On The Water: Paddling Through Maine

Camp group stops at Allagash Falls - Canoeing in Maine
Camp group stops at Allagash Falls

Your Guide’s Favorite Day Trip

We spoke to local canoe and kayak experts about where they like to go paddling when they have a day off.

Zack Anchors
Owner and cofounder of Portland Paddle

Clapboard Island, Casco Bay: “If you launch at Falmouth Town Landing you only need to paddle a mile before reaching the wooded shores of Clapboard Island and a couple miles more to circumnavigate the island and return to the mainland. I find that Clapboard is the perfect paddling destination when I only have a few hours but want to reach an island that feels a bit more wild and quiet than the islands surrounding Portland Harbor. Most of the north- ern half of the island is a preserve managed by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, with four beaches and a half-mile of trails. Some- times I’ll make it a much longer trip by launching at Sandy Point on Cousin’s Island or even at the East End Beach in Portland.”

Nonesuch River to Ferry Beach in Scarborough: “I love paddles that offer a mix of protected wetland waterways and exposed open ocean coastline. One of my favorite paddles of that sort is a paddle down the tidal Nonesuch River in Scarborough to Ferry Beach at the river’s mouth near Prout’s Neck. On some days I’ll paddle into the ocean swell and follow the rocky coast along the neck. The best place to launch is the boat landing at the end of Clay Pits Road.”

Kayaking out to Ram Island Ledge, Maine
Paddling out to Ram Island Ledge (site of the Ram Island Light)

Stephen Hand
Outdoor programs director of Maine Sport Outfitters

Camden Harbor + Curtis Island: “For this very simple and short paddle, put in at Steamboat Landing and paddle around the harbor and all the beautiful sailboats and yachts before heading out to Curtis Island. After pulling your boats up onto the beach, walk around the island path or take the shorter route through the center of island, take a swing on the huge rope swing, and make your way up to the lighthouse. If you’re lucky, the caretaker will be out there and let you up to the top of the lighthouse for even better views of Penobscot Bay and the islands.”

Rockport Harbor to Camden Harbor (requires a shuttle or a long out and back): “Start in beautiful Rockport Harbor next to the Andre the Seal statue. Paddle up the coast along Beauchamp Point out to Indian Island and the lighthouse. Wrap around the point and enter the cove on the bay side and see if you can find the mermaid that makes the cove home. Continue north up the coast, where you’ll see views of Cadillac Mountain and all the islands between. Paddle down the coast past Seal Rock all the way to Curtis Island, where you can have lunch, then take out in Camden or make the journey back.”

Doug Welch
Executive director of the Maine Island Trail Association

Muscongus Bay: “A staff favorite, Muscongus Bay off the Pemaquid peninsula feels a lot farther from Portland than it is. Little Marsh, Hog, and Thief Islands are all within about three miles of the public boat launch at Round Pond. If you want to camp, you’ll need to call the Bristol harbormaster at 207-529-5123 for permission to park at the boat launch overnight.”

Naskeag Point: “Another staff favorite, this peninsula in Brooklin offers easy access to Sellers Island (with a beautiful sand beach), diminutive Little Hog Island, and others.”

Two solitary Canoes on a lake in Maine
Fishing at dusk

Canoe Camp Know-How

The old-school way to navigate Maine’s waterways is with not much more than a canoe, a paddle, and a good guide.

Maybe you own a canoe, which you’ve paddled around your local lake, summer camp-style, at most head- ing to the opposite shore with a snack in tow. The shine is wearing off. What you really want is to get all Transcendentalist, to put that cargo space to use with a pup tent and a copy of Thoreau’s Canoeing the Wilderness in the hull. It’s time to canoe camp.

“What makes canoe camping so attractive is the room you have for gear,” says Dave Conley, Master Maine Guide and owner of Canoe the Wild, a canoe guiding operation in Maine’s Grand Lake region. “Unlike backpacking, you have space for a cooler, for real food.” He adds that while there are some onerous trips in northern Maine and Quebec that require a higher level of skill (think Class II-III whitewater), there are also many shorter trips befitting the first timer. Below are Conley’s tips for a successful canoe trip.

Where To Go

The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is dam-controlled, with easy flowing river sections and moderate whitewater on Chase Stream Rapids. The waterway is 92 miles long, with 90 ranger-maintained campsites along the way. Conley chooses five- to eight-day-long sections for his trips as opposed to paddling the whole thing. “Some people are going to do an A to B trip, and they’re going to spend all their time paddling, eating supper in the dark,” he says. “Most people, that’s not what they’re looking for in a camping experience. It’s not a marathon—it’s time to relax and unwind and to take it in, to paddle up to that marsh in the evening and see a moose feeding and whatnot.” The St. Croix River and the west branch of the Penobscot River are both good long weekend options. The St. John River is a spring good run, typically best in the second or third week of May; after that the water’s gone.

What To Pack

Bring your gear in lined, waterproof river bags made out of Dacron, and properly secure them in the canoe in case of a spill. “Coated nylon is not a waterproof river bag,” says Conley, who has appar- ently seen a lot of those (Thoreau’s was rubber). “Recreational barrels are also nice because they’re bear-proof, waterproof, and easy to get things in and out of.” You will also want some basic tools like axes and saws for collecting firewood, a water filter, and proper clothing, including insulating layers, rain gear, and footwear that’s lightweight, water-resistant, and protective. A Type III life jacket is recommended. Conley doesn’t bother with a camp stove but brings pots and utensils for cooking over an open fire. Ice will last longer in a hard-sided cooler, and is great for packing frozen meats and fish, fresh produce, and dairy.

Paddling Canoes down the Allagash River in Maine
Paddling the Allagash River

Do Your Research

“You need some basic skills to go do these outings,” says Conley, “and doing good research is critical, as well as knowing your limitations.” You should not only know where to go but also the optimum time of year. You also need to understand water levels and weather. A good resource is the AMC River Guide: Maine, which contains written descriptions of the river routes, locator maps and also lists useful details like whether or not there are camping fees. On larger lakes, like the ones at Allagash’s headwater, it’s important not to be out in a whitecap situation or during a thunderstorm. Conley’s rule of thumb is to stay off the river until 20 minutes after the last rumble.

Hire A Guide

Feeling anxious about doing this yourself? Even Thoreau enlisted a Penobscot Indian when he made his famous trip through the Maine woods. Consider taking your first trip with an experienced guide, like the ones at Canoe the Wild. “We cater to a lot of first timers because we’re so turnkey,” says Conley. “Bring a sleeping bag and clothing, and we’ll take care of everything else, including basic instruction as needed.” Canoe the Wild’s tripping season runs from late May to mid-September. The demand this summer has been so tremendous that Conley just posted a new September offering for a six-day trip on the Allagash. “It’s signaling a need that people want a break,” says Conley. “They want to get away from electronics and the news. The wilderness is one way to do it.”

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