Paddling the Maine Island Trail
Illustration Credit: Michael Byers</sub
My plan on the first day of August 1989 was to paddle a fiberglass kayak some 325 miles northeastward along the Maine coast to Machias, camping on islands along the way, living a sort of Robinson Crusoe existence for a month.
The problem: Prior to that moment, I’d never actually paddled a loaded kayak, never paddled through breaking surf, never paddled in fog.
Some of the biggest adventures are born of small ideas. The small idea behind this journey–to live really cheaply for a month–involved more of a push than a pull. The agreement with my landlord was that I’d relinquish the house on Peaks Island for all of August. I was reasonably young, had little money and fewer obligations, and I’d heard about the recently created Maine Island Trail, a network of three dozen or so islands no more than a day’s paddle apart, where anyone could camp for free. Why not paddle the whole thing?
So I bought a used kayak and paddled around Peaks twice to gain expertise; then a friend taught me to identify edible island plants. Most of them, as I recall, tasted like iodine. Immediately afterward, I bought a boatload, quite literally, of pasta. Over the course of the next month I discovered that rotini boiled in seawater with freshly gathered mussels and tossed with a little wild mustard and a lot of black pepper was actually pretty good.
My route to the first night’s campsite was neither the most efficient nor the most direct. At least, I don’t believe it was; I’m not sure exactly how I got there. But I landed some hours later on a foggy gravel beach at an island a few miles offshore, then immediately dug out a book I’d recently bought (and hadn’t read) on kayak navigation. I began what would be the first of many hands-on lessons that month.
The fledgling Maine Island Trail itself, as it happened, was also born of a simple idea that quickly grew more sophisticated. In 1987, the nonprofit Island Institute undertook a survey of Maine’s state-owned islands with an eye toward their potential for recreation. There were about 1,300 of them in all–many just uninteresting bits of surf-washed ledge. “But in the course of the survey we came across 30-odd that had tremendous recreational potential,” recalls Dave Getchell Sr., then an editor with the institute’s Island Journal. “And it occurred to me that if we set up a water trail instead of a land trail, people could cruise along the coast and have a place to stay at night.”
Getchell wrote an article outlining the idea of a water trail. He was soon awash in enthusiastic responses. The following year the Maine Island Trail Association was established as a program of the Island Institute.
The trail would be open to both paddlers and motorboaters–anyone adept at pulling up on a rocky shore or mooring in tricky conditions. The idea was embraced not only by these recreational boaters–all of whom seemed to have an inordinate love of islands–but also, perhaps surprisingly, by individuals who owned private islands. Many were happy to open their properties to camping, in exchange for which they’d get free stewardship services; volunteers would keep an eye on the islands through the summer, clean up trash, and keep pathways clear.