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Shannon Bryan

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Posted: September 9, 2015

So close, yet feels so far: A day trip to Swan Island in the Kennebec River

Written by: Shannon Bryan

Some islands entice with their remoteness. When we think of island getaways – or even island strandings – it’s generally the distance from shore (and other people) that appeals to or terrifies us.

But some islands are equally captivating because of their closeness. And Swan Island, just a stone’s throw (if you’ve got a good arm) off Richmond, is one of those islands.

Not to be confused with Swan’s Island, near Bar Harbor, Swan Island is nestled into the Kennebec River and only a 30-minute drive north of Freeport. The ferry ride from Richmond to the island takes mere minutes – just enough time to say hello to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife staff operating the boat and then thank them for the safe passage as you’re stepping off. But despite it’s proximity to Richmond, the island still feels remote when you’re on it, in that “away from it all” way we tend to like in Maine.

Swan Island is a long, slender thing. Only a half-mile wide at its plumpest, it can feel tiny when you first disembark the ferry. But it stretches four miles down the Kennebec River to Merrymeeting Bay – a length that can surprise first-time visitors. During a recent visit, I met a couple walking up the rocky island road – they’d gone to the south end of the island and, having misjudged how long the walk would take, worried they’d miss their ferry back. (The IFW staff were well aware the couple was on the island and didn’t wish to spend the night, and they no doubt made sure the duo made it back to the mainland.)

In addition to the island road, there are seven miles of hiking trails here. The trails weave into the trees and through fields, sometimes edging the coast for views of the water. Well-placed blazes lead the way, even in areas where the path itself is hard to distinguish.

The hiking trail gets close enough to shore to see the water in some parts. Shannon Bryan photo

The hiking trail gets close enough to shore to see the water in some parts. Shannon Bryan photo

In the sky over the water, you might spot bald eagles, hawks and warbles. On the trail, you might see evidence of deer, coyotes, porcupines and moose. There’s a reason this island is also a wildlife sanctuary – the Steve Powell Wildlife Sanctuary, to be exact. (It’s because of all the wildlife. )

There used to be a decent number of people out here, too; Swan Island once boasted a population of 100 back in the 1800s. Only the IFW caretakers lodge here for extended periods now, but a handful of houses still stand as evidence of the small band of island farmers who once called Swan Island home. Headstones in the cemetery mark those who died here, too.

If you want to make an overnight of your visit – or a whole weekend or longer – there are 10 shelters on the east side of the island situated in a big field that looks out to the dock, the river and Swan Island’s much smaller sister, aptly called Little Swan Island. Camping is $20 a night and available by reservation.

You can paddle over to the island in your own canoe, kayak or paddleboard (just tuck the $8 day use fee into one of the collection boxes when you get there). There are also kayaks and canoes available for rent for $10 an hour down by the dock near the campground. You’ll want to let the IFW folks know you plan on renting so they can set you up with the boats and the PFDs and paddles. We took a fairly brief and wonderfully scenic paddle tour around Little Swan Island in a few sit-on-top kayaks, letting the current gently move us along at times so we could just recline back and marvel at the river, the birds overhead (including an unconfirmed eagle sighting) and the tree line. Back near the dock, I took a refreshing dip in the water, along with a dozen or so Bowdoin students, who alternately lounged on the dock or floated in happy, chatty groups in the river.

Students hang out on the dock. Shannon Bryan photo

Students hang out on the dock. Shannon Bryan photo

Nearby, there are picnic tables to enjoy a packed lunch and listen to the island sounds.

And all over the island there a nooks and crannies to explore – historic sites like the old homes, barns and sheds, natural features like the tidal flats and ponds. If there are kids in your group, head to the kids-only trout fishing pond. If you’re scouting for wildlife – or if you just like to climb things – check out the wildlife viewing tower (which was originally built on Frye Mountain in 1931 and moved to Swan Island in 2005).

You can easily spend a whole day paddling, hiking, swimming and staring at the trees. By the time you board the last ferry back to Richmond, you’ll rightly feel like you spent the day in some wonderfully remote place, far, far way from the bustle and traffic of the mainland. And you’ll once again be shocked that it only took you minutes to get there.

Swan Island is open daily from May 1 to the end of October. There’s an $8 day use fee for all visitors (under 5 free), whether you paddle yourself over or take the ferry. The ferry departs Richmond four times daily: 9:15 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 1:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. and is available by reservation only (207-547-5322 or to make a reservation). The ferry leaves Swan Island at 9 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

No cars on the ferry, but you can bring your bike to ride the road (I brought a hybrid during my visit, which handled the bumpy road just fine).

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