Kittery Point, Maine — I dip my paddle in the water, push the kayak into the channel, and glide away from the causeway. I’m paddling into the marsh, heading out to Brave Boat Harbor for high tide.
At least once each summer, I paddle these quiet waters, squeezing my trip in between the tides and the rest of life. Even though I’ve paddled the marsh many times, I always feel on the brink of a discovery that might be significant, even if only to me.
Back in the 1600s, Brave Boat Harbor was a significant discovery for the explorers and early settlers who first came here. The shallow harbor provided safe anchorage from the angry Atlantic. But the entrance is narrow, and the surf makes passage tricky. Hence, only brave boats dared to enter.
Today, I am floating level with the marsh grass on an incoming moon tide. The astronomical high tide gives me longer window to explore the marsh, but typically I count on three hours around the published high tide (e.g. if high tide is at noon, I can set out at 10:30 a.m. and plan on returning to the causeway by 1:30). I’ve learned the hard way that if I linger too long in Brave Boat Harbor, I will end up scraping mud, or stranded.
The marsh is close to home, but feels remote and wild. I spot a kingfisher, skimming across the grass and up into the trees. A family of snowy egrets wades on the flooded plain. In the distance, the surf thuds at the harbor’s entrance.
This marsh isn’t wilderness. As I navigate the series of S-turns towards the harbor, I can see the occasional house on its perimeter. But this marsh, officially designated as the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, offers refuge both for me and the birds and animals who dwell or pass through these waters and grasses.
Fewer than a hundred years ago, the marsh was a domestic landscape. For three centuries, horses and oxen dragged people and tools across these spongy fields so that farmers could harvest the grass for animal fodder. In the channel, human-made rocky paths once allowed animals to safely cross the mucky bottom.
Then, during the Gilded Age, when droves of tourists began flocking to Kittery Point and York Harbor, workmen sunk pilings deep into the mud of Brave Boat Harbor to build a trolley trestle. For fifty years, the Portsmouth, Kittery and York (PK & Y) Electric Railway delivered vacationers from the ferry landing on Badgers Island in Kittery to York Harbor, with the clattering trolley cars traversing the marsh eight times a day during the summer months.
As my paddle pushes the kayak forward, the vegetation changes, with less saltwater grass and more of the sedge-like salt meadow grass that was harvested for hay. The current stills as I approach the harbor. I push the boat around another bend and into the flooded pool, the still water tinted pink from the clouds above. Even though I’ve been out here many times, this moment of gliding into blue emptiness of Brave Boat Harbor always feels exhilarating.
Black cormorants roost on the line of rotting pilings. The birds stand with their breasts thrust forwards, their necks held high, as if standing at attention. At the harbor entrance, between Rayne’s Neck and Sea Point, small waves crash.
Relatively few kayakers venture out here. On this day, I spot a three or four others, but on the rocky beach, I eat my lunch in solitude.
Almost 100 years have passed since the trolleys stopped running. The pilings won’t last forever. Many have withered to anonymous stumps. People who aren’t familiar with the marsh’s history don’t know where they came from, or why they are there. A few older folks in the region still recall riding the trolley as small children, but in a few years, all human memories of a bustling Brave Boat Harbor will disappear.
Exploring these remnants of history of the marsh enriches my time here. Still, I’m glad the marsh is a quiet place today, one that offers a mental escape from a mind intent on relentless planning and doing.
Kayaking here is a meditation in letting go. The ebb and flow of the tide dictates my itinerary. If I ignore the tide, I will end up stuck in the muck. If I note it, I glide on an authentic source of flow.
Sources and resources
The Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge was established in 1966 in honor of its namesake, although Rachel Carson did her work further up the coast, near Boothbay Harbor. The Refuge protects 50 miles of marsh and coast in southern Maine.
For more on the Memorial Bridge and its relationship to the rapid decline of the Gilded Age “big hotel” era in Kittery, Maine, see my post, On Bridges and the Jet Set.
Experienced kayakers might enjoy the loop paddle through the marsh and around Gerrish Island to Pepperrell Cove and up Chauncey Creek to the causeway. However, you need an ocean-worthy kayak to do, as ledges off Sea Point create waves and swell. It’s not a paddle for novices, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it alone.