The intervales along the Saco River have always been a place of dwellings and activity. The Valley may bear the name of its mentor to the north, Mt. Washington, but its path follows the upper reaches of the Saco. The area cradled the destiny of Indians of the Abenaki tribe, and afterwards nurtured the farms of white settlers who established themselves on the fertile plains above its banks.
The Saco River watershed encompasses an area of 450 square miles in the Mt. Washington Valley. The river originates at Saco Lake (elevation 1,880 ft.) in the upper reaches of Crawford Notch, and drains the southern ridges of Mt. Washington and the eastern slope of the Mt. Willey chain. 125 miles long, the Saco bends and twist for 40 miles and drops 1,515 feet in New Hampshire before entering Maine. The river then continues in a southeasterly direction, meandering 85 miles, and empties into the Atlantic at a point 5 miles below the twin cities of Biddeford and Saco, Maine.
Earliest mapmakers gave the name Pigwackit to the Saco above its confluence with the Ossipee River, a spot just over the New Hampshire border into Maine. The Pigwackits, who first settled the area, were an isolated group of the Sokoki tribe of the Abenaki, and the root of their ancient name indicates the sweeping bends of the river upon whose banks the tribe had its home. Later, the name evolved into Pequawket, and several ponds and streams in Madison and the Conways have retained its usage. Other early Indian descriptions of the valley include Place of Soil washed down by a Mountain Stream, A Sandy Plain and Open Land Suitable for Cultivation.
Early French explorers called the river Chauacoet; the English Sowokotuk; and eventually the modern version Saco evolved. A number of different spellings occur in early journals. The famous French explorer Champlain, who visited the river in 1606 wrote: "The river is called by the native Chouacoet." The form Sawco appeared as early as 1623.
In any event, the river was the Indian's lifeblood. It was their highway southward to the ocean and northward to the mountains. Along its shores roamed fur bearing and food producing animals,and fish swam in its depths. The fields along the banks have been cultivated since earliest times. The indigenous Indian culture, however, barely survived the great epidemic of 1617, which was lethal to scores of New England Indians. Historical accounts report that so many perished, the survivors were unable to bury the dead. The French incited what remained of the Sokokis to attack English settlements in Maine and southern New Hampshire, until in a battle on May 8, 1725, Captain John Lovewell drove what was left of them into Canada. The end of the era was completed by the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which sent the last of the Saco River Indians north to a new home. Once the valley was secure from hostile attacks, settlements flourished in the intervales, which today are a part of the towns of Conway, Bartlett, Fryeburg and Jackson.
For all its merits, the Saco is not without its problems, namely, floods. The worst disaster of this century occurred in the winter of 1936 when a warm front enveloped the area, dropping 22.5 inches of precipitation in two weeks. Snow depth was reduced from 48" to 16" resulting in high waters that caused $1.6 million in damages. A similar flood, although not as severe, was recorded in 1953. Recent floods occurred in April 1969, and again in July 1972.
The Saco River, whose basin is 1,700 square miles, has numerous smaller tributaries. The 14-mile-long Ellis River, which drains the Pinkham Notch area, joins the Saco in the village of Glen. Dry River, Sawyer River, Rocky Branch and the East Branch are all major contributors. The Swift River, which starts at the height of Kancamagus basin, drops 1,400 feet in 25 miles before merging with the Saco in Conway.
While sightseeing in the Mt. Washington Valley, a relaxing car ride can afford spectacular views of the river and its tributaries, which have been such an integral part of the history of the region. Route 302 in Crawford Notch traces the path of the Saco from its start at Saco Lake to Glen where it meets the Ellis River. The upper waters of the Ellis are easily viewed along Route 16 in Pinkham Notch. Route 302 later picks up the Saco in Center Conway. The Kancamagus Highway provides exceptional vistas as it winds and twists its way along the Swift River between Conway and Lincoln.
Every year more people travel to New Hampshire in search of a slower pace and lured by the promise of an outdoor experience. Camping can provide just such an outlet, particularly for families or individuals not attuned to the finer points of roughing it. Many organized campground include civilized facilities such as toilets, water fireplaces and firewood. The U.S. Forest Service operates four large campgrounds along the Kancamagus Highway, and there are numerous private areas throughout the Mt. Washington Valley.
Swimming, of course, is an ever popular summer pastime. Most residents have a favorite spot, though it may be difficult to get one of them to reveal its exact location. There are, however, many easily accessible swimming holes along the course of the Saco that will provide a cooling dip to a hot travelers. Several of the better attended locales include the Inn Unique in Crawford Notch [now the Notchland Inn], the River St. Bridge and Second Third Iron in Bartlett, the River Road bridge in North Conway and Conway Covered Bridge in Conway.
The popularity of canoeing and kayaking is mushrooming in this country and evidence of this growth can be seen any afternoon during the warmer months of the year on the waters of the Saco. To further banish any doubts, Ned McSherry, co-owner of Saco Bound, stated that there were 28,266 user days on the Saco in 1977. The AMC new England Canoeing Guide describes the section of the river above Bartlett as "one of the most exciting and difficult canoe runs in New England." The text also suggests that only expert paddlers undertake the trek. The 11-mile stretch from Bartlett to North Conway is more navigable, starting out narrow and steep, but gradually broadening as it twists its way around the river's many sharp bends. In addition to just enjoying some time out on the river, there are the exhilarating and unique views of the mountains from the valley's floor.
Some of the quicker stretches of water in these sections are occasionally the scene of kayak and whitewater competitions, but the river south of Center Conway widens and meanders through forests and farmlands, affording the opportunity of a day trip or extended travel for individuals of various abilities. For the less intrepid, or those interested in a relaxing afternoon, there is the alternative of tubing, a sport definitely on the increase in the Valley, which consists simply of riding a large inner tube as it drifts downstream.
The banks of the Saco often support as much activity as the river itself. From the first warm days when the ice breaks on the river, fishermen begin to haunt its banks, hoping to hook the proverbial "big one." The Saco has brook and rainbow trout, and according to [the late] Dick Surette of the Dick Surette Fly Fishing Shop in North Conway, it is a likely place to catch "a good size brown trout." Some places are more likely than others, of course. This, the inaugural year of the Great Eastern's Fishing Derby (sponsored by the restaurant in North Conway of the same name), with prizes for the largest salt water fish, as well as the most sizable trout, will certainly find anglers out in number, seeking one of those auspicious location.
The Saco is many things to a variety of people, from the farmers who till the rich fields along its banks, to the avid sport enthusiasts who shoot its rapids. From the first days of spring until late fall when the ice begins to crystalize across its water again, the Saco, river of many attributes and sweeping bends, provides endless hours of enjoyment and satisfaction for all its patrons.