Now’s the Time to Kayak Off the Maine Coast

The weather is idyllic—and so are more than 200 island campsites.

Winter is too icy and frigid, spring too gray and rainy. But August and September—ah, this is the time to visit the rugged, rocky seacoast of Maine. Precipitation is the lowest of the year, typically just shy of three inches a month, and afternoon temperatures average a near-perfect 76 degrees Fahrenheit.

And at night the clear, dark sky, removed from the perpetual artificial glow of the megalopolis sprawl to the south, is a bright riot of stars. Among the best places to lie back and take in this spectacle is from one of the hundreds of islands that dot the enchanting coastline.

Many of these islands are privately owned. Yet they are accessible to the public, courtesy of the generosity of the owners, many absentee, in a partnership of extraordinary stewardship with a not-for-profit organization called the Maine Island Trail Association. 

The group was formed during the 1980s and launched by identifying some 30 public islands available for day and overnight stays. By working with landowners and emphasizing the respectful principle of “leave no trace,” the list has since expanded to more than 200 island campsites, from Smuttynose Island off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Moose Island in Cobscook Bay, 375 miles north on the Canadian border. The rustic campsites are available to boaters on a first-come, first-served basis. (A detailed nautical map is available from the association.) 

The most exciting way to get to these islands is to paddle out in a sea kayak.Experienced kayaker Alicia Heyburn recommends “dressing for the temperature of the water,” not the air. In the Gulf of Maine, summertime waters run a brisk 50 degrees. 

Heyburn knows her stuff. She is a registered Maine guide and regional stewardship manager for the Maine Island Trail Association. (Maine is the only state that requires professional kayak guides to be licensed; to become accredited, guides must go through a rigorous program on and off the water.) Her checklist starts with safety: practicing how to climb back in your kayak if you capsize. A properly sized personal flotation device is vital. Don’t forget a spare paddle, sunglasses, and drinking water.            

Sea kayaks are essentially slightly larger versions of the kayaks used to run freshwater rivers. They are constructed of high-impact molded plastic and are 16 to 20 feet long, often with two cockpits. The width or beam can be up to 36 inches for added stability.

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“We call them ‘beamy,’—they’re extremely stable,” says Glenn Tucker, who runs Coastal Kayaking Tours out of Bar Harbor, the gateway to Acadia National Park, which covers approximately half of the spectacular Mount Desert Island. He has been kayaking Maine waters for 23 years.   

“In a kayak, you get a unique perspective, even compared with sitting in other boats,” Tucker notes. “It’s like you’re right in the water.” There’s a good chance you’ll see seals, eagles, porpoises, and all kinds of seabirds. 

If you’re not quite ready for an offshore overnight adventure, Tucker’s half-day tours through the Porcupine Islands off Bar Harbor may be just the thing to ease into the sea-kayaking experience. And afterpaddling, you can enjoy Bar Harbor, the quintessential New England coastal village. There, you can settle into a little restaurant for a dinner of steamed clams and boiled lobster, followed by homemade pie with wild Maine blueberries.

A Bit of History

Acadia National Park is capped by 1,529-foot Cadillac Mountain, named for Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who was granted the granite dome in 1688 by King Louis XIV of France. It’s the highest point on the eastern U. S. coastline, from which intrepid dawn hikers are the first to see the sun rise like an orange orb out of the Atlantic Ocean.

For two to three million years, massive ice fields, in some places two miles thick, covered much of North America. The last glaciers receding from the Maine coast, 9,000 to 12,000 years ago, exposed the gorgeous pink-granite cliffs and boulders that kayakers paddle by today. —T.R.P.