Quiet picnic spots, porpoises and seals, remote campsites and seldom-seen coastal beauty await.
Little Chebeague isn’t as little as you might think. My guide is leading me into the island’s dense, leafy interior. I can hear the words that she used before we left on this excursion: “Most of the islands on the trail don’t have homes or any development. We focus on wild islands . . . and keeping wild sites pristine and accessible is sort of our mission.”
I’ve come to this wild site with kayaking guide Erin Quigley to learn about the Maine Island Trail, and from what I can see Little Chebeague falls squarely in that category. The island, actually quite sizable but smaller than its sister island to the northeast, is uninhabited save for the occasional campers, some of whom stay for a night or two, or three, or, though they’re really not supposed to, even longer.
There was once a robust hospitality industry on the island, Quigley tells me. Laminated sheets that are attached to wooden posts spread across the island’s beaches and woodlands tell the story. It includes a bustling hotel and a small village of “cottages,” the summer homes of wealthy residents, now dilapidated and destroyed, buried under 80 years of vegetation’s nearly uninterrupted growth.
During World War II the government built artillery installations on the island. Fearing that the guns would be seen from the sky, they also planted fast-growing vines to camouflage the metal and cement positions. Now, like many islands off Maine’s coast, the bittersweet and other invasive plants have run amok. It’s more difficult to see from the island’s interior, but from the beach or from offshore it’s clear. Nearly every tree trunk is wrapped with a heavy skirt of vines and leaves. If left unchecked, those unwanted vestments will pull the trees down to their demise, Quigley tells me.
Little Chebeague is, despite its unique history, natural beauty and ecological challenges, in many ways like the other islands in Casco Bay that I’ve come to know. Every summer for the last six years I’ve had the enviable task of spending a day on a Casco Bay island and documenting my experience for readers of the Sun Journal.
For this summer’s piece, the newspaper decided to take a different approach. Why visit another island in Casco Bay, the editors thought, when I could learn about more than 200 sites running the entire length of the Maine coastline? That, in a few words, is the Maine Island Trail.
“The way we think of it is that it’s a long-distance water trail. But it’s not a trail with one route, like the Appalachian Trail. It’s more this series of wild island sites all up and down the coast where there’s public access maintained,” says Quigley, my guide for the day and the director of membership and outreach for the Maine Island Trail Association, the nonprofit that manages the Maine Island Trail. “The whole purpose,” she says, “is that there are these (publicly accessible sites on Maine islands) available, some for camping, some for day use.”
The Maine Island Trail is a showcase for the natural beauty of Maine’s coastline. Besides the thousands of Maine residents who enjoy the state’s islands, inlets, bays and tidal waters, tourists from around the world come to Maine each year to visit its pristine and wild coastal environment. Part of the work of MITA, according to Quigley, is to promote this natural resource among Mainers. Those in search of wild vistas, unique recreation, a closer connection to nature or a just a good workout can find benefit from the Maine Island Trail.
The trail is comprised mainly of island sites, though it also includes numerous spots on the coastal mainland. In all, Quigley says there are 217 current sites, running from “the border of New Hampshire to the border of Canada.” The Maine Island Trail includes day and overnight camping sites, picnic spots, moorings and anchorages, and island hiking trails.
“We don’t actually own any land,” says Quigley about MITA. “We just bring together landowners and partnerships. So we have 95 landowners that are part of the trail right now, and that’s everything from the federal government, state government – we have about 50 state-owned islands on the trail,” as well as land held in trusts, conserved land and land owned by private families.
She tells me this as we stand in the parking lot of the Falmouth public boat launch, one of many good options to push off from in Casco Bay. (Another is at East End Beach in Portland.) We met at 8 a.m. so we’d have plenty of time on the water. Quigley has devised a trip that will give me a feel for the trail, albeit on a miniature scale. Now, before we embark, she gives me a history of the trail and the nonprofit, as well as a primer on sea kayaking basics and safety. (See information boxes for more on those.)
