Four after-work excursions to get your blood pumping and your body outside
The woods are never silent, not even on a Wednesday evening in the late fall, when few
hikers can be found on the trails.
Pause for a moment and let your companions walk ahead. Be quiet and listen. The world is full of crunching, rustling, peeping, singing, humming, and buzzing. Maine’s forestlands are filled with life; they sound out a rhythm that’s a little slow, a little hard to hear, but perhaps more healing for all that.
Ask any recent transplant why they moved here, and chances are good that they will mention either the woods or the water. The desire to get closer to nature echoes through casual conversations and formal interviews. We all seem to want the same thing: a life that has time for hours spent outdoors and space for exploration. The trouble is that most of us also have jobs and responsibilities that keep us indoors. Yet that’s the beauty of living in Maine. Here, you can find balance. Here, you can have both.
To Be One With the Water
L.L.Bean has been selling high-quality gear and clothes for over a century, and in 1979 they opened the Outdoor Discovery School, which offers classes in everything from clay shooting to sea kayaking. If you’re looking to get outside but don’t know where to start, L.L.Bean is a good place to find your footing. “We want to remove all barriers people face when it comes to getting outside,” explained Mac McKeever, senior public relations representative at L.L.Bean. “We looked at all the reasons people don’t participate in outdoor activities. It can be a time commitment, because life is very busy. It could be that you don’t have access to instructional know-how, or the gear.” To address these factors, the Outdoor Discovery School keeps all classes reasonably priced (many classes are $20 and some are free), while providing all necessary instruction and equipment.
And yet, although I know I’ll be in good hands, I still feel nervous as we pull into the recently revamped Outdoor Discovery Center at Lower Flying Point in Freeport. I’m accompanied by photographer Greta Rybus, who will be joining me on my week of outdoor adventures. She listens sympathetically as I worry aloud about capsizing in my kayak, becoming trapped underwater, held in place by the so-called skirt.
“We won’t be doing any rolls unless we absolutely have to,” promises our instructor upon arrival. Broad shouldered and tall, Kevin Hinds exudes both authority and good humor, a combination that puts me at ease. After getting us dressed in waterproof jackets, he leads us over to a rack of kayaks. “Outdoor skills are an art form, developed over time and with experience,” Hinds says. On the damp lawn, we learn the basic skills needed for sea kayaking, from how to release yourself from the kayak should you capsize to the correct way to hold a paddle. I grip the handle lightly and practice long, smooth strokes, letting the edge of my paddle ruffle the grass.
Soon enough, we’re out on the water of Casco Bay, and instead of grass, my paddle is moving through the algae-rich green waters of high tide. The wind today is gusting at 20 knots, which means we can’t travel too far from the sheltered inlet. We paddle into the ocean cautiously, and my body remembers how to maneuver. Hinds stays nearby, offering advice when I forget how to turn my vessel. For him, kayaking is second nature. “I was born in the Midwest, but once I saw the ocean, I never could go back,” he says. Hinds has been teaching kayaking with L.L.Bean for 13 years. His romance with the sport began in 1996, and there are no signs of it ever fading. “I want to be doing this well into my nineties, so I need to keep myself healthy. For me, any day on the water is a good day.”
Thrashing Through the Woods
Stepping inside the Kennebunkport Bicycle Company, it’s impossible not to be drawn to the candy-colored cruisers with their shiny paint and smooth, fluid lines. Like many vintage bikes, these are two-wheeled works of art, meant for long afternoons coasting gently down paved roads. But I won’t be riding one of these.
At the entrance to the Edwin L. Smith Preserve, Brandon Gillard lifts our bikes off his truck. They’re black and red with big, fat tires. I have been told that mountain biking is a “thrasher” sport, but until today, I’ve never quite wondered what was being thrashed. After ten minutes on the trail, I get my answer, and it comes from the jarring pulse that vibrates through my bones. Yet despite the risk that comes with pounding over rocks and roots, there’s no denying that this is exhilaratingly, fiercely fun.
As we ride, I learn that we’re crashing over land that has been protected and preserved by the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. “They’re on the cutting edge of what land trusts do,” Gillard says with obvious respect. “What they’ve done for the area is unreal. I introduced them to mountain biking, which has been a really great relationship. Mountain bikers need to preserve and conserve land, which fits with their mission. At first, they were a bit skeptical. They thought mountain bikers were guys flying off cliffs with full-face helmets,” he laughs. But it didn’t take long for board members of the trust to see that a relationship with dedicated outdoorsmen would be a boon for them. Now, there are over 15 miles of trails in this location alone, many of which have been built with bikers in mind.
Gillard takes us on a mixed-level ride. At times, we’re pedaling easily along, coasting over smooth trails that were once fire roads. But then we’ll hit a “technical” spot, where the trail narrows and takes us through a series of hairpin turns, over slippery piles of gravel, down steep slopes rutted with roots. I remember quickly when to stand, and how to keep my pedals even so that my feet don’t catch on a rock. Gillard calls out suggestions as we ride, warning us of particularly difficult patches.
After about an hour, we reach our scenic destination: a 200-foot-long bridge that winds through the swampy, mossy woods. But we don’t stop to admire it. “Are you ready for this?” Gillard asks over his shoulder. “Yes!” I yell in response. On previous bridges, I had gotten off and walked my bike, freaked out by the possibility of falling off the narrow wooden structure. But this time, I ride the entire length, following each snake-like curve through the trees, until my bike jumps off and I’m back on solid ground. “Nicely done,” comments Gillard. I grin in response, hop off my bike, and wait for the rest of our group to catch up.
