Against a current craze

Police prod Saco boaters to curb the carousing

Daniel Overlook grabbed some beer as he headed out on the Saco River Sunday in Maine. Police are trying to limit rowdy behavior on the river. Daniel Overlook grabbed some beer as he headed out on the Saco River Sunday in Maine. Police are trying to limit rowdy behavior on the river. (Joel Page for The Boston Globe)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / May 28, 2009
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FRYEBURG, Maine - Robert Gerber and three buddies, huffing on a pebble beach below Swan's Falls, loaded up two canoes with enough camping gear, beer, and bug spray to launch a good-size expedition instead of a relaxing weekend paddle on the lazy Saco River.

"We just came down here to drink and have a good time away from the wife and kids," said Gerber, 45, of Worcester, Mass.

Police Chief Phil Weymouth gave these friends a once-over and noticed the unregistered electric motors, but decided to let them pass.

"Now, if that were an electric motor with 15 cases of beer, we'd probably give them a hard time," the chief said.

Instead, Weymouth is preparing for bigger fish during a river-running season that, in the past, has turned the meandering Saco into an outdoor Animal House. The locals have grown accustomed to shore-to-shore watercraft, party barges of plywood lashed to metal drums, floating barbecues, and hellacious drinking.

And that's not including the mountains of trash, drunken assaults, trespassing, unburied human waste, and illegal fireworks that have marred the summertime ambience here in rural Maine.

Now, fed up by the rowdiness, a coalition of law enforcement agencies and river-related organizations has launched an unprecedented crackdown this season in a campaign they've dubbed "Take Our River Back."

"The party's over," said Fred Westerberg, a canoe and kayak outfitter who helps coordinate cleanup crews for the Saco River Recreational Council, a nonprofit group.

During Memorial Day weekend, Fryeburg police started dramatically beefing up patrols on the river and at launch sites. State Police are providing help on the roads to curb drunken driving. And discussions are underway to consider hefty "launch fees," which would be returned to boaters only if they removed their watercraft and trash from the river after use.

The campaign appeals to enthusiasts who see in the Saco, with its sandy beaches and beautiful scenery, a slow-moving corridor of bucolic serenity within easy reach of Boston, Providence, and Portland. The 125-mile river courses from the White Mountains to the sea, but its heaviest use occurs in a 20-mile run between Fryeburg and Brownfield.

Swimming is allowed, camps can be set up on sandbars, and river water often is drinkable, Westerberg said. To the outdoors-minded, these benefits make the loud, disrespectful behavior and scattershot trash disposal so maddening.

"You're camping on these beaches that are right next to the river," said Bob Tagliaferri, executive director of the recreational council. "It's such a beautiful place, and that's the paradox."

Last year, cleanup crews removed 18.5 tons of trash, most of which was collected in the Fryeburg-to-Brownfield section.

"Why people feel they can leave trash behind and not clean up after themselves is beyond me," Tagliaferri said. "Frankly, I don't get it."

Michelle Broyer, who manages Swan's Falls Campground, which includes a popular launch site, has seen it all.

"People buy plywood and make these whole frames with bar setups on them," Broyer said. "Sometimes, they partially build them and then finish them off here" with power saws.

Weymouth, who is monitoring his first boating season as police chief, said townspeople often peppered him with questions about the river immediately after being introduced. At the time, Weymouth largely was unaware of the history of problems on the Saco. But now the river has become a priority.

"Don't come here this year and expect it to be what it's been in the past," Weymouth said.

He described the first holiday weekend of the season as a spectacular success. No river-related arrests were made, and visitors appeared to be much more discreet in the amount of alcohol they consumed and carried.

"This was a good test run," Weymouth said. "There's been a noticeable change already. I feel the word is getting out."

Weymouth posted four officers on the Saco during the weekend - two at the landings and two on the river. Those numbers are scheduled to double by the the July Fourth weekend.

For decades, Fryeburg has been a popular destination for boaters from throughout New England and other areas of the Northeast. At its height, this charming town of 3,100 residents on the New Hampshire border can be swamped by more than 6,000 weekend visitors, Tagliaferri said.

Tagliaferri and Weymouth stressed that no more than 10 percent of the boaters pose problems. But with a horde of thousands descending on Fryeburg each weekend, particularly in July and August, even that percentage can mean big, alcohol-fueled worries.

"They're drinking before they get here, they're drinking while they're launching, and by the time they get to a campground, they're plowed and they continue drinking," Weymouth said, shaking his head ruefully.

Outfitters and campgrounds along the river maintain and share lists of past troublemakers, whom they deny rentals. But such preventive measures go only so far, because many canoeists and kayakers haul their own equipment to Fryeburg and bypass the merchants.

"We will refuse that person service," said Tagliaferri, who added that names remain on the "trouble list" for five years. "We want more moms, dads, and kids."

To that end, police will be vigilant in enforcing laws against operating motorized watercraft under the influence of alcohol, Weymouth said. But if paddle power and the current are all that get a boat or barge downriver, those laws do not apply.

"If it's not motorized, you can be as drunk as you want," Weymouth said, frustrated by such instances. "But drunks usually do something stupid."

That's one reason the police are monitoring areas where boaters leave the Saco. "Two cases of beer is a good weekend," Weymouth said. "Four will get you in jail, and you can be sure your drunken buddies will not be getting off the river to bail you out."

Authorities also will be enforcing laws that restrict the location of campfires, which can be lighted on the many sandbars that are exposed in summer but are off-limits on the private property that lines the river.

With vigilance, Tagliaferri said, this season could be a watershed that turns the clock back to a time when the Saco was much more family-friendly.

"We've got a summer ahead of us," Tagliaferri said, "that could be the best ever."