July 2006

By Reinhard Zollitsch

The idea of a water trail

It was ten years ago that I first paddled the entire Maine Island Trail from Portland to Machias - and what a thrill it was, especially since I was using my 16 foot open whitewater solo racing canoe. In the meantime I have advanced to a covered 17’2” Kruger SEA WIND sea canoe with rudder and spray skirt, and just finished my big 4000-mile loop around all the New England states and the Canadian Maritime provinces.

Ever since then, I was really looking forward to coming home and getting another close look at our Maine coast and seeing how our Maine Island Trail Association has changed over the past ten years, if at all.

Even though the membership of MITA has remained steady at about 4000, I understand, the organization has become much more visible, not only in their new waterfront office in Portland, but nationally and even internationally as the trailblazer for coastal water trails.

One of MITA’s followers, the Hudson River Watertrail Association, is one of the nearest and best known success stories around. I was nicely surprised last year that I could paddle from Lake Champlain all the the way down to Manhattan, New York City, with a wonderfully detailed trip guide and legal overnight sites.

Our paddling friends in Nova Scotia, on the other hand, decided to give up on organizing a trail after trying to establish one for a couple of years, “since there did not seem to be a demand for it”, as they put it. The rough terrain and the reliably bad weather, they noticed, only enticed the very best boaters to go tripping beyond certain more sheltered bays like Mahone Bay and the Lunenburg area.

The 30-mile stretch from Cape Canso to Port Felix, for example, does not even have a road nearby, so is very inaccessible and therefore very risky in an emergency. And rounding into the Bay of Fundy at Cape Sable Island can be downright dangerous.

When I had finished paddling the MIT in 1996, I immediately wanted to know what lay beyond the trail to the south and the north. In the following two years I therefore checked out the shoreline from Portland to Boston and from Machias to St. John, NB in my trusty sea canoe. But not until this year did the MIT expand, at least to the south, to the Cape Porpoise area, a tad NE of Kennebunkport. So on June 29, 2006 I set out to check Cape Porpoise to see if it could be a viable starting point to a MIT trip.

Mita Map
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MIT extension

My wife Nancy was kind enough to car shuttle me to the put-in. Even our daughter Brenda came down from Portland to see me off, thanking me for being a good Father of the Bride for her wedding twelve days ago. (Except for our younger daughter Kim, all guests had left, including our two sons Mark and Lee from the West Coast. Is this my “time off for good behavior”? Anyway, I’ll take it - I need it.)

As for the put-in at Cape Porpoise, there was none: no public boat launch, no ramp, no parking, no water to fill my tanks, no outhouse, and it was dead low in pea soup fog to boot - bummer. The “Town Wharf” on Bickford Island turned out to be the town’s lobster coop, and what parking there was, was filled with lobstermen’s cars.

At low tide, the stretch out to the wharf was a sea of mud (see NOAA chart insert of Cape Porpoise Hbr.). I guess one could have portaged over a steep rock bank to the mud flats, slugged it out to the wharf and put in amongst the many poles holding up the lobster coop and hope to get waterborne. All you can do then is home in on the foghorn on Goat Island, because there is no shore to hold on to.
It looked like a very discouraging, messy beginning to a long trip with lots of gear, even for an old boater like me.

I had to find something better, my pushy mind insisted, some all-weather, all-tide hard-surfaced put-in where boaters are welcome and even intermediate normal boaters would feel comfortable. My DeLorme atlas suggested Kennebunkport and Biddeford Pool as the nearest public boat access points, which, by the way, would be fine places to start from if you just wanted to explore the truly wonderful and interesting islands off Cape Porpoise - don’t get me wrong. But parking your car there for a couple of days, could again be a problem in both places.

Knowing both already, I went to check out the third boat landing in the area, the one at Tattle Corner on the Saco River, just below Biddeford. Now here you have what every boater has been dreaming about: a quiet, new, two-ramp boat launch with floating dock, lots of parking, outhouses, sheltered deep water, no fog, and all within a few miles of the Interstate, which you are most likely coming on - and all that for free. I liked that, and decided to start my trip to Machias right here, suddenly regaining my usual positive attitude. Thanks, I needed that!