A Million Miles Away
Located across from the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad, the SailMaine headquarters is perched on the edge of Casco Bay. As executive director Katie Hatch readies our boats, I take a moment to soak in the scene. From the dock, I gaze across the water, out to South Portland and the squat but charming Bug Light, and across to the Calendar Islands (named for their sheer abundance—at one point, it was believed that there were 365 islands in this region, one for every day of the year). I’ve seen this view many times, but in just a few minutes, I’ll be granted an entirely new perspective on the well-known skyline.
Dressed in lifejackets, closed-toed shoes, and layers for warmth, we step onto the J/22s. These small, nimble vessels are typically raced by groups of three or four sailors. It’s late afternoon, and the sun glints off the calm water of the bay, creating abstract patterns on our faces. As we leave the dock, I try to adjust my body to the motion of the water. The unsteady, ever-changing nature of sailing awakens my muscles; my body is completely engaged with the task of staying upright and on the boat, even as I focus on Hatch’s directions. “Tack left,” she tells me, and with the help of sailor Scott Ackerman, I move the boom across the boat, shifting my feet as I do so (and, I like to imagine, finding my “sea legs”). It’s a small motion, one that must be repeated over and over, yet it feels like a larger triumph.
I’ve been on a boat before, but usually as an observer. I try to absorb as many nautical terms as I can—windward, leeward, starboard, port. They are familiar words, words I know from old books and new friends, but now they have context. As I bumble through the instructions, I find a friend in Kelli Wedgewood, a 28-year-old social worker who, up until a few weeks ago, knew absolutely nothing about sailing. “I grew up watching sailboats from land, wishing I could be in one,” Wedgewood says. After completing the SailMaine adult beginners course, Wedgewood began volunteering with the nonprofit, and has even joined a racing team. She sings the praises of SailMaine’s Friday Night Social Sails, which allow even the most novice of sailors to get out on the water for just $25. With the headquarters located a quick walk from the Maine magazine offices, I have to wonder: why didn’t I do this sooner?
“At the risk of sounding too cheesy, I think sailing draws me because it makes me feel connected to my Maine heritage,” Wedgewood agrees. “Feeling the ocean spray, sun, and breeze is very centering—it makes work feel a million miles away.” By this point, we’ve let the wind carry us away from the other boats, away from the barges and lobstermen. Out here, on the waters of the bay, with only our crew and our little J/22, it’s easy to imagine that we’ve traveled a million miles from the city—a million miles from modern life and modern responsibilities. “Prepare to jibe,” calls Hatch, and we do, turning back toward shore. The boat moves slowly, almost reluctantly, as though it would rather stay out here and bathe in the red light of the sunset.
The View From Above
Greta and I end our streak of outdoor exploration with an easy hike on my favorite local trail system. Bradbury Mountain State Park, located in Pownal, is just a 30-minute drive from my home in Portland. But that’s not the reason I love this park so much. It’s the easy trails, which meander around the base of the mountain before climbing steeply up to the summit. It’s the thick woods, which muffle all sounds of traffic. It’s the sweet-smelling carpet of yellow-brown pine needles, and the irregular stone walls that stretch out of sight, like ruins from some ancient time.
The summit of Bradbury can be reached in 10 minutes or less, should you choose to take the most direct route. The trail system here is extensive and varied, allowing for short jaunts and longer, more strenuous hikes. Since I want my walk to last longer than a half hour, I prefer to ramble around the Boundary Trail, stopping to pick up brightly colored fall leaves, before heading up Switchback, a steep trail that zigzags sharply and terminates at the summit, where bare rock stretches to meet the sky.
As always, I take a few minutes to rest. Cold October wind plays with brittle, dry leaves, scattering them across the bald dome of the mountain. I reflect on something that Brandon Gillard said before we left on our mountain biking trip. “Biking isn’t my life,” he told me. “First and foremost, I’m a father. Second I’m a husband. Third I’m a business owner, a community member. Mountain biking is something I do to keep myself fit. It’s a form of therapy. In a way, it’s my church.” For Gillard, mountain biking is personal. It’s where he goes to escape and unwind. This theme appeared time and again during my interviews. I realized that these activities are more than just hobbies—they can be, for many people, a way of moving toward elemental truth. “Being on the water makes me feel more connected to the energy around me,” Hinds said. “When you’re kayaking, you’re one with the water. You’re sitting right in it—you become a part of it. It’s quiet and peaceful, but it’s the ocean. It’s also wild.”
Standing on this bald, glacier-carved rock, looking out at the tapestry of autumn leaves below, it’s easy to feel reverent. My body hums from movement and I’m aware of my blood pumping, my muscles resting. Physically, I feel strong and healthy, but the most marked difference I notice when I reach inside myself is a feeling of deep calm. I feel respect for this wild world, and grateful for my place in it. Maine itself is a massive cathedral, made of mountains and trees that stretch to the heavens, and miles and miles of water, bigger and more expansive than any four-walled house of worship will ever be. Maybe this landscape can be more than just a place for exploration and enjoyment. Maybe it can be my church, too.