Fall paddleboarding on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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The birches will reach up with their scrawny, bare arms while the maples hunker down for a cold Maine winter while last season’s leaves tumble away in the brisk wind. 

Soon enough, but not yet. 

First, we’ll be treated to a firework grand finale in the trees – several mesmerizing weeks of dazzling leaves in all the warm colors of the rainbow. It’s a period we in New England know as fall foliage season. 

And while we like to give the out-of-state leaf-peepers a hard time for their slow-moving cars and distracted meandering, we can’t really blame them. We love the spectacle of changing leaves, too, even if we’ve watched this annual display play out each fall for decades. It never gets old. 

Of course, Mainers have learned a thing or two about making the most out of the short-lived performance. We know the most-scenic roads and the rivers with covered bridges. And we know fall is even better when viewed from the water. 

Witnessing the trees decked out in their fall finest, their reflections mirrored on calm rivers and ponds, is a delight for any paddler. Besides, a fall paddle is a swell last hurrah for our kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards, which will soon be put to bed alongside the lawnmowers for what will seem like several interminable months. 

Let’s tuck them away filled with memories of cool waters and warm sun, bright yellows and bold reds, and gentle paddle strokes on mellow waters sprinkled with cast-off leaves. 

Return to a favorite spot, or if you need some guidance, here are two fall paddle recommendations. 

Paddling on the Old Saco River near Kezar Pond in Fryeburg. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Fryeburg: Old Saco River to Kezar Pond

A covered bridge, a winding river, and a wide-open pond with a sandy beach to picnic on – all with the White Mountains as a backdrop. This paddle has all the things.

But first, a clarification: Kezar Pond is in Fryeburg, not to be confused with the popular Kezar Lake in nearby Lovell, which is also much bigger.

Paddlers can swoon over the covered bridge, the gentle water, and the fall leaves casually floating by like lazy tubers on a late-afternoon river float. The Old Saco River is a gentle mover between the bridge and the pond (it’s also shallow late in the season, so stand-up paddleboards are not recommended here because their fins are prone to catching on submerged rocks and sending the paddler tumbling).

Soon the trees open up like leafy stage curtains, welcoming paddlers onto Kezar Pond. From the mouth of the river, paddle dead ahead to reach a sandy beach where you can pull up your boat, get out to stretch your legs, and have a picnic.

Launch into the Old Saco River at the Hemlock Bridge on Hemlock Bridge Road. There’s a small parking area and a put-in that offers access to a few different routes. You can paddle south or north on the Old Saco, or paddle under the covered bridge, bear right and take that to Kezar Pond.

Fall colors swirling all around a paddler on Chauncey Creek through the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge in Kittery. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Kittery: Chauncey Creek through the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge

Enjoy the foliage, the birds, and the quiet as you paddle the salt marsh through the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge.

Established in the 1960s, the refuge protects valuable salt marshes and estuaries for migratory birds along 50 miles of coastline in York and Cumberland counties. In Kittery, most people choose to go the pedestrian route, meandering through the refuge on the Cutts Island Trail, an easy 1.8-mile walk through the woods that offers views of the salt marsh.

Paddlers can access the water from there, too, and follow the winding waterway all the way to Brave Boat Harbor. From the launch, a few houses peek out from the trees like residential spies, but on the whole, it’s a people-free paddle through the marsh grass on easy-going tidal waters. 

The path to Brave Boat Harbor weaves gently along, growing thinner for a spell (navigating here at low tide could be a problem, so do pay attention to the tides) and then widening out again. The calm creek waters eventually open up to the choppy Atlantic Ocean. From here, sea kayakers can trek out along the coast and beyond; or you can turn tail and head back into the marsh.

The launch point is just off Creek Road in Kittery, near the trailhead for the Cutts Island Trail through Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge. Park on the side of the road and carry your kayak to the launch. 

There’s no wrong answer when it comes to fall paddles. The scenery is sure to delight wherever you go. Just go, before those trees drop their leaves entirely and, just like that, the moment has passed. 

Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.

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