MITA member Deborah Horne went off the beaten path this summer – she and several friends explored the Maine Island Trail’s lesser-traveled Downeast section. Her trip report, submitted to our annual Tales of the Trail contest, offers valuable insight to anyone looking to become more familiar with that part of the Maine coast!
The idea for our Maine 2017 trip started on a trip in 2016 in Stonington with Mary Mautner. She mentioned she had been stationed in Jonesport when she was in the Coast Guard, and that it is a beautiful and wild area. I read the MITA manual and studied the available islands and mainland sites, and came up with a preliminary route that would involve launching from the mainland, heading north around Petit Manan Point, spending one night on Bois Bubert Island and then continuing north. Originally I was trying to keep our camping sites on islands, but in order to maintain a reasonable distance between stopovers (and taking into account our need to have access to fresh drinking water) I decided to make use of two mainland sites that were not conventional campgrounds but still offered primitive camping. The destinations changed a few times during the planning stages to eliminate some of the islands that had too much exposure from wind or no access at low tide.
I sent out the planned trip to our kayak club (the North Atlantic Canoe and Kayak Club, or NACK). Two NACK members, Troy Siegel and Jonathan Tunik, responded that they were on board. Both were Level 3 or 4 ACA-assessed paddlers.
The planning started in February and continued for the next six months leading up to the trip. Everyone joined MITA and purchased the appropriate charts. I made reservations at Mainayr Campground in Steuben, where we would be launching from. The owner’s daughter, Christine, was very helpful and gave me a lot of information about the expected tides and conditions around Petit Manan Point.
I also obtained permission from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to spend our first night on Bois Bubert Island, which is part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge and limits the number of people on the island at any one time.
Our next destination, Kelley Point, is privately owned and requires permission from the owners to stay there. I called and was given permission to stay for two nights, our 2nd and 4th. We also obtained permission to access water from the outdoor faucets on the buildings which are located a short walk down a dirt road from the camping area. It was helpful to know we would have fresh water to replenish our supply on two separate nights, which would minimize the amount of water we would have to carry.
The third night would also be spent at a private mainland destination with access for MITA members, Dickinson’s Reach.
Our fifth and last night would be spent on Sheep Island. This would give us a comparatively short paddle to Milbridge, where we would leave a car, or give us the alternative to paddle around Petit Manan again and back to our original launch site if conditions allowed.
Once all our destinations were set, I plotted our course each day from waypoint to waypoint. This was extremely important in case of fog, which is a very real possibility in Maine. As it turned out, we did encounter very dense fog on the second day.
We met at Mainayr and were ready to launch. We had left my car about 7 miles away in Milbridge, and left a float plan with the police department in Milbridge and the owner of Mainayr Campground (as well as with our emergency contacts). We broke camp, took our last showers for a while and packed the kayaks (which is always a huge undertaking, especially the first day), just in time for high tide. We paddled out of Joy Cove into Dyer Bay on a beautiful, warm, sunny day, unsure of what lay ahead.
We continued across Gouldsboro Bay, which had some very confused chop around the entrance, and then around the exposed and potentially rough Petit Manan Point. There is a shoal that runs from the point a few miles out to Petit Manan Island, which can cause the waves to kick up. We could see breaking waves further out and decided to round the point through the inner passage, which was not too bad. We then had a short crossing to round the tip of Bois Bubert Island and land on the northeast side, in Seal Cove where the designated campsite is located. When we found the campsite, it appeared we would be having company – there were already 3 tents pitched and several pairs of undergarments strewn on the rocks to dry. We scouted around for another campsite, but the island is densely wooded. It was finally decided that we would have to be neighborly and pitch our tents next to theirs. The occupants returned shortly, and it was three retired gentlemen from New Jersey on their annual kayaking adventure. They were very sociable and after getting settled and preparing dinner we all sat out under the beautiful star-studded sky and exchanged stories. One of the guys was an environmental teacher and he gave us a lesson on constellations.
