The Maine coast is one of the most beautiful sea kayaking destinations in the U.S.
By Levi Bridges | January 2012
Hundreds of stunning, offshore islands dot the coast here and the cold waters offer a variety of paddling conditions. What’s more, the Maine Island Trail (MIT) allows explorers to troll the seas for a quiet afternoon, or weeks at a time.
The MIT is a 375-mile series of mainland and island campsites stretching from the New Hampshire border northeast all the way to Machias Bay, near Canada. Beginner and veteran paddlers alike will lose themselves in the intoxicating beauty of the Maine coast, floating between pine tree dappled islets whose granite foundations rise from the mist, navigating fierce tides, or camping on beaches whose shores give way to turquoise waters that recall images of the Caribbean.
A kayaking trip along the Maine Island Trail will delight adventurers with a diverse range of abilities. Much of Maine’s coast is protected by long chains of archipelagos and wide bays, offering beginner paddlers a sheltered kayaking experience on gentle—yet frigid—waters. Paddlers with higher skill levels can circumnavigate the larger, outer island systems of Vinalhaven and Swan’s Island, where extreme tides and rolling ocean swells create technical and, at times, unforgiving conditions.
Last summer, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of paddling roughly half of the MIT from Blue Hill Bay, a long inlet in the state’s midcoast region where I grew up, almost two hundred miles northeast to Machias Bay. Paddlers have been known to traverse the entire MIT in under two weeks, but I took my time, spending just under a month exploring roughly half of the coast. Along the way, I often based out of island campsites on the MIT for several days and then went on numerous day trips with my boat lightened of gear and supplies.
The easiest and most rewarding way of exploring the Maine coast by kayak is via the MIT. Information about the trail is only available through a guidebook put out by the Maine Island Trail Association, available both in print and online. A yearly membership to MITA costs $45 for an individual, $65 for families, and comes with a copy of the newest annual addition of the MIT guidebook, access to campsites on both public and privately owned islands, as well as discounts on kayaks and gear.
Since its founding, MITA has promoted land conservation and low-impact visitation of Maine’s unique coastal environment. MITA requires that visitors to points along the Trail adhere to Leave No Trace guidelines while visiting coastal environments. Practices such as camping only on durable surfaces or designated spots, not veering off island trails or walking on soft earth to protect plant life and soils, cleaning up garbage, and, in all cases, packing everything off the island that you bring in, all help ensure that the natural character of Maine’s coast will be preserved for years to come.
The MIT guidebook also gives information on launching spots, tides, and various localized conditions to make for safe paddling. Much of the Maine coast consists of long bays and inlets surrounded by islands, large and small, that protect the coast from major sea swell. However, the coast becomes more exposed the further you head towards Canada, and into the isolated, most northerly section of the coast that locals refer to as “Down East.” MITA recommends that non-expert paddlers explore the waters with a Maine Guide—a person certified to lead travelers on outdoor activities—paddle in groups, and stay onshore during the slightest possibility of rough weather or winds. More information about safety issues can be found in the MITA guidebook.
I completed my journey along the MIT last summer between late July and early August. The water becomes warmer in August, but also brings in steep fog banks that can create near zero visibility on the water. That being said, the Maine coast is a joy to paddle around at any point during the summer months.
Last year, I had the time of my life exploring the northeasterly half of the MIT, taking my time to enjoy the islands along the way. Next year, I’m looking forward to drifting down to southern Maine to complete my journey.
Read more about the Maine Island Trail in Levi Bridges' blog posts from his Coastal Maine Adventures.