A Day On The Maine Island Trail

By Ryck Lydecker

A chain of 180 pristine islands along the shore of Maine, linked together by volunteers for over 20 years, offers a unique opportunity for cruisers to enjoy the coast and help care for its granite gems.

Photo of Burnt Island at sunsetBurnt Island, one of two islands of the same name open to cruisers on the Maine Island Trail

They carry names such as Smutty Nose, Little Hog, and Rat on hard granite shoulders. They lurk in coastal fog, but with a wind shift and the soft sun of summer, they blossom — Apple, Huckleberry, Milk — into small kingdoms at sea. This is the Maine Island Trail, a treasure kept in trust for cruisers for more than two decades Islands.

Maine has roughly 4,600 landmasses surrounded by saltwater, large ones and small, many close inshore and others a sea voyage away. Some are civilized, but many more are wild and undeveloped. These are the tops of submerged mountain ranges left to us when the glaciers receded 11,000 years ago, and for the boater of today they provide the spruce-topped, kelp-ringed backdrop for legendary cruising. And thanks to a volunteer-led organization, today some 180 of the islands, spread along the state's entire 375-mile coast, are knit together as the Maine Island Trail. For cruisers, this can be the key to getting off the beaten waypoint and gaining, ever so gently, a new intimacy with Maine's granite gems.

Richard Stetson backs the big aluminum skiff away from the boarding float at Rockland's Snow Marine Park. He puts the stand-up helm on the outboard hard over and points the bow for the open water of Penobscot Bay. As the 18-foot Lund comes up on plane, it's obvious Stetson is relishing this early August day; it's the first stretch of fine weather the Maine coast has seen this boating season, after suffering the wettest spring and early summer in many years. This is also his second daylong circuit of the dozen or so islands in his portfolio as a Monitor Skipper for the Maine Island Trail Association (MITA). "With all the bad weather, I haven't been out to the islands since June so it'll be interesting to see if anyone else has," Stetson says. "That's what we do on these runs: see how frequently the islands are visited — who's going out and how they got there — but stewardship is really the focus." This is Stetson's 15th year "or thereabouts" as a monitor skipper and it's what he does to get out on the water when he's not working on his 1940- vintage, 39-foot Elco Cruisette cabin cruiser.

Photo of a sheltered cove on Kimball IslandIsle au Haut light winks toward a sheltered cove on Kimball Island, privately owned but part of the Maine Island Trail.

The skiff hits a few holes in the water and we zip up a little tighter as Stetson turns to the business of crossing astern of the Gloucester-built schooner American Eagle putting out from Rockland Harbor toward Vinalhaven Island, lying due east in the morning sun. My college- sophomore daughter Suzy and I have signed on as volunteers to accompany Stetson and lend a hand, we hope, on his round of six islands in the trail. I've seen pictures on the MITA website of this skiff, or one of the four others just like it stationed along the coast, heaped high with trash bags from past island cleanups. Suzy and I are ready to do our part, with gloves and plastic garbage bags at the ready.

First Stop — East Barred Island

Bump! Crunch! Scrape! The virtues of the "tin skiff" for this kind of island hopping become apparent as we beach on the low-tide gravel bar exposed between state-owned East and West Barred Islands. After securing the grapnel-style anchor deep in the gravel — "We won't be here long but the tide is coming in" — Stetson commits the day's first wanton act of stewardship. He scatters charred logs, obvious remnants of a beach campfire that should not have been, in the brush to eventually rot away.

With my binoculars I scan for the bald eagle that's reportedly nesting on West Barred (off limits right now) while Stetson directs Suzy to climb the rock pile at water's edge to reach the campground we're here to check. That way we leave undisturbed the eroding dirt bank above the beach. A grassy tent site in the dappled spruce grove shows no evidence of occupation, a nice testament to the tenets of the "Leave No Trace" code posted on one tree. Tethered beneath it hangs a decidedly non-recyclable food container, the kind you keep leftovers in. Stetson pops off the lid, bringing out a small logbook to see if there are any "leftover" messages from past visitors. Whether campers or day-trippers, or MITA members (and they should be), visitors record the date of their stay in the logbook, how they got there — via powerboat, sail, or paddle craft — and related information, adding comments as the spirit moves, which it often does ("There was a beautiful iris in full bloom on the path to the campsite …"). Stetson and the other dozen monitor skippers who divvy up the coast record various bits of information as part of their rounds — usually every 10 days or so — and collect the logbooks at season's end for official MITA record-keeping. What I don't see on tiny, one-acre East Barred Island is any litter; no stray cans in the grass, no food wrappers, no plastic foam detritus, not even a pop-top ring — absolutely nothing for my plastic bag. "The islands are far cleaner than they've ever been since MITA got started," Stetson explains. "It used to be we'd haul boatloads of trash ashore, tires, TVs, refrigerators, you name it, but now most of the islands are remarkably clean."

