August 1996-1997

By Reinhard Zollitsch

The Maine Island Trail

To a Maine boater, Down East starts with Petit Manan, that long bar extending far into the ocean, ending in a small barren island topped with one of the tallest lighthouses along the entire Atlantic coast.

To most other Mainers and out-of-staters, Down East starts in Portland with Casco Bay and all the others and the myriad of islands. Down East is granite shores and spruce-clad islands, lots of them, lobsters, sailing, vacationing; you add your own concept.- Most of you know exactly what I mean - you have been there.

I bought that definition last year, maybe also out of convenience, since the Maine Island Trail Association already had a course laid out from Portland to Machias with proper, i.e. legal and beautifully maintained, island stopovers. A real peace of mind for any boater venturing into new territory, especially since I planned to do the trip solo in my old 1981 16’ open Jensen white water racing canoe, majorly modified of course with an Olympic kayak rudder, foot and hip braces, a 3 ’ deck, extra flotation, and of course everything in water-proof bags, neatly tied in.

Compass and stopwatch mounted on the thwart in front of me, all courses and alternate routes worked out in advance on nautical charts in tied down map cases.
I had read up on as much as I could, had gone the 120 miles around Moosehead Lake in Maine as a practice run and various stints along the shore - I WAS READY.

And then I did it that August (1996), 300 miles in 13 days averaging about 23 miles a day, and having the time of my life. (See April ‘97 issue of DOWN EAST MAGAZINE).

MIT South Extension – Boston, MA to Portland, ME

But over the long winter months, the concept of Down East widened and suddenly started in Boston. Of course, you Bostonians would say. It was derived from the Boston schooner men sailing down wind in a northeasterly direction towards Maine, the former colony of Massachusetts.

So on August 11 of this year (1997) I decided to find out, and paddled the 150 (statute) miles from Boston/Revere Beach to Portland/Yarmouth. It took me and my new 17’2’’ semi-covered Verlen Kruger ocean canoe 6 fun-filled wavy days. At times I wished MITA was there with advice on where to land and where not to. But here is what I found.

Putting in in downtown Boston is nearly impossible. Revere Beach still qualifies as Boston, is very accessible and challenging enough with big Nahant Island sticking way out into the Bay like a sore thumb. The shore to Gloucester is quite exposed in a SW wind, and getting into Marblehead in an ebb tide is quite challenging. Crow Island was very welcome as my first overnight stop.

Annisquam River
Annisquam River at Gloucester, MA

In Gloucester I did accept the favor of the Annisquam River, which lets you avoid the truly exposed trip around Cape Ann. The tidal estuary of the Annisquam is quite extensive and the shortcut nicely spits you out on the long, merciless, but pretty and straight beach to Salisbury Beach.

This stretch is quite different from the MIT north where one can almost always duck behind an island or run into a bay. You are out there for miles of surf-filled beaches, surf, which can extend far out into the ocean because it is so shallow along this shore. Be cautious at the occasional inlets like Essex Bay, Salisbury and Hampton Beach. At ebb tide, the large estuaries or rivers empty into the ocean like a fire hose.

Do not even think of crossing them at the mouth; instead, work yourself up the inlet and cross over on the smooth tongue far enough up so you will not end up in the first set of big haystacks. These are trip-enders, if not more. Going around these tidal inlets way off- shore did not even enter my mind as a possibility.

Salisbury Beach was a welcome second spot, even though it is overrun with tourists and campers, but the pristine beaches of Plum Island are off- limits, being a nature preserve, and it’s hard to get out and in again on an exposed beach anyway. Rye Harbor is the first pretty, little harbor I came to. It is nestled behind breakwaters like most of the harbors “down south”.

Back to Maine

Crossing the Piscataqua and the state line between New Hampshire and Maine can be quite a challenge at ebb tide. (I seemed to hit all the interesting spots at ebb tide to test me, but I have developed a healthy respect for places like the mouth of the Kennebec, while sailing the Maine coast, so that I know what to look out for, anticipate and avoid getting into trouble rather than trying to fight my way through them.)

It will be dicy enough crossing at the old lighthouse at Fort Pt. Suddenly the shoreline changes to rugged rocks, with significant ledges extending like long fingers into the sea. Brave Boat Harbor seemed like the perfect next stop, another 25 miles for the day, but it is hard to find with all the ledges around it.

But then there it is suddenly, a hole in the wall - you aim your boat, check the surf and mail yourself through that slot into the absolute calm inside. You are surrounded by another tidal estuary, a Nature Preserve, right behind the thin line of ledges along the Atlantic shore. So it was another plan B for the night: I slept on the rocks just inside the harbor next to a big patch of poison ivy.

A bit stiff and wet from the torrential rains that night, I pushed on the next morning, only to see the fog lift ever so slowly on my way around Cape Neddick (watch out for the strong tidal flow!) to Cape Porpoise. What a place and how different at high and low tide! A great overnight stop with many possibilities.

On the way up, Perkins Cove was a welcome granola bar/water stop. It is one of the only natural harbors along this stretch of the Maine/New Hampshire coast. The white drawbridge spanning the harbor reminds me of Holland and van Gogh paintings. It is very picturesque and Old -World, but believe me, Ogunquit beach combers have found it. So move on; stay off the major crescent beaches. They look much better from 1/2 mile off-shore where you cannot hear the screams of the young bathers anyway.

Lunch at Perkins Cove
Lunch at Perkins Cove

More beaches the next day, then more and more ledges and hard shore, granite, all the way to Cape Elizabeth. The sandy beaches are gone. That night I shared with a flock of gulls and cormorants on a small island off Cape Elizabeth, catching my breath before the last hitch along the forboding-looking shore towards Portland Head Light and into Casco Bay. Just before sundown, the gulls suddenly appeared and settled all around me, some as close as 4 feet away from my tent, initially complaining about the intruder, but after a short while accepting me in my green Timberline.

Hog Island
Typical Maine Island overnight (Hog Island)

Crossing the toothy Richmond Island bar with just enough water to carry me across on the nape of a breaking wave, I rounded Cape Elizabeth. Big waves came rolling in from the SE breaking at the ledgy outcroppings. Needless to say, I had my eyes on the waves and did not see much of Cape Elizabeth - I barely noticed the lighthouse.

A sudden thunderstorm with lightning was a bit unnerving near Portland Head Light, but what a sight - but no free hand to snap a picture.
Getting into Portland and up to Falmouth, where I had put in last year on my trip to Machias, was anticlimactic. But how nice to find someone home willing to pick me up ASAP - thank you, Nancy. So the trip ended two hours later up the Royal River in Yarmouth near I 95, since I could not see myself wasting two hours waiting for a ride, doing nothing.

But what a trip to have done. If any of you out there are planning to do this stretch, be prepared and be prudent. It is quite different and more unforgiving than the Portland to Machias stretch. Enjoy and be safe.

© Reinhard Zollitsch