The next morning, we were all up around 7 am to prepare breakfast, break camp and again pack the kayaks. Our fellow campers headed off in one direction and we headed northeast, across Narraguagus Bay and then across Pleasant Bay towards Moose Neck and Tibbett Island. It was a beautiful, mild, sunny morning with the wind at our backs. We stopped for lunch on Tibbett and watched the lobster boats unload in the narrows between the island and the mainland. As we were about to depart, we noticed a dense fog bank approaching very quickly from the ocean. We launched as fast as we could and quickly headed out to the green buoy off the end of the island, the waypoint from which our next heading was based. I wanted to confirm the heading with a visual to our next waypoint, and try to get a handle on the wind and current to estimate if we would need to compensate for those two factors. Unfortunately, by the time I got there we were already surrounded by the fog. In my haste, I left Troy and Jonathan behind while Troy set his GPS and put out a securite call on his VHF radio to notify anyone listening there would be kayakers crossing the channel (good actions on Troy’s part). They caught up to me, and within a few minutes a Coast Guard vessel showed up to check us out. They determined we knew what we were doing and took off.
We headed out into the fog. It is a very eerie feeling, not being able to see where you are headed and hoping you will eventually see the buoy you are looking for. It felt like we did a lot of zigzagging, but with a sigh of relief we found each consecutive waypoint. Troy did approach a lobster boat to ask what VHF channel they monitor, but it seems they all monitor different channels and some don’t really monitor any channels! The lobsterman offered to escort us across the channel into Moosabec Reach, but at this point we seemed to be doing okay with GPS.
We crossed the channel and followed the shoreline past West Jonesport and Jonesport. The weather had continued to deteriorate, and along with the fog it was misting and cool. We made our way through all the lobster boats moored off Jonesport, and Jonathan heard a weather advisory for severe thunderstorms with 30 mph winds in the vicinity. This made our situation a little more dire, as we didn’t have many options for landing other than making it to our destination, Kelley Point (still 2 miles away). Fatigue and anxiety made for some tense moments, but we finally reached the point.
The campsite was very exposed, and would require either hauling all our gear up a steep rock embankment or walking the long way around up a dirt road. We decided that for the sake of safety, and because no one else was around, we would pitch our tents behind some of the cabins for protection from wind and possible lightning. We hoped that the owners would understand. We hauled our kayaks up a wide beach, up a wooden walkway and behind the main building. We changed into dry clothes, made dinner and then retreated to our tents for some much-needed rest. During the night we did get some strong winds and rain, but thankfully no lightning.
We awoke in the morning to still-dense fog and contemplated our options. We decided to amend our course to stay close to the mainland, and then cross over to Roque Island at a point further north where the crossing would be shorter and less exposed to open water. This proved to be a good choice, as the fog was just starting to lift as we crossed to Roque. By the time we arrived the fog had pretty much cleared. We came around the north side into a beautiful cove, with a small community of houses to the west and tall rock cliffs to the east. A Coast Guard vessel was moored in the middle of the cove. After having lunch on the beautiful sand beach, Troy paid the ship a visit. They explained they were stationed there while the conditions were rough on the open water. We departed from Roque Island and crossed Englishman Bay to Roque Bluffs State Park. We practiced our surf landings on the beach and walked across the road to a serene freshwater pond. Troy and Jonathan took advantage of the opportunity to rinse off in the fresh water. We then faced the challenge of launching in a strong surf. Thankfully, we all made it!
We then headed out to round Cow and Calf Points, which are exposed to the open Atlantic. This proved very challenging, with large swells that looked like mountains of water coming on. They definitely hid a paddler in the trough. We finally made the turn into Little Kennebec Bay towards Dickinson’s Reach, and had to surf the swells in. Once in the Bay conditions calmed down, but we still had another 3 miles to reach our destination. After some exploration, we found what could be described as a very primitive campsite. It involved climbing up a steep slope of rocks covered with seaweed and traversing a narrow path to a small area just big enough for a couple of tents underneath the trees. We used a downed tree as our table for cooking. Troy actually set up his tent on the rotted remnants of floorboards from some type of building. One wrong step and your foot went right through. It was a real challenge getting the kayaks up the slippery slope to be above the high tide line. We did a little exploring, and there is a path that leads to one of the yurt houses on the property. The inside has been well-maintained and there is a privy behind the house designed in the classic yurt style, which we were happy to make use of.