Back in the skiff, we push off the beach and, turning to the southeast, we run past Beach Island (not on the trail), pick up Great Spruce Head Island a mile to the south and lay a course to our next stop. Between the two lie a cluster the chart says are the Barred Islands. Huh?

"Welcome to Maine," Stetson explains. "There are islands with the same names all along the coast. There are actually three sets of Barred Islands, right here in Penobscot Bay." Among just those islands that comprise the Maine Island Trail, I later learn there are three Ram Islands, two named Goat, another two named Sheep, and no less than five Crow Islands.

Butter Island

As we idle up to our next stop, decidedly larger Butter Island, Stetson cuts the motor and poles the skiff into the shallow gravel cove. At 300 acres, this is one of the largest islands on the trail. All of it is privately owned, but through a handshake agreement the association negotiated years ago, the owners make a section of the east side, with two camp-grounds, available in summer, although overnight camping is reserved for trail association members; pets are not permit- ted, in deference to sheep that may be wandering the island meadows.

Photo of a volunteer crew spring cleaning on the Maine Island TrailSpring cleaning. A MITA volunteer crew loads up a workboat at Green Island, off Jonesport. Such trash isn't left by boaters; it usually washes up on the islands over winter.

After checking the logbook and campground at Orchard Beach, Stetson leads us up the trail to the top of Monserrat Hill, which separates the two campgrounds. From the summit, the 360-view in the clear air and bright sun is spectacular — "a gift," Suzy calls it, and whispers, "Richard has the best job in the world." But he's a volunteer and has a schedule to keep, so back on the beach Stetson climbs aboard the skiff. We shove him off to move the half-mile or so south to the other campground while we beach comb and rock-climb our way along the shore to meet him. The campsite here, too, shows little evidence of the handful of visitors to the island so far this season, and once again, there's no litter to pick up.

After an absolutely glorious five-mile run south, with Suzy at the tiller of the 30-horsepower Honda four-stroke, and Deer Isle and the Stonington Peninsula to the east, we round up on the eastern approach to the Fox Islands Thorofare. It separates large, inhabited North Haven Island from even larger, more developed Vinalhaven, and we begin to see more boat traffic.

Eight messages greet us in the logbook at state-owned Little Thorofare Island and once more we find no litter; no trophies of civilization, no ... Wait! What's this? Surely a remnant of some primitive culture, Suzy exclaims as she examines a two-foot monolith standing mute on the granite shelf facing the water. Skillfully assembled of various stones, one atop the other, the statue has that Easter Island look but Stetson assures us it's no great archeological discovery, merely an artifact left by a contemporary visitor. Nonetheless, Suzy finds some deer bones nearby and leaves an offering.

Vinalhaven's Edges

Next it's Little Hen Island at the mouth of Seal Bay, a popular cruising anchorage on the eastern fringe of Vinalhaven. We share lunch on a large wind-fallen tree in the most exquisite cove imaginable. Logbook: "First day out from Rockport, en route Machias. Dense fog. This must be spectacular but I couldn't say ... As I turned to get back in the boat, the most amazing thing happened — the fog and soup blew away and it was instantly a bright, sunny day."

Hay Island, a mile deeper in Vinalhaven's Seal Bay, is a low, five-acre island surrounded by tidal marshes and we pull up on a granite ledge that looks made for landing a din- ghy. We check the campground and with the tide out, walk all the way around the island. Then suddenly, there in the marsh grass, in all its green and yellow polyethylene splen- dor, lies my long sought litter, some castoff food packaging that must've come in on the tide. It's mine!