Will it all fit in?
Will it all fit in?

On the trail again

So you are off on the trail, but don’t deceive yourself thinking you can reach the next MITA site in Casco Bay “28 miles down the coast from Cape Porpoise”, as the guidebook suggests. (It’s already 30 miles from the Cape to Portland Head Light, and you are not even in Casco Bay yet.) Trust me, you can’t get there from here - I did not either; I did not even try, not even from Tattle Corner; I knew better.

Portland Head Light in thick fog
Portland Head Light in thick fog

The stretch from Cape Porpoise into Casco Bay is a formidable piece of real estate, definitely not for beginners, and even most intermediate paddlers will/could encounter major difficulties rounding Biddeford Pool, Prouts Neck, Richmond Island, not to mention the stretch from Cape Elizabeth to Portland Head Light with its many ledgy fingers extending far out into the sea, causing crashing waves farther out than you would want to go.

Starting your MIT trip at the well-appointed public boat launch in Portland and heading out into the sheltered island world of Casco Bay is still the best way to start your trip, believe me. The islands off Cape Porpoise are great to explore for a weekend, but do put in somewhere else, and definitely do not start your MIT trip here. You’ll be sorry.

My first night out, though, was nicely peaceful with a wild turkey hen strutting past my tent door around suppertime, checking out the island intruder. I bounded around the ledges off Cape Elizabeth the next morning and got into Casco Bay in thick fog, so thick I could barely see Portland Head Light, and had to feel my way across to Cushing, Peaks, Long and Great Chebeague to Bangs Island.

Visibility was greatly improved the next day, so I was able to cross over to Potts and Harpswell Harbor, go under the unique Wills Gut granite slab bridge between Bailey and Orrs Island, swing around the next big bay and even bounce around Cape Small into Seal Cove. I knew from past sailing and other boating experiences that I had to set up right for the approach to the mouth of the Kennebec.

Wills Gut granite slab bridge
Wills Gut granite slab bridge

The tidal maelstrom of the Kennebec River

Unfortunately the tide the next morning was running out towards me, while a strong 20 knot SW wind on top of some old much bigger swells was running against it - the worst scenario for this brief 5 mile stretch to Fort Popham. However, I felt I could stay out of the tidal melee by hugging the shore, but soon noticed I had made a bad mistake.

The shore break went all the way out to Heron, Fox and Wood Island, and I found myself on the very edge of what my boat and I could handle. The waves were humungous, breaking with 20 to 30 foot crests. I surfed my laden boat as I had never done before and got whomped in the chest several times. I threaded my way through the Fox Islands, because the bar towards shore was white. But then my mind refused to go outside of Wood Island. I would have dumped for sure and would have been taken out to sea, a thought I did not relish at all. So I opted instead for a hard, wet surf landing where the Wood Island Bar touches Popham Beach, hoping that my bullet-proof Kevlar boat would survive.

The bar off the point had just enough water on it for waves to break on, so instead of landing there, I tried plan B. I caught a big wave and surfed it forever, it seemed, till it too broke on the shallow bar with me bracing in the froth. At that very moment I was hit by a breaking wave coming at me from the other side. Whew, that was close!

A vigorous sprint got me across the rest of the bar and towards Fort Popham, where I had to rest, bail out, switch charts and calm my somewhat frazzled nerves with some food and drink. Crossing the mouth of the Kennebec itself was a piece of cake compared to what I had just encountered. So please, my paddle friends out there, do me a favor and do not attempt to run the stretch from Cape Small to the Kennebec on an ebb tide with a strong SW wind running against it. This is the worst stretch of the entire Maine coast - beware!

I had originally thought of going up the Kennebec, or better, the Back River to Erratic or Castle Island, but opted instead to claw my way up the wide Sheepscot River towards Boothbay. Wind and tide kept fighting each other all the way up towards the narrows between Five Islands and Hendricks Point, where this struggle again resulted in huge, steep, breaking waves.