Headquartered in Portland, MITA was founded in 1988. “It started with only state-owned islands,” Quigley tells me. “The founder was a guy named Dave Getchell Sr., along with a small group of others. He noticed that there were all these state-owned islands out there off the coast that no one knew about that weren’t being cared for in any systematic way.” Getchell worked with the state and the Island Institute and, with funding help from L.L. Bean, the Maine Island Trail was born.
“It was a really revolutionary idea at the time that the people who actually used the sites could be the people who helped keep them pristine and wild,” says Quigley. And, she adds, it was an idea whose value has been borne out in practice. “The islands are in, across the board, better shape than they were when the Maine Island Trail was founded,” she says.
“The whole philosophy is that we want people to experience these islands and, in turn, take care of them as they use them. So we consider ourselves kind of a two-faceted organization. We have the access and recreation aspect, where we maintain access to the islands for anyone who wants to use them – safely, of course – and we also do stewardship,” says Quigley.
And despite a mission that spans Maine’s entire coastline and a large membership, MITA keeps it tight. “We’re an eight-person organization with intense logistical systems, (but) we’re still pretty scrappy. We have eight staff and then several hundred volunteers, including maybe 30 or 40 that are really dedicated and they’re out every couple of weeks.”
CASCO BAY: A BUSY WATERWAY
Quigley checks her watch. Already an hour has disappeared and she is concerned about whether we’ll be able to complete the route she’s planned, to Little Chebeague and back. I load my camera equipment into a dry bag that she has provided. She tells me about my boat, a sea kayak donated by Portland Paddle. She tells me where to stow my gear, consisting of sunscreen, extra layers of clothing and bottles of water. Sitting in the boat, I adjust the foot pedals to allow for ample rudder control, then take a few practice strokes with the paddle, pushing through the air beside the kayak.
We launch and drift effortlessly into the bay. Immediately we’re surrounded by dozens of boats, a combination of working lobster boats and luxury yachts, that moor off the Falmouth coast. Quigley takes the lead, cutting a path through the rolling vessels, and I follow. Soon we’re clear of the moorings and heading toward Clapboard Island, a small island with a few houses on the southern side. Although the island is not on the Maine Island Trail, Quigley tells me, portions of it are conserved by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and open to the public. As we approach Clapboard, I get a lesson on the fauna of the bay.
Casco Bay, Quigley tells me, is a busy waterway, with lots of commercial and recreational traffic. Compared to the pristine Deer Isle region, a world renown destination for sea kayakers, Casco Bay is home to fewer and more cautious animals. Those hoping to see seals, porpoises and water foul are advised to go out in the early morning or in the evening, when the bay is typically calmer and quieter. Still, it’s not unusual for curious seals to check out boaters and paddlers, says Quigley, sometimes swimming right up to the watercraft. But Quigley warns it’s not a good idea to go near seals lying on beaches or the rocky coastline. This can spook the animals, causing them to retreat to the water, at times injuring themselves or leaving behind pups. If seals are on the shore and “you’re close enough that they’re looking at you, that’s too close,” she says.
We cross the northern side of Clapboard and I glance toward a thin strip of rock to the west of the island: No seals this morning. About 50 feet ahead of us is an area of water that seems to be boiling. At the surface are dozens, maybe hundreds of fish, likely feeding on bugs just above the water. Seeing the fish prompts me to ask Quigley about the overall health of the bay, but I stop before finishing the question. Not far from us, possibly attracted by the frenzied school of fish, a porpoise has just surfaced, exhaling powerfully before sinking back into the water.
With Quigley going first, we glide into the main channel of the bay. We’re surrounded now by larger boats, though most are far enough away that they seem to move slowly, bobbing on the increasingly choppy water. Some powerboats are moving up and down the channel. They seem to be occupied mostly by young men. Lobster boats are hurrying from buoy to buoy. A large fishing boat is moving north up the bay toward us. Quigley, alert, is keeping an eye on our surroundings. “This is where you want a guide,” she says, looking from boat to boat, assessing the many paths of the various vessels moving in the bay.