With my trophy safely aboard, we turn north again and, motoring against a strong tide coming out of Mill River, duck under a bridge on Vinalhaven, the only road we've seen all day. From there it's through the Fox Islands Thorofare, past the village of North Haven in company with cruising sloops, day sailers, lobster boats of both the working and the yacht varieties, and trawlers built for harvesting the sea or hauling summer cruisers. We navigate around a dinghy race near the yacht club and head on to our final stop, Ram Island.

Only an acre in size, Ram is two sister islets near the head of Hurricane Sound. We land on the slightly larger eastern islet with its steep granite sides topped in thick spruce. The campsite and beach are litter free. During the day Suzy has noticed logbook entries written by children and others mentioning kids among the visitors. Here, on tiny Ram Island, just before we call it a day and head back to Rockland, it crystallizes for her. "Dad, can you imagine being 10 years old and having your own island to explore?" Suzy says. "Think of the adventures you could dream up." Like what? I wonder silently, and she provides the answer, "I think I'd have mermaids and tree sprites living with me here and all kinds of friendly sea creatures in the water around the island. And the boys? I guess they'd have bears and pirates, right?" Right. Boys of any age. And where better to find them than exploring on the Maine Island Trail. 

— Published: October/November 2011

About The Maine Island Trail Association

Photo of rocks along the Maine Island TrailMany people make the Maine Island Trail work — over 100 Island Adopters, the corps of Monitor Skippers, volunteers in education efforts ashore, major donors such as Sabre Yachts, and L.L. Bean, which is a founding corporate sponsor. Its state and federal government partners are critical as are the owners of over 100 private islands who open all or part of their property to trail users on a handshake agreement with the association. Then there's the staff in Portland who keep it all going. But there is one man who saw, over two decades ago, that it could work — David R. Getchell, founder of the trail and the organization that tends it. About 1,500 of the 4,600 islands on the Maine coast are state-owned, and in the late 1970s state government began to consider how to best use this public asset. "The state had no idea what the recreation potential might be for all those islands and they hired me to conduct a survey by small boat," says Getchell, now 80 and looking back to when he worked at the nonprofit Island Institute. He spent an entire summer in his 18-foot aluminum skiff visiting and camping on a couple of hundred islands from Portland to Eastport. "I found 25 or 26 state islands that had real potential for recreation and I thought, what a great opportunity to establish wilderness campsites, so I began to talk up the idea and it took off," he explains. From that came the impetus to form a group to take care of these public islands, so in 1988 Getchell and friends founded the Maine Island Trail Association, at first under the Island Institute, and later as an independent membership organization. "People often think of MITA as a sea-kayaking organization, but from day one we always intended it to be open to all boaters and all types of boats," he says. Today about half the membership is comprised of paddlers and the other half split about 50-50 between sailors and powerboaters. Cruising sailors such as MITA member Dean Abramson, who sails his Cape Dory 31 along the coast every summer, appreciate the access to small islands: "On the trail are many magical places where you can safely anchor off a larger boat, then dinghy ashore to hike, picnic, or even sleep on solid ground for a change. These islands offer a great way to get off the beaten cruising path."

Photo of the rocky shoreline along the Maine Island Trail

The key to it all, quite literally, is the annual Maine Island Trail guidebook covering more than 150 islands, plus 40 main-land sites, from the Isles of Shoals at the New Hampshire state line to Machias on the Canadian border. The guide is essential cruising equipment because details change from year to year for exact dates when certain islands are open, information on camping permits, allowed activities, and wildlife restrictions. The 2009 guide listed seven islands newly added to the trail.

"It's a great feeling to land on an island knowing that this will be your own kingdom for 24 hours or two days or whatever, and that you have a part in taking care of that kingdom," says Getchell. Perhaps that's just what inspired an anonymous visitor to write in an island logbook some years ago: "What is it about islands that stirs our souls? Is it solitude? Quiet? Untouched beauty?"

Surely it's all those things and more. Basic MITA membership is $45, which includes the annual guidebook. Contact: Maine Island Trail Association, 58 Fore St., Suite 30-3, Portland, Maine 04101. www.mita.org.


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