I wanted none of it this time, went one mile upriver before crossing over, and all was fine, i.e. was doable. Gliding into Boothbay Harbor from the north through Townsend Gut and following the Southport Island shore to a camping area recommended in the MITA guide book, was strangely controlled and civilized. Then I found out there was no camping near shore, but the owner agreed to truck my gear to a site in the woods.

I had no choice and made the best of the situation and the shocking $29 camping fee: took a hot shower, rinsed my totally saltwater drenched clothes and threw them in a dryer, before I had to get ready for the next day, with new charts, PB&J sandwich for tomorrow’s lunch and the high point of the day: my 3-minute call home to Nancy on my sat-phone.

Rounding Pemaquid Point into Muscongus Bay

The morning dawned sunny, calm and warm, a perfect day for my itinerary around Ocean Point, through the Thread of Life just east of Christmas Cove, and across to Pemaquid Point. From a landlubber’s point of view, Pemaquid Point looks rough, but it is nothing compared to other capes like Cape Small or Petit Manan, which is still to come. This headland is absolutely clean except for one little ledge outcropping, and the tides are very predictable, the ebb tide out of both Johns and Muscongus Bay again being worse than the flood tide.

It was ebbing again, but there was no wind, only old swells from yesterday’s wind. I was smiling from ear to ear, taking pictures of the lighthouse and the many tourists on the beautifully striated rocks, and humming a happy tune. A pod of seven sea kayaks, two of which had bicycle wiggle sticks like mine for better visibility, was floating off the point, also having a great time.

Pemaquid Point
Pemaquid Point

I was pushing past New Harbor towards Louds Island when I was suddenly almost run down by a sizable powerboat full of people. I blew my whistle like mad, since my air horn had slipped out of its usual place. It was close, and I was breathing hard. The boat came to a screeching halt about 30 feet in front of me. I explained my right-of-way situation (boat from the right has right-of-way!), pointed to my visibility-enhancing six-foot bicycle wiggle stick with orange flag, as well as to my deck-mounted radar reflector, but the driver obviously had not paid any attention, nor had any of his passengers.

I pulled out on Thief Island for the night, which I had to share with five other parties and two more groups of visitors. As the MITA guide indicates, Thief is a very popular spot, which I will avoid in the future for that reason. It was definitely too crowded for me, even though I had a friendly conversation with a former student of mine and her husband, who builds the most beautiful wooden sea kayaks I have ever seen.

I continued my 20-mile a day goal, heading across Muscongus Bay towards Port Clyde, and around beautiful Marshal Point Light to Tenants Harbor and the tiny island of Cylends near Spruce Head. Fog had settled in again and hung around all night and the whole next day also. But this did not deter the citizens of Sprucehead Island from celebrating the 4th of July with significant fireworks.

Marshall Point Light, Port Clyde
Marshall Point Light, Port Clyde

It was a wonderful scene. I could not see from one end of my little island to the next, and definitely not shore. I doubt very much whether the people of this little fishing town could see more than I could. But they had their fireworks, fog or no fog, and enjoyed every moment of it. I heard their shouts of approval, especially for those big imaginary starbursts with whistles and double bangs. That night I dreamed of glorious past fireworks and had a very restful sleep.

Crossing formidable Penobscot Bay

As I said, the fog was just as thick the next day up Muscle Ridge Channel to Owls Head and across to the Rockland breakwater, with lots of boats coming into Rockland or going out, including the Vinalhaven ferry. I hoped they would see me on their radar with my new radar reflector, which I felt they did, because I heard a lot of whistles, but I never saw another boat.

Just north of Camden the fog lifted just enough for me to make out Islesboro and Warren Island, where I would spend the night in the only Maine state park that is only accessible by water. I was bushed after 26 miles and 7:45 hrs. in the boat. But when the sun came out and the tide in, swimming was great, and so were my coffee and cocoa and Dinty Moore stew.

