A Passion for Paddling
By Tamsin Venn
Adventurous souls navigate the wonders of Maine’s islands.
“Having sea kayaked around the entire rim of the Gulf of Maine, from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, the thing that makes Maine so unique is the Maine Island Trail. Nowhere else in the Gulf of Maine can you camp on an island where its caretakers will ensure your access while tending to the island’s conservation needs,” says Natalie Springuel of Bar Harbor, a longtime sea-kayaking enthusiast.
Tom Bergh, owner of the Maine Island Kayak Company on Peaks Island, echoes Springuel’s enthusiasm:
“There are only two places on this coast, Georgia and Maine, that have these island systems, multiple tiers to pull back from the bigger seas and outer islands, which allows more people to have access to these islands even with limited seamanship.”
Bergh and Springuel have both converted their passion for paddling into fully realized careers. The kayaker’s maxim has always been “don’t quit your day job,” but Bergh did exactly that. Nearly 24 years ago, he moved back East from Colorado and left his law practice to devote himself full-time to introducing adventurous souls to the wonders of Maine’s islands.
Ever since he ran his first commercial trip in 1986, Bergh’s emphasis has always been on the journey, and how a trip to Maine’s islands can personally transform the people he is guiding. As evidence, he mentions a leading physician who kept returning one summer for multiday camping trips. “One could feel his fearful excitement about doing something new in medicine. About Thanksgiving, Rudi sent me a postcard that simply said: ‘Damn you, I quit.’ He went back to medical school for a fresh career.”
“The other thing that is neat about the islands in Maine is that they’re fairly close together, so crossings are rarely more than a mile,” Bergh says. “And they are grouped into archipelagos that allow circle trips or a focus on an area as opposed to most of the world, which has to go off the beach and go right or left. That’s boring as can be, compared to what we have.”
Since 1999, Bergh has also led the five-week course Geology of the Coast of Maine by Sea Kayak for Bates College, so he has become well acquainted with the area’s natural systems and features. “You’ve got three ecosystems. The metamorphosed sediments, deciduous forests to the south, and the river section and Casco Bay; then you have the beautiful dome-shaped pastured evergreen islands that are in the magnificent granites in Penobscot Bay; and farther up north, downeast, you get into the subarctic species on open moor islands that are volcanic with no trees,” says Bergh.
“In Maine, there’s so much landform that changes wave shape and creates the wind and tidal pockets,” he continues. “It just makes the teaching or the journey so much fresher every hundred strokes because it looks different. The sea states and the forces at work are unique. Route selections are the essence of seamanship, choosing the right route given your goals for the day and the people and the environment. The Gulf of Maine is a terrific place to study oceanography, marine sciences, weather systems, the water cycle, and the human impact of fishing and forest—while still remaining connected to the original native people.”
For kayakers looking for a shorter summer trip, Bergh recommends a three-to five-day group trip that includes training in how to navigate the tides and other elements common to the island areas of Maine. “Choose a venue that will push you beyond your comfort zone, but allow you to complete even with bad weather,” he says.
For the past ten years, Natalie Springuel has worked as a coastal community development extension associate with the Maine Sea Grant partnership at the College of the Atlantic. In graduate school, she circumnavigated Nova Scotia with a fellow student. “While I looked at recreation and tourism issues, and how they compared to Maine, she looked at fisheries’ decline,” says Springuel.
In 2002, Springuel built on her Nova Scotia experience and launched the Gulf of Maine Expedition, a five-month sea-kayaking tour organized to raise awareness about the ecology and cultural legacy of the Gulf of Maine, and to capture a snapshot of its conditions while documenting the issues that inhabitants were concerned about. The group stopped in 24 towns along the way to collaborate with local organizations.
On the expedition, she met her future husband, Rich MacDonald, who just last May opened the Natural History Center in Bar Harbor. The two are also naturalists for Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion cruises, and they have paddled with their daughter, Anouk, in a roomy double-seater Klepper kayak ever since she was a few months old. “Her first big kayak camping adventure was last summer when she was just barely 2,” says Springuel.
Like many sea kayakers in the state, Springuel is deeply appreciative of the Maine Island Trail Association (MITA), which is devoted to ensuring that the wild natural ecosystems of the Maine coast remain accessible and pristine far into the future. Members of the organization are given access to 185 sites along its 375-mile water trail that extends from the New Hampshire border to Machais Bay. “As waterfront land increasingly changes hands and permissive trespass is a thing of the past, the Maine Island Trail offers a welcome respite from the challenges inherent in an era of decreasing coastal access,” Springuel says.
“A loon calls from the south, an osprey from the north. On the east side, seals bask on a ledge, and on the west, a stunning sunset caps off another day on the Maine Island Trail. From my perch atop a granite knoll on this public island, it seems so natural that upwards of 200 people or more volunteer annually with the Maine Island Trail to keep these places serene and true to the timeless character of the Maine coast. If only more could experience the world from a Maine island, surely our coast would be protected forever.”
