Paddling the Maine Island Trail
So a handful of private islands were added to the public islands in the network. The first guidebook–a few dozen photocopied pages stuck in a looseleaf notebook–served as both passport and guide and was mailed to the first round of members. I still have my well-used copy.
My month-long journey involved not only honing camping and kayaking skills but getting an advanced education about the Maine coast as well. Among my first lessons: The Maine coast wasn’t the wilderness I’d thought it was. No matter how remote an island, come dawn I’d be awakened by the throaty growl of a lobster boat hauling traps, sometimes just a few dozen yards from my tent. Also, I learned that lobstermen like country music, played loud–in particular, Ricky Skaggs. Some mornings, awakening from a deep sleep, I was convinced I’d accidentally pitched my tent at a Midwestern truck stop. I grew to like the social aspect of the trip. The lobstermen were cordial if not garrulous, happy to exchange waves as I sipped my morning tea on a rock. (I learned later that they privately refer to kayaks as “speed bumps.”) What’s more, I was rarely more than a couple of hours from a lively harbor, and so every few days I’d veer landward for a lobster roll and a cold beer, then fill up a slew of empty quart bottles with fresh water. (Only one island on the trail had drinkable water.) Then after lunch, I’d set off back out into the archipelago as the lowering sun turned the world around me into a vast Eric Hopkins painting.
Afternoons on the islands were my favorite times; most of the working boats had returned to their home harbors, and peace and quiet had settled offshore. Often a woolly cloak of gray fog would roll in, making an island two miles out feel instantly like 200 miles away. Evenings were monkish and solitary. Sea kayaking was still pretty much in its infancy two decades ago–during the entire month of August, I crossed paths with only three other kayakers–and I spent many nights engaged in a favorite pastime: lying in the grass, looking at the stars, and thinking how stupid people were not to all be camping on Maine’s islands.
Well, it turned out people weren’t all that stupid. Many did start to come out to the islands in subsequent years, and in droves, causing some worries and aggravation. Sea kayaking took off as a sport nationally in the early 1990s, and suddenly every third car on the Maine Turnpike looked like a mobile missile launcher. The Maine Island Trail Association–which had become an independent nonprofit after a split from the Island Institute–took the brunt of the blame, with some lovers of the coast blaming the group for promoting the islands and encouraging overuse.
“Over time there’s been a lot of hand wringing, in part because people thought there was a correlation” between the national surge in sea kayaking and MITA’s founding, says Doug Welch, MITA’s current executive director. He notes that island overuse is a legitimate concern, but adds that the group’s goal has always been to get ahead of the curve, not only by channeling visitors to islands that could best handle recreational traffic, but also by instilling a strong conservation ethic among visitors.
Membership in the organization has held pretty steady in recent years: about 3,600 dues-paying members. And although, according to Welch, day use is up, particularly in the more populated areas such as Casco Bay, island camping seems to be on the decline–again mirroring a national trend, this time away from backcountry camping.
Spreading a low-impact ethic, Welch says, is among MITA’s chief accomplishments over the past 20 years. MITA is now really more of a conservation group with a recreational element, rather than the other way around. Most of the islands were once littered with plastic debris that had washed ashore and had been blown into the interior by winter winds. From the beginning, MITA has sent out volunteers in empty skiffs, which return hours later mounded with polystyrene rope and plastic bottles. Although new harvests of plastic arrive on the tides every day, the islands are cleaner now than they have been in decades.
“The leave-no-trace ethic has sunk in for the average visitor,” Welch says. “It’s the ‘broken window’ theory: If you come upon a place that’s trashed, you won’t think twice about littering. But if you come upon a place that’s totally pristine, it takes a pretty self-centered person to leave something behind.”
The Maine Island Trail is today recognized as the first of the modern water trails–although water routes have, of course, existed on this continent since shortly after the Bering land bridge was crossed–and dozens of others have cropped up around the nation since. But MITA remains a singular organization. Welch says that people aspiring to launch water trails in their own regions often ask to see the contracts spelling out terms between private-island owners and the group. But there isn’t one: “We’ve managed to do this all along without anything more than a handshake. Other trails find it hard to believe that there’s no paperwork or legal agreement. It’s uniquely Maine, and I can’t see it working in other states.”
Late last summer I set out for a few days of paddling along the eastern end of the trail, heading out from near Machias to Halifax Island, the last island I’d camped on in 1989. The region is largely overlooked by paddlers: It’s too far from any town, too foggy, too swept by intimidating tides.