford, where it is bridged by U.S. Route 1. It enters Saco Bay on the Atlantic with Camp Ellis in Saco on the north shore and Hills Beach in Biddeford on the south shore.

Geology

In Harts Location, the Saco River flows through Crawford Notch, a spectacular, narrow, steep-sided valley with exposed rock cliffs. The upper Saco River is characterized by fast-moving water, tumbling over rocks and boulders with frequent cascades. Near the mouth of Nancy Brook, the river has cut a narrow gorge into the bedrock, forming a short turbulent waterfall. A number of steep, sheer cliffs or ledges are also present near the river, including Frankenstein Cliffs, Humphrey's Ledge, Cathedral Ledge, and White Horse Ledge.

History

Evidence of inhabitance in the Saco River Valley dates back nearly 10,000 years. Documented settlement of Native Americans, as recorded by Darby Field, dates to 1642, with the Pigwacket kin-based group. Major Native American trails have been found along the river and the potential for further archaeological discoveries exists. In the early 1800s, small farmsteads dotted the valley, particularly in lowland areas adjacent to the river. Numerous stone fences, dug wells, cellar holes, and the famous paddleford style covered bridges remain as evidence of early settlers. Two sites along the Saco River corridor are listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Crawford Depot and the Crawford Artists Studio.

The Saco River drains the eastern slope region of the White Mountains.

The Saco River drains the eastern slope region of the White Mountains

 Wildlife and Plant Resources

Because the Saco River starts its flow primarily through the White Mountain National Forest, the continued presence of a large contiguous forested riparian habitat, capable of supporting a diversity of wildlife species, is assured. Notably, three breeding pairs of the federally-listed endangered peregrine falcon are known to be nesting along the river. A 1983 Saco River Basin Study by the US. Department of Agriculture listed that 56 species of mammals, 165 species of birds, 32 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 36 species of fish are supported by the river and the surrounding forest habitat.

According to the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Inventory, a state-listed endangered plant species, the inflated sedge, occurs near Saco Lake at the headwaters of the Saco River. A rare natural community, New England riverwash hudsonia barrens, is found in five locations along the river. The presence of riverwash hudsonia barrens is significant because the community is virtually nonexistant elsewhere on earth. Due to this, it has been given "globally rare" status by the National Heritage Network, a cooperative of biologists and Natural Heritage Inventories from the 50 states, six Canadian provinces and several Latin American countries. Two significant plant species are found within the riverwash hudsonia barrens. Though very rare in New Hampshire, the shrub, the hairy hudsonia, and the perennial herb, the White Mountain silverling, are listed as "globally secure."

Fishing Maine  There are 67 species of freshwater* fish found in Maine today. Most species found in the state are in the carp/minnow family (Cyprinidae). The next two most species-rich families are the trouts (Salmonidae), which are cold water species, and the bass/sunfishes (Centrarchidae), which are primarily warm-water species. Approximately 70% of Maine's fish species are native to the state, and most of these can be found in the Saco River and its tributaries

Brook Trout

Historically, the Saco River was one of the premier trout fishing rivers in the Northeast. Today, the natural reproductive capability of native fish populations has been exceeded by angler demand, and stocking of hatchery-reared brook, brown, and rainbow trout is carried out each year by the NH Fish and Game Department and the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. On weekends, anglers congregate in the fly-fishing only section of the Saco River from Humphrey Ledge pool to Artist Brook. The Saco River also supports extensive spawning habitat for anadromous fish (fish that live in saltwater, but return to freshwater to spawn), but seven downstream dams in Maine currently prevent their return to New Hampshire. An effort is underway to require fish passage facilities at these dams, thereby restoring anadromous fish, including Atlantic salmon, to the New Hampshire portion of the river.

Maine Fishing

Recreation

The natural beauty of the Saco River has been attracting visitors to the region for over 150 years. A regional boater' guide describes the Saco River Watershed as the "most impressive in all New England." The guidebook further describes the "majesty of this view" of the White Mountains from the riverbed as "breathtaking" on a clear spring or summer day.

The presence of clear, clean water and sandy beaches along the Saco River provide excellent opportunities for swimming, tubing, and other water-based recreational activities in all sections of the river throughout the summer. Campgrounds are located along the river from Crawford Notch State Park to Conway providing through private and publicly owned facilities, a full spectrum of camping experiences. For those desiring a more remote adventure, wilderness camping is available within the White Mountain National Forest and on isolated sandbars and, by permission, on private lands along the river.

Boating

The Saco River and its tributaries are used by thousands of people from throughout the Northeast annually for canoeing, kayaking and rafting. In early spring, the upper section of the river offers one of the most exciting whitewater runs in all of central New England. Between the Gorge at Notchland and the center of Bartlett, five miles of continuous rapids and occasional drops require whitewater expertise to navigate. From Bartlett to Conway, the river offers a popular run of medium difficulty with quickwater and intermittent rapids. From North Conway to the Maine border, the river is primarily smooth water with the exception of a few rapids between Conway and Center Conway.

Route 302 parallels the entire length of the Saco River and provides numerous access sites to the river. Canoeists and anglers frequently use bridge crossings over the river as access points. Conway also maintains three public access sites and the town beach in Bartlett is located on the river.

Tackling the Saco: Tips for the Trip -- Should you decide to accept the mission of canoeing the Saco, congratulations and good luck. But bear a couple of caveats in mind: First and foremost, early summer -- especially following a damp spring -- brings mosquitoes onto the river in numbers you can't believe. The solution? Bring lots of good repellent, or simply wait and opt for a trip later in the season. The bug population (usually) declines after July 4th. By August, the 'skeeters will almost certainly be all gone.

Also be aware that the Saco's popularity has soared recently. You're not likely to have a true wilderness experience here anymore, especially on Saturday and Sunday. Armadas of lunkheads fueled by cheap beer descend on the river in goodly numbers each summer weekend, lending the river a bit of a frat-party (or maybe just Cannonball Run) atmosphere. It became such a problem at one point that police set up "riverblocks" on the busiest weekends to randomly check boaters and paddlers for sobriety and illegal substances. (The courts told police to cut it out.) It's mostly a weekend phenomenon, and it has abated somewhat. Monday to Friday, crowds tend to thin out, and more of those here tend to be solo nature lovers, sedate families, or couples enjoying a relaxing vacation.

Hiking

Superb hiking trails lace the rugged, low hills of Evans Notch on either side of Route 113, offering something for hikers of every stripe and inclination. Far more trails exist than can be covered here. Pick up the national forest hiking brochure, or consult one of several trail guides covering the area. Among them are the White Mountain Guide and the Maine Mountain Guide (published by the Appalachian Mountain Club), and Fifty Hikes in Southern Maine by John Gibson (published by Backcountry Publications).

You won't need a trail guide, however, for the easy hike to the summit of East Royce Mountain. The trail leaves from a parking area on Route 113 north of the road's high point. A well-marked, 3-mile round-trip walk follows a small stream before it begins a steeper ascent. The summit is bald and rocky, with fine views of Kezar Lake and the mountains to the west. Return via the same path.

Other local hikes include the summit of Caribou Mountain in the heart of the Caribou Wilderness Area, and demanding Baldface Mountain, with a ridge-top trail that follows the edge of a ragged glacial cirque carved out of the mountain eons ago. A loop up and over Baldface is a tough, all-day hike that rewards experienced hikers; check the trail guides or ask the Forest Service for details.
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Image of: Salvelinus fontinalis (brook trout)

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