Kayaking The Varied Coast Of Maine
Wells Harbor, Cape Neddick's Lighthouse, Muscongus Bay, Stonington
by Athena Holtey
We are so busy getting away from being busy, our paddling experiences in this beautiful place often go unreported. So, for those wondering what we are up to, here are a few day trips you might want to try sometime. For current details on how to find these locations, where to launch, land, get the right charts and maps, and learn of dangers and cautions, please invest in a few guide books written especially for kayakers. Three we rely on are "Sea Kayaking Along The New England Coast" by Tamsin Venn; "Guide To Sea Kayaking Maine" by Shelly Johnson; and "Kayaking The Maine Coast" by Dorcas Miller.
Wells Harbor - Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge
New England's coast has a new view of the sea to greet us every time we go down to paddle. This time we launched into Wells Harbor to explore the Webhannet River, a tidal inlet and part of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Parking was free and we basically had the Harbor to ourselves. I am appreciating why so much has been written and loved about Maine's little seaside villages as well.
We went out through the jetties, which our guide book said could be a little dicey, into the mainly docile seas...and except for one moment of shear terror watching a huge swell barreling for me on our way back in, (tom surfed it with glee of course) it was just a lazy day on the big blue. To our joy, we spotted two lifeguards paddling the official Lifeguard Scramblers from the mid 90's. Now there's a summer job!
While preparing for the trip we heard of a kayak fisherman who drowned in part of the same network of wetlands, north of Wells, in Scarborough. An experienced kayaker, he couldn't right his yak after a capsize and his paddling partner, some yards ahead, didn't realize he was in trouble until it was too late. The bottom of the wetlands looked muddy like a quick sand, but it was surprisingly hard as we got a little stuck at low tide and I thought maybe that was part of the trouble.
We saw the most amazing image. A dinghy run aground at low tide with at least eight figures standing in it. As we got closer, they flew! Cormorants! All those rich wetlands and they chose the boat! It was quite a contrast in scenery, modern New England condos as a backdrop for the classic rowboat swaying in the recessing tides.
A couple of hours later I saw the same scene, now out the jetties into the sea, a small boat with about eight figures on it...this time fishermen!
A gentleman stopped us as we carried our sit-on-top kayaks the short distance to the van and commented, we guessed in reference to the fatal accident the morning before: "You wouldn't have any trouble get'n back up in those, now would you?" It is ironic that the fisherman was not paddling what has become such a popular boat even out here with fishermen. It was a rainy morning and the water was surprisingly cold for this time of year. I took an involuntary breath myself taking a dip last week. Sad tale, but a beautiful place.
Afterward, we drove down to York Harbor and enjoyed such a dinner on a patio with a view of 2 lighthouses. The sea was....just can't describe it ...metallic green, aqua something, like someone had shook out a metallic piece of silk cloth while it rippled to the sand. Just one little boat anchored offshore. Tikki torches on the patio? I thought I was back in Waikiki!
Cape Neddick - Nubble Lighthouse
Yes that is the Nubble Lighthouse. Not to be confused with Knubble Bay more North..in a "down east" sort of way. This is probably the most photographed lighthouse in Maine and it is a thrill to see if from such views the open ocean offers.
Because Cape Neddick is more exposed to the open seas than most of Maine, take care with offshore winds. Kittery Trading Post or LLBean on Route 1 is a good place to pick up a chart. Highly recommend that. We put in on Neddick River at the mouth of the Harbor at high tide back on Shore Road off 1A at a bait shop behind Cape Neddick Lobster Pound Harborside Restaurant.
Low tide can be messy, muddy and a bit of a walk with kayak in tow to the parking lot. Parking was $5 and they'll tell you to pay at the campground across the street. You see the lighthouse off in the distance. Floating in between the island and shore at the cape is a good lunch spot, in calm seas, but we have often seen it in a washing machine type frenzy. We went further down the coast after rounding the cape and anchored there. Be prepared not to land as the shore is rocky until you get to the very populated beaches ...about three miles from launch...too populated for a proper landing. Great day, no other boat traffic, and we rolled in with the tide.
There was one line in our guide book: "Sea Kayaking Along The New England Coast" among many of Tamsin Venn's beautifully written descriptions, that sold me on Muscongus Bay:
"At sunset, the lobster pots light up like bobbing fireworks in evening light."
She was right.
We've camped on some of the many small islands that dot this popular lobster fishing ground over the years. It is free of most motor traffic as it is shallow, but despite the protected nature of the bay, a wicked wind can really take you by surprise, so check the forecast and be prepared.
There is so much to explore, you'll want to come back, so camping is a good idea. In fact this bay is a good training ground for the sea kayak beginner. It has a little of everything in what are generally safe conditions. Check out the Maine Island Sea Kayak Trail Association's website for current info on islands available for day and/or overnight use.
The MITA regulates the islands to protect them from over-use which encourages the owners to leave them open to kayakers for exploration. So read up on "Leave No Trace" practices as part of your prep for the trip.
On our way home one morning we landed at Hog Island for an impromptu tour of the Maine Audubon Society's educational program there. What a pleasant surprise. It was nice to get out and hike around and learn a little bit about the efforts to protect the sea birds of this valuable coastal environment.
Finally got to Stonington...the classic views in most photos of Maine Coastal paddling ....absolutely beautiful....but a long, long drive. The village of Stonington is breathtaking when viewed from the sea, at dusk especially.
We camped at the Old Quarry Campground, right at the launch. Flat, private, and comfortable. Check again with MITA to make sure you have current information about which islands are open to the public during your visit. The little campground shop at Old Quarry was able to supply us with one.
Stonington is a former granite quarry, hence the name. Stone excavated here was used to build structures across the country, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The islands are so plentiful and the water so shallow and protected that we enjoyed a leisurely day of exploration as well as hiking to some unusual views, and enjoyed dining in the quaint village atmosphere.
The only down side may be the large number of boaters that seem to flock to Stonington. If you want some solitude, try going in May or early June, or in the fall, but take care to read up on wind, tides and currents as always when paddling the beautiful varied Maine seacoast.
Please note: Every season we here sad tales of lost lives along the coast of Maine in these very places we've enjoyed sharing with you here. The reasons are usually the same: paddler failure to pay attention to winds, dress for water temperatures or failure to wear a life jacket. Be safe; be smart; be humbled by the dynamic environments that encourage you love this sport.
Maine Island Trail Association
The Maine Island Trail is a 375-mile waterway extending from the New Hampshire border on the west, to Machias Bay on the east. A Maine Island Trail Association membership gives you access to 185 landing, launching, exploration and camping options, including private islands, that dot the historical, fishing village atmosphere of Maine's "Down East" tidal river coastline. With this membership comes a commitment to help preserve the wild Maine Coast.
To learn more, visit:
Clubs & Organizations
Charts & Maps
At Tom's TopKayaker Shop:
Tidal Current Tables 2010: Atlantic Coast of North America, by NOAA or search for current issue.
Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book 2010 or search for current issue.
Maine Atlas and Gazetteer
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