I do not really mind fog, but I would much rather cross big Penobscot Bay on a calm sunny day. And that is exactly what I got for my big jump from the southern tip of Islesboro to Little and Great Spruce Island (about 1.5 hrs. away), and from there via Butter, Eagle and Sheepshead to tiny Weir Island just off Deer Isle at the western entrance of Deer Isle Thorofare and Stonington.

What a delightful place, and what a perfect viewing point of the many boats and windjammers using those narrows. Weir Island also has a beautiful flow-through pocket beach for landing your boat and swimming - all in all, a very enticing place, a definite repeat.

I had just rounded into the thorofare the next morning when I noticed the schooner American Eagle anchored off Stonington. She looked so pretty in the early rays of the rising sun that I stopped to take a few pictures. I was also impressed by the spotless brightwork and smooth paint job, and complimented the crew. I knew how much effort it takes to keep a boat in Maine waters looking that good, since I once had sailed a small schooner across the Atlantic from Camden, Maine to St. Malo, France, as a watch captain in charge of wood and canvas.

Schooner American Eagle
Schooner American Eagle

The skipper must have overheard my comments and quietly lowered a bucket over the side with a piece of apple pie. What a friendly gesture, and in all my thousands of miles of travel in my little sea canoe, this was a first, and I told him so.

By then all passengers had gathered around and watched me eat my pie. I was further surprised that skipper John Foss remembered the boat I had sailed on and even knew that we had to replace all sails before leaving Camden, since a sail loft in Massachusetts had chemically burned the sails while treating them for mildew. (See my article Fiddler’s Green across the Atlantic in the July 15, 2003 issue of Messing about in Boats).

From Deer Isle to Mount Desert Island

Then it was time to push off. I felt I was getting into very familiar waters heading up the thorofare to the SE end of Eggemoggin Reach at Naskeag and into Blue Hill Bay. Since the weather was fine, I opted to straight-line it from there across to Green Island, the Tinker Island Bar and Moose Island, just off Mount Desert Island. Not until another 6:45 hours were up did I reach little Hub Island off Bartlett, where I had wanted to spend a night for a long time. I again had the island all to myself, but had to share the only shady spot under the big spruce tree with a myriad of ants.

#124, Little Crow Island near Winter Harbor, was another tiny island I had always wanted to check out, especially since the guide book advises “waves may wash over the island at higher tides or in rough weather; camp at your own risk”. What a place, what views of Cadillac, Dorr and Champlain mountains to the west! Landing at mid-tide on that lovely shell beach on the east was easy, swimming was great and camping on the highest part of that beach simply divine/marginal - a true island experience if you ignored the close granite shore behind you towards the east.

Nancy and Kim waving to RZ on Little Crow Island
Nancy and Kim waving to RZ on Little Crow Island

A minimal perch on Little Crow Island
A minimal perch on Little Crow Island

Nancy and our two daughters were spending the weekend at our small summer home in nearby Corea Harbor, and decided to surprise me and wave to me on my island from the mainland. Next morning I saw them again, waving towards me as I bounded around Schoodic Point, whilst I was blowing kisses towards the three most important “girls” in my life - and then I was on my own again.

Rounding Schoodic Point
Rounding Schoodic Point

Downeast across Petit Manan Bar

I pulled out at high tide on Dry Island in Gouldsboro Bay, setting myself up for the next very significant crossing of Petit Manan Bar. I figured I had to leave next morning at 5:30 a.m. It was dead low and nearly impossible to get off this little rock pile island surrounded by extensive ledges and more muck. It took me an extra 30 minutes to get off, and my boat and I looked terrible.

The only good thing about this morning’s tide was that once I was over the bar, it would nicely flush me into Pigeon Bay and towards Cape Split. The bad thing was that the inner bar could still be too shallow (seven feet) for the bigger swells not to break on. Big breaking waves, I had learned near the Kennebec, are no place to be for small boaters. Petit Manan Point, at the entrance to the bar, also had two ledgy fingers pointing to an offshore rock with less than eight feet in between.