We departed the next morning after again navigating equipment and kayaks down the steep slope – except for Troy who decided the situation was perfect for a seal launch. Success! Great reason to consider a plastic kayak. We paddled the three miles back out of Dickinson’s Reach and Little Kennebec Bay. As we neared the entrance to the bay the wind picked up slightly, but we were able to make the crossing over to Halifax Island without too much effort. We decided to paddle on the outside of some of the smaller islands surrounding Roque Harbor to enjoy the scenery. However, the wind started picking up and the waves were getting pretty big. We decided to cut in between Anguilla Island and Double Shoe Island to get protection from the wind. We started looking for a sandy beach to stop for lunch, and finally found one that was rocky but with smooth flat rocks that are common on some of the beaches in this area. Had a nice lunch, out of the wind and keeping warm in the sunshine. Troy did another seal launch which I was able to capture on video.
We continued around the islands, exploring some secluded coves between Great Spruce Island and Little Spruce Island, and then started the crossing of Chandler Bay back to Kelley Point. This meant leaving the protection of the islands and paddling into a strong wind. We finally made it back to Kelley Point and were greeted by Fred and Ruby Ann, the owner’s son and daughter. We again carried the kayaks up the wooden ramp and hauled the gear a short way up the dirt road to the designated camping area. We pitched the tents and then watched a beautiful sunset while enjoying some ice-cold beers compliments of Fred and Ruby Ann. They also offered us hot showers and fresh coffee by their indoor fire pit. It was a very enjoyable stay, and we could not have been more appreciative of their hospitality.
We set out the next morning in bright sunshine and a light breeze. We made our way back through Moosabec Reach and past Jonesport, which looked very different when not hidden in a dense fog. It was apparent what a small, quiet town it was. We saw no signs of townspeople – even the Coast Guard Station was quiet.
Of course the wind picked up again, head-on, and we struggled to make it across Wohoa Bay. We altered our course slightly for some shelter from the wind, but it was hard to find. We finally made it and stopped for lunch. Energized, we continued on through Tibbett Narrows, only to be greeted by another strong headwind and challenging seas. We had no choice but to persevere – it was a long slog to get across Eastern Harbor around Cape Split. We finally made the turn towards Sheep Island and found quiet water and shelter on the north side. We landed at low tide on a wide sand beach and were thrilled to find a privy, picnic table, fire pit and lobster pot! Had we only known we could have had fresh Maine lobster for dinner. We watched a beautiful sunset after setting up camp and gathering firewood. The days and nights had gotten progressively colder as the week went on, and we were really looking forward to a nice hot campfire. The fire was finally roaring as we prepared our dinner, but no sooner had we begun than the wind shifted to the north and became strong, making it necessary to put out the fire before Jonathan’s tent went up in flames. Oh well! We enjoyed the last night of our amazing journey.
The following day was a cool, sunny morning and we broke camp and packed our kayaks for the last time. It’s surprising how much easier it is after so much practice. We were glad we had decided to leave a car in Milbridge, about eight miles away, as opposed to the twenty-mile paddle back around Petit Manan Point into the wind to where we started. We still had to paddle a fair amount of the way into the wind, but we reached Milbridge around 1 pm. Hard to believe the trip was over after planning and anticipating for so long.
I am so glad we did this trip, so proud of the challenges we overcame and so appreciative of the beautiful Maine coastline we were able to experience. I am thankful to Troy and Jonathan for accompanying me and to all those people we met who helped to make it an unforgettable journey. I am also thankful to MITA for their excellent guidebook and their mission to care for the islands of the Maine coast and offer the opportunity to experience its pristine beauty.
I would like to encourage others to take advantage of the unique opportunity that MITA offers to explore the Maine coastline. My recommendations are to plan carefully, train hard and know what challenges you might encounter and plan accordingly.