From Clapboard, the trip to Little Chebeague takes about 45 minutes. On the way, Quigley tells me more about how MITA operates. It’s a membership organization, she tells me, with an individual membership costing $45 annually and a family membership costing $65. Membership includes a copy of the group’s guidebook as well as access to special content on the group’s smartphone app. Anyone can download the app, says Quigley, but certain features can only be unlocked with membership.
The guidebook “and the app have all the stuff you’d need to know to plan a trip, basically, except for the ?(nautical) ?charts?,” which Quigley suggests people should use for longer trips along the coast. “But (the book) has all kinds of other resources.” They include, most importantly, otherwise-hard-to-find directions to all the Maine Island Trail’s sites on private property, as well as the public property sites. MITA members are also able to access special discounts available through association partners.
AN EASY DAY TRIP
We arrive at Little Chebeague, landing on a sandy beach on the island’s southeast side. We pull the kayaks up onto the shore and I follow Quigley along the beach, which winds up the eastern side of the island. Just off the beach is one of MITA’s official campsites. It’s vacant today, but someone has been here recently: They’ve left a little tepee of sticks in the fire pit, ready to be set alight. Because of the number of MITA sites on the island and because of its popularity on the trail, Little Chebeague is one of two islands that employ a full-time caretaker during the boating season, although today the caretaker is on vacation.
Quigley and I head into the island’s interior and explore some of the island’s now-run-down sites, before returning to our boats and sailing for Falmouth. She informs me that we will need to go straight back to maintain our schedule, and it dawns on me that we’re nearing the end of our trip. The day has passed quickly and what was probably an hour-and-a-half of paddling seemed to disappear in a snap.
We decide to circumnavigate Little Chebeague – a feat that we soon realize is impossible since low tide has exposed the sand bar that connects Little Chebeague with its bigger neighbor. We portage the kayaks, one at a time, over the sandbar. On the other side is a long, flat, horseshoe-shaped beach. The water there is shallow and warm. I’m actually thankful we have to portage, as it gives me a small taste of one more element of the Maine Island Trail.
On the way home, the wind and the waves work for us. We make good time and come cruising back to the Falmouth moorings within about 45 minutes. Had we been quicker to launch in the morning or had we spent less time on Little Chebeague, my guide tells me, we could have stopped at Basket Island, a small and completely undeveloped island due west of Chebeague that is another MITA site. I have no doubt that Quigley’s advice, history lesson and patience answering my many questions slowed us down today. Although I’ve definitely gotten my workout, I’m regretful that we had to skip Basket.
Earlier, I’d asked Quigley about the longest trip she had ever taken with her kayak. Twenty miles, she told me, in one day. Among the provisions she’d loaded into her boat was an entire pie. It was good, she said, but not very easy to travel with. I can almost guarantee that my next sea kayaking excursion will not include doing 20 miles in one day — though maybe over several days, which is a definite possibility thanks to the formlessness of the 217 sites composing the Maine Island Trail.
For beginners interested in day trips or for professionals hoping to through-paddle the entire trail, a great resource is the Maine Island Trail Association. Learn more online at www.mita.org or download their app, the 2016 Maine Island Trail app, for Apple or Android devices.
“. . . To establish a model of thoughtful use and volunteer stewardship for the Maine islands that will assure their conservation in a natural state while providing an exceptional recreational asset that is maintained and cared for by the people who use it.”
Put another way:
“A water trail created, protected and enjoyed by people who love the coast of Maine.”
* 217 total sites
* 12 new sites this year (2016)
* Involving 95 landowners, from individual families to large public agencies, including the state of Maine
* Roughly 5,400 members
* Membership dues cover just over one-fourth of the group’s operating costs
* Members are: 50 percent paddlers, 25 percent sailors, 25 percent power boaters
* 400 people volunteer on the trail each year
* 20 are monitor skippers (volunteers who use MITA skiffs to make scheduled runs to the islands during the summer to monitor conditions and report back)
* 80 are island adopters (volunteers who steward a specific island using their own boat)
* 300 are cleanup and work project volunteers
* 1,100 total stewardship visits to trail sites were made in 2015
* Over 650 bags of trash were removed from island shorelines in 2015
* A total of 4,100 volunteer hours were spent on stewardship in 2015
Tips from a sea kayaking guide
Before she joined the Maine Island Trail Association, registered Maine sea kayak guide Erin Quigley co-founded Portland Paddle with (the aptly named) Zack Anchors. The group provides guided tours, educational classes and rentals of kayaks and paddle boards from East End Beach in Portland. For those who may be a bit rusty, Erin offers the following sea kayaking primer:
* “Holding the paddle: You want to make sure your paddle is oriented correctly (with) the scoop facing towards you. Every time you take a stroke, it’s kind of like you’re scooping up the water with a spoon.”