This could be trouble, and it was. Waves were breaking far out into the ocean, intimidating even me. But I knew what they were breaking on. I also knew that waves would be crashing onto the bar proper, 2.5 miles out to the lighthouse island. But I had to see whether they were breaking even on that narrow little seven-foot deep channel known as the Inner Bar.

Dry Island near Petit Manan Bar
Dry Island near Petit Manan Bar

I am sure the lobstermen out there must have thought I was crazy as I rounded the ledge breaks, including the big rock off the point. But then suddenly, there it was, a relatively smooth tongue between big breaks to either side. I can do it, I told myself, feeling good that I had not give up too soon, and I went for it, and did great, only to make yet another large detour around Bunker Ledge making out almost half a mile from the left shore.

I felt elated; I was in Pigeon Hill Bay, but as I traversed Narraguagus and Pleasant Bay towards Cape Split, a total of seven miles of more or less open water, the wind came up again and thick fog to boot. I also had decided to accelerate my trip so I could be home a day early to see my younger daughter off to Prague (Czech Republic). I pushed on to Jonesport on Moosabec Reach, another hard 24-mile, 6-hour day.

Bridge across the Moosabec Reach at Jonesport
Bridge across Moosabec Reach at Jonesport

The campground at Henry Point was quite familiar to me and very convenient for my last hop of 25 miles to Machias. I pitched my tent behind the fragrant rose hedge right at the water’s edge. I knew 4:00 a.m. would again come very early, but I had to catch dead low at 5:30 a.m. so I would be flushed into Machias Bay and up the river to the town proper with the incoming tide.

Into the last bay - Machias Bay

And again, it all worked out as planned, even though this was another day of thick fog. The Point of Maine at the entrance to Machias Bay was the only tricky spot, and I would advise boaters to be very careful around that long ledge finger off the point as well as the extensive ledges making out from Foster Island. And if that is not enough, there is a nasty rock right in the middle of that tight passage.

If you also had a strong ebb tide and a strong SW wind, this corner could be downright dangerous. So watch out, and plan your rounding at the proper tide.
It was sad for me to see that the vigorous salmon farming behind Clapboard Island had already folded, leaving the broken-down netted enclosures as junk on shore.

Paddling up the rest of Machias Bay in the thick of fog was anticlimactic, especially since this was the last day of my trip (July 11, 2006), day thirteen for the 260 miles I paddled. By doing more open water crossings rather than going up into every bay and bight, I foreshortened the official 350 MITA miles by 90 miles.

I again hit my planned target of 20 miles per day, and was right on time when I pulled out at the nice public boat ramp in Machias beside Helen’s Restaurant and Route #1. Nancy and our daughter Kim had just ordered lunch,  but ran out to see me in. I then joined them for a juicy crabmeat roll, but Helen’s famous blueberry pie was a great disappointment: too sweet, too gluey and all that wrapped in a thick crust tasting like cardboard. I could not wait to have a piece of Nancy’s pie.

Arriving in Machias, July 2006
Arriving in Machias, July 2006
Our cookout that night at home in Orono worked out great and was a perfect double celebration of the end of my trip and the end of Kim’s visit for her sister’s wedding. And it was nice for Dad to see his younger daughter off to Prague the next morning.

Final thoughts on the trip

As to the MIT ten years later: it is still there and as hard as ever, if you intend to paddle the entire distance, and Portland is still a much better place to start from than Cape Porpoise. I met no other paddlers being on a trip of any length, only day or weekend paddlers on Thief Island, Pemaquid, and guided group trips around Mount Desert Island. Nobody was out in fog or anything beyond 10 knots. I only met fine weather sailors. The sites I visited all looked clean and inviting, and I signed in in each place, reading who had been there before me.

