Paddling the Maine Island Trail
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.
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