Merrymeeting Bay (also formerly known as Maremiten) is a large freshwater tidal bay in Sagadahoc, Lincoln, and Cumberland counties, in the U.S. state of Maine. Merrymeeting Bay's unusual geography defies common landform terms. It is not what is usually meant by the word bay. It is somewhat like an estuary except for being fresh water with very little salt. Geologically it is described as an "inland delta" and biologically as "tidal riverine."
Bordering towns and cities include Bath, Brunswick, Topsham, Bowdoinham, Bowdoin, Richmond, Dresden, Pittston, and Woolwich. Land surrounding the bay is privately owned. Public access to the bay is gained mainly from public docks on one of the contributing rivers in Brunswick, Bath, Richmond and Bowdoinham.
Six rivers flow into the bay, the two largest being the Kennebec River and the Androscoggin River. The four other rivers are the Cathance River, Eastern River, Abagadasset River, and Muddy River. The bay drains water from nearly 40% of Maine's land area as well as from part of New Hampshire. The watershed is just under 20,000 square miles (50,000 km2).
Merrymeeting Bay is linked to the Gulf of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean by the Lower Kennebec River, a long saltwater tidal channel. The Lower Kennebec River and Merrymeeting Bay are known collectively as the Kennebec Estuary. Merrymeeting Bay's connection to the Lower Kennebec River is via a 280-yard (260 m) slot in the bedrock called The Chops, an area of converging water flows known to be hazardous to boaters.
The waters of the bay flow out through The Chops at low tide, while high tide brings a mix of fresh water and seawater back up the Kennebec. The river flow volume from six rivers typically exceeds the volume of the incoming tide. Combined with the bottleneck of The Chops, the result is a tidal waterbody with very little salt, known as brackish.
Merrymeeting Bay is about 17 miles (27 km) from the ocean and contains many river delta characteristics. The tides average about 5 feet (1.5 m).
Large numbers of migrating birds use Merrymeeting Bay as a stopping point. For the east coast of the United States, the concentration of waterfowl at Merrymeeting Bay is second only to Chesapeake Bay. The bay is also home to a large population of bald eagles. The strong tidal currents and saltwater in the Lower Kennebec River prevent the river below The Chops or Thorne Head from freezing, making it an ideal wintering habitat for waterfowl, though the freshwater in the bay and the Kennebec above The Chops freezes thoroughly. The bay and Kennebec above were once home to a thriving ice harvesting industry. Kennebec ice was shipped as far away as India in the early 20th century.
The origin of the name is uncertain. Some suggest that it comes from the seasonal movements of the indigenous Abenaki Indians, but their name for the bay does not have this meaning. Abenaki names recorded for this bay were Chisapeak ("at the big part of the river") as well as Quabacook, meaning "duck watering place". The 17th-century English name for this bay is a symbolic reference to periodic festive gatherings known at the time as "merry meetings" (such as the annual spring fairs in old England known as May Fairs when people played games, held archery contests, danced around the maypole, and often got drunk. These "rabble-rousing festivities" were headed by a popular elected leader known as a "Robin Hood." Puritans (Calvinist Protestants) denounced these folk festivals as vulgar revelries with "light, lewde, and lascivious dancing." Dismissed as "wild men," Abenaki Indians on the lower Kennebec were given English nicknames, some of which were derogatory. Chief Rawandagon, the 17th-century sagamore (headman) of the lower Kennebec, including Merrymeeting Bay, became famous as Robin Hood. As in the May Fairs, he headed a band of "merry men." A village on Georgetown Island on the lower Kennebec, located at the entrance of Robinhood Cove, reminds us of this Abenaki chief It has also been suggested that the name may have been intended to attract a certain kind of English colonist and repel Puritans, as the bay was host to rum importation. Variant early colonial English names of Merrymeeting Bay include New Somerset Lake and Swan Pond.
It might more plausibly have come from the springtime reunions of trappers and traders, native Americans and Euro-Americans, which would presumably have been as convivial as cheap rum and brandy could make them. But my guess is that the name had more to do with the English culture wars than with local events, and that it was intended to appeal to one kind of English colonist and warn off another. The fact that one cove downriver from the Bay is named Robinhood and another Christmas tends to support this: both names, to a Puritan, would have smacked of Merry Olde England, which was precisely the anathema they were fleeing.
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