Randy Wetzel of Scarborough is relatively new to kayaking. Six years ago, he and his wife took classes at the L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery School. They loved the experience so much they returned to Freeport two weeks later and bought a kayak. They were hooked.
Wetzel felt the hard bite of personal loss when his younger brother succumbed to cancer last year, and it made him realize that life is short. After a career in business, he decided it was time to make a shift and bring more balance to his life. “I said to myself: I’m going to start kayaking. My daughter has gotten the bug as well, so kayaking has become a family activity.” Wetzel and his family started out small in the calm Scarborough marshes, but they gradually built up their confidence and are now going out into Casco Bay.
Wetzel soon got involved with the Maine Island Trail Association. He attended an L.L. Bean safety seminar and “MITA always sets up a booth at those. Once you’ve learned about MITA, there’s nothing but good to say about them,” he says.
Wetzel intends to continue building his kayaking skills. He already purchased a kayak that allows him to do longer tours, and when he retires in five years he plans to start undertaking even lengthier trips. As for his involvement in the Maine Island Trail, “I plan to continue to helping them out wherever I can,” he says.
Volunteers like Wetzel have been the cornerstone of Maine Island Trail for more than twenty years. In the 1970s, the state of Maine realized that it held titles to 1,300 unclaimed islands, which gave rise to the question: What should we do with them? The state contracted the Island Institute in Rockland for guidance of recreational activities. The institute turned the task over to David Getchell, Sr., who explored the length of the coast and identified forty islands with recreational potential—i.e., islands that had safe landing areas and good locations for basic campsites. The idea was to recreate the Appalachian Mountain Trail on water.
Getchell’s original concept, that the trail should be stewarded by the people who use it, remains the association’s guiding philosophy to this day. Its users adhere to “leave no trace” practices, regularly clean up sites, disband fire rings, fight erosion, build stairs, and generally keep an eye out for the islands that stretch 375 miles from Kittery to Machias.
The trail has grown from an original forty islands to 185 island and mainland sites owned by the state, private individuals, and nonprofit organizations. The Maine Island Trail continues to expand every year, and has added more than 50 sites in the past half-decade alone. Last year, the Isles of Shoals joined the trail when Star Island Corporation asked that New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Island be added to the trail.
The Maine islands were also the beginning of my own kayaking story. The first time I went out in a sea kayak was horrible. Dressed in a wetsuit, sweltering, struggling to steer a kayak that kept turning up into the wind, I paddled along a monotonous summer beach. What is the point of this, I asked myself?
Then I went on a kayak camping trip to Harbor Island off Stonington with some friends. That evening, the wind died down, creating a salty still pool that reflected the sun setting on the Camden Hills. I was hooked. So hooked I went on to write a guidebook to sea kayaking in New England, started a sea-kayaking magazine, married a kayaker, and raised children who have also chosen to become kayakers. For me and my family, the attraction of the Maine coast and its magical islands remains as strong as the day we first paddled its shores.
MITA | 207. 761.8225 | mita.org
Voices from the Maine Island Trail
Half the joy is in the travel, not just the destination. Traveling to islands by kayak can get you to places that other boats can’t, as places to land are often unfriendly or down right hostile.
Curator, Penobscot Marine Museum; Registered Maine Guide; MITA
My favorite destinations are small, granite-ringed islands dotted with spruce trees and fragrant with wild rugosa roses. Their pocket beaches are just big enough to accommodate my sea kayak and those of a few friends while we explore the shoreline or just soak in the view.
Charter MITA member; Registered Maine Guide; sea kayaker for twenty-five years
The existence of MITA means not only are people being educated about how to preserve these places, but that I will be able to enjoy their almost surreal beauty for as long as I am able to hold a paddle.
Dr. Jon Cons
Veteran kayaker; former American Canoe Association coastal kayaking instructor, with a backyard pond where he can practice rolling.
Kayaking means many things to me: living a little closer to the natural world, hearing the birds, seeing the whales, identifying all manner of marine life, feeling the wind and salt spray on my face; it means slowing down the pace of my life; the simplicity of carrying only what you need and needing only what you can carry; it means adrenaline and the thrill of paddling in full conditions; it means meeting interesting people, whether fellow paddlers, fishermen, beachcombers, tourists; all of which makes me happy.
Owner, The Natural History Center,
My wife and I first joined MITA to learn more about traveling in small boats and to access islands where we could camp. The dark silhouettes of islands, the smell of mud flats, the watchful seals, the muffled fog, that special summer light still work their magic on us over a dozen years later. But we also cherish the chug of lobster boats, the bright sails on the horizon, the bustle at the launches and the community of those who also love the islands. That’s why we’ve been drawn deeper and deeper into the work of MITA: volunteering not just to give back but to be part of nurturing the resource and sharing it with others.
MITA trustee since 2003, chair of the MITA Trail Committee; consultant