* “You also want the long edge of the paddle to be on top, not the bottom.”
* “You want to make sure you’re holding the paddle with your hands far enough apart, not close to the middle. A good way to tell is to put the paddle above your head and you want your arms to be making right angles. It normally feels a little too wide when you’ve got it right.”
* “You want to maintain a nice loose grip on the paddle. If you do the death grip thing, that’s where you start to get blisters.”
* “When you’re paddling, keep it out away from your body. Don’t let (the paddle) fall down, cause then you’re just going to hit your hands on the deck. I like to tell people to imagine they have a beach ball between (their stomach) and the paddle.”
* “Your basic stroke: You put one blade (of the paddle) in up at your feet, bring it back to your seat. Feet to seat, alternating sides. And it’s important to just get in a steady rhythm with that. There’s no need to reach way far out or dig in deep. Your basic forward stroke, you just want to do something sustainable over the distance that you’re traveling. So feet to seat, in a steady stroke, in a cadence that doesn’t feel super crazy.”
* “To stop the kayak, just drop your paddle in the water. That puts the breaks on. It will turn the kayak in that direction, so you might want to do both sides to stop in a straight line. There are very few occasions when you’ll probably need to do that. Powerboats are one.”
* “Going backward is just as easy, you put the blade in at your seat and push forward to your feet.”
* “You’ll (probably) do most of your steering through your rudder, which is connected through foot pedals in the boat. But you can also maneuver and steer with the paddles. Paddling more on the right will make the boat go left (and vice versa). Most folks have done that before in a boat.”
* “When you’re taking your basic stroke, you want to use your whole body with each stroke (not just your forearms). You want to think about pulling with your bottom arm and actively pushing with your top arm each time you take a stroke, so you’re incorporating both arms. And then you want to be incorporating your core, because your core muscles are big and efficient and your other muscles are not. So when you take a stroke, you’re rotating your whole body to one side, and then rotating your whole body to the other. You can even practice when you’re on the water by looking at your paddle blade as it goes around and that will encourage your whole torso to follow the paddle.”
* “(Don’t forget the use of your legs.) Sea kayaks are navigated primarily with a rudder connected to foot pedals in the boat. To get extra leverage for your stroke, press both feet against the foot pedals with equal weight. This will keep the rudder steady but allow you some extra torque when turning your body into the stroke.”
Some of the things you might need for a day trip on the Maine Island Trail
– Sea kayak, sailboat, dinghy, motorboat or other seaworthy watercraft
– Personal flotation device
– Non-cotton clothing, with lots of layers – perhaps even neoprene or drywear
– Comfortable, not-too-loose footwear that protects your toes
– Rain gear
– Nautical chart and compass (and know how to use them!)
– Safety gear for your specific watercraft (for kayaking, for instance, you’ll want a spare paddle, bilge pump, paddle float and tow belt, among other things.
The seven leave-no-trace principles
1) Plan ahead and prepare
2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces
3) Dispose of waste properly
4) Leave what you find
5) Minimize campfire impacts / kindle no fires
6) Respect wildlife
7) Be considerate of other visitors
Source: www.lnt.org (also found in the Maine Island Trail Association guidebook)
Max is the owner of Maine Creative, a Portland-based design and marketing firm, in addition to Intoxicles, a company he started in 2015 that makes cocktail freezer pops. When he’s not hustling, he likes learning, cooking, and hiking with friends. You can contact Max by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or find him on Facebook or Instagram.