The last entry was mostly from the year before; and it was already past July 4. I am sure though, that the islands off Merchant Row to the south of Stonington/Deer Isle are frequented more often, but on my entire trip I never found a site filled; as a matter of fact, other than Thief Island (as well as the State Park and the two commercial places I stayed at for convenience) I always had the site to myself. The nicest surprises were the tiny islands of Weir, Bartlett Hub and Little Crow. Dry Island was scratched off my list, unless I know I will arrive and leave around mid to high tide.

The islands off Cape Porpoise are great for exploring if you put in somewhere else, other than the public wharf on Bickford Island, Cape Porpoise. The stretch from here into Casco Bay should only be attempted by experts and should not really be considered the beginning of the trail. You will be much better off starting in Portland as paddlers have done for all these years.

I cannot warn you enough about the treacherous conditions around Cape Small and from there to the mouth of the Kennebec. BEWARE OF A STRONG EBB TIDE WITH AN OPPOSING SOUTHWEST WIND, ANYTHING ABOVE TEN KNOTS (20-25 is downright dangerous). Pemaquid is exposed, but pretty clean, and if you round it at any stage of the flood tide you should be fine. The Petit Manan Bar way down east is another spot that demands special attention. At ebb tide with a strong SW, the Inner Bar will be impassable. Even at the beginning of the flood stage with any kind of sea on it, it will be dicey to find and to thread your way in between the breakers on both sides.

And then there is the innocent looking Point of Maine at the entrance to Machias Bay - an ebb tide with an opposing SW wind, which is the prevailing wind direction this time of year, can also be extremely challenging here. And remember, the farther east you go along the Maine coast, the fewer fishermen and other people you will find watching over you, while the water is getting colder and foggier with each mile.

I have made a lot of mental notes of which areas along the Maine coast I would like to investigate in more detail and do some serious gunkholing, but I will not tell you where those areas are, because I do not want to run into all of you readers there. I hope you can understand that.

After having paddled the entire stretch around all the New England states and all Canadian maritime provinces during the past seven summers, a total of 4000 miles, it was a relief to get back home to Maine, and believe me, Maine still has the most beautiful and diverse coastline, closely rivaled by serene Prince Edward Island and harsh, unforgiving but awesome Nova Scotia.

So my friends, keep paddling, but most importantly, be prudent, be safe and enjoy - and be kind to the fragile islands when you land.


Gear and equipment:
Verlen Kruger 17’2” SEA WIND sea canoe, Kevlar, with rudder, deck and spray skirt (see
Zaveral carbon fiber marathon canoe racing paddle, 11 oz (see
NOAA charts, Ritchie compass, stop watch, VHF radio telephone, Iridium Satellite phone (for outgoing calls only), WEST MARINE Luneberg lensatic radar reflector, 6’ bicycle wiggle stick, no GPS

Maine Island Trail - 2006
Cape Porpoise/Biddeford - Machias

Reinhard Zollitsch
Orono, Maine

Date                   From - To                                Daily Distance     Total

Day 1, June 29   Tattle Corner/Biddeford  to Richmond I.16        16 mi
Day 2, June 30   to Bangs I., Casco Bay (# 19)                16      32
Day 3, July 1       to just after Cape Smal                                   19         51
Day 4, July 2       to Gray Homestead, Boothbay (#50)     23.5     74.5
Day 5, July 3       to Thief I. (#59), Muscongus Bay         16       90.5
Day 6, July 4       to Cylends I. (#70), Sprucehead          17       107.5        
Day 7, July 5       to Warren I., Penobscot Bay (#78)                 26      133.5        
Day 8, July 6       to Weir I., Deer Isle (#91)                      18.5     152
Day 9, July 7       to The Hub/Bartlett I. (#122)                  22.5   174.5
Day 10, July 8     to Little Crow, Winter Harbor (#124        21      195.5
Day 11, July 9     to Dry I., Gouldsboro Bay (#127)           13      208.5
Day 12 July 10    to Jonesport, Moosabec  Reach, (#133) 24      232.5
Day 13, July 11   to Machias                                              25     257.5

Total: ~ 260 miles in 13 days, or 20 miles per day

© Reinhard Zollitsch