Remembering a Legend of the Maine Island Trail – Dave Getchell, Sr.

The week of November 3rd was a tough one for MITA as we lost the co-founder of the organization, Dave “Getch” Getchell, Sr. Getch spent his scant 90 years in midcoast Maine, 67 of them with wife, Dorrie.  He left this world on his own terms with “no complaints,” stressing there should be “no moping” on his account.  His vision and tireless efforts in the 1980s-90s are legendary and it is our honor to remember Getch’s extraordinary contributions. To view his obituary, please click here. 

Thirty years after its inception, if there was one single individual who personified the Maine Island Trail, it was Dave (Getch) Getchell Sr. While he insisted to the end that he was merely a co-founder of the trail who “administered the necessary details,” those present in the early days of MITA were little fooled by his self-effacement.  While many others were involved (not least of whom his wife Dorrie), Dave envisioned and made the Trail happen, plain and simple.

It started in 1986, when Getch had the good fortune of being hired by the Island Institute to assist with an exploration of Maine’s state-owned islands to determine which if any had recreational potential.  A lifelong outdoorsman, Getch admired iconic land-based hiking trails like the Appalachian Trail. At the same time, he was a lifelong small-boat captain with extraordinary adventures behind him. His trusty tin skiff Torngat, named for Newfoundland’s northernmost mountains, was his vessel of choice for coastal camping adventures. He brought those experiences — and that boat — as he studied the Maine islands in 1986.

Getch’s professional life was as an outdoor recreation writer and editor.  His practical, folksy writing delivered his ideas to a cadre of like-minded admirers whom he gradually built over 22 years in the business.      

In 1987, Getch wrote of the islands, “In studying this bounty, it occurred to me that here was a rare chance to develop an outstanding waterway for small boats.”  Like beads on a necklace, the islands would define a route through North America’s finest cruising grounds. Perhaps such a “water trail” could become an iconic destination for small boaters, similar to the Appalachian Trail for hikers.  (This was, in fact, the first known reference to a water trail — a recreational boating concept now replicated in more than 500 places in North America.)

Even more outlandish, Getch suggested that this Maine Island Trail could actually be managed by the people who used it: “a Maine Island Trail Association, so to speak, made up of members who believe an island waterway should exist and are willing to work toward that goal.”  He further insisted that rather than legal documents, this made-in-Maine water trail should be based on handshake agreements and mutual trust. Rather than declaring rules, MITA would establish visitor guidelines based on the stated wishes of the island owners. In that way, MITA would be an educational conduit rather than a sheriff’s deputy.  

These ideas were met with mixed responses, leading to extensive public meetings, a thoughtful stewardship program, and other refinements to the model.  Like the count of islands on the Trail, Getch and his followers multiplied for the next 30 years — 500 the first year, 1,500 in the second, and 6,500 today.  Surely there is no greater measure of the man than the people his work inspired.