Paddling the Maine Island Trail
“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.
Halifax was as lovely as I remembered it: a mostly treeless knob of about 60 acres, with high, rocky bluffs on the southwest corner. It had been hammered a couple of weeks earlier by waves from Hurricane Bill passing miles offshore: the grasses flattened, and bright-red rose hips clinging to bushes turned brown from saltwater. Halifax was privately owned when I camped here two decades ago. It’s now owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has posted it with signs banning access to the delicate bogs of the interior, where I’d once filled empty water bottles with blueberries and raspberries. (Camping on Halifax requires both MITA membership and prior permission from the USFWS.) Other than that, the place hasn’t changed.
The context has altered somewhat, though. Halifax is no longer the last island in the network, which now spans the whole of Maine’s coastline. In 2009, Smuttynose, on the New Hampshire border, was added to the trail, and islands well into Canada in Passamaquoddy Bay form a side trip. (The unforgiving cliffs of the Bold Coast, east of Machias, limit through-paddling to all but the most experienced sea kayakers.) Also joining the network this year or next will be a cluster of islands in Cobscook Bay on Maine’s easternmost edge, home to powerful tides–a challenging, hazardous destination for boaters.
Technology has also intruded. In 1989, I had no GPS, no cell phone, no iPod–no electronics save for a small weather radio. But last year, my dry box was crammed: Out on Halifax Island I read that day’s New York Times on a Kindle, checked e-mail, even made a call to Ireland. Convenient, but somehow it felt wrong and unclean. Technology has made the islands smaller and less remote, as if the world has suddenly constricted around them. I vowed to leave anything with a battery behind next time.
That afternoon I stowed away my electronics in the beached kayak, then set off to spend a few hours poking around, scrambling up ledges, marveling at smooth granite cobbles, basking in the lambent light of the Maine coast. I found a dead lobster, prehistorically large and with claws as big and powerful as a forklift, and I gathered some cranberries and scraggly blueberries from bogs and bushes edging the shore. For a moment, it seemed that 20 years had been instantly erased.
“There hasn’t been much change,” noted Dave Getchell, when I asked him what he thought had changed over the past two decades. “And that’s good news. The islands I’ve seen have been very much the way they always were.”
I’m looking forward to filing a similar report 20 years hence.