May 21, 2018
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Island Trail paddle fulfilling life’s dream

By Levi Bridges, Special to the BDN

STONINGTON, Maine — While paddling around the southern corner of Russ Island, a towering mass of rock and spruce trees just off town, a headwind picked up and large waves slammed into the bow of my kayak.

Water sloshed over the front hatches and white surf splashed onto my face, dribbling down over the sepia lens of my sunglasses and collecting on the spray skirt. Even this close to the mainland, a sudden increase in wind quickly can churn placid waters into rough seas.

I turned my course southwest to nearby Rock Island, a beautiful isle of open meadows and trees that I knew had a camping spot on the Maine Island Trail system. Several minutes later, I landed on the northern shore of my destination. A large grove of trees rising from the island’s center mitigated the wind. Hot sun beat down from clear skies. The danger of the high seas — which I still could see slamming into the cliffs of Russ Island — barely felt palpable here.

I immediately was smitten with Rock Island. From the southern shore, a magnificent scene of distant, uninhabited islands disappeared into a mysterious shroud of fog.

A deep sense of irony overshadowed my feelings of affection for the landscape before me. I was born in Blue Hill, not far from this spot, and lived the first 18 years of my life on the Maine coast. I spent most of my 20s trying to escape the place where I’d lived for nearly two decades. I interspersed college with semesters abroad in Spain and Mexico. Spent a year in South America upon graduation. Then rode a bicycle across Asia and Europe, an experience I wrote about for the BDN.

Many youth who come of age in northern New England’s small towns and villages do so keenly aware of the lack of movie theaters, malls and, most importantly, “things to do.” Growing up in Maine, you learn how to make your own fun. In high school my friends and I spent hours outside, often hiking and talking about our hopes and dreams. We congregated in derelict boatyards and coves. On mountains in Acadia National Park. Or merely wandered through the woods during any season of the year.

A life in Maine has a funny way of shaping curious personalities. I recall how a student from my college in western New York reacted when I told him that during high school a friend and I had once gone winter camping on a Maine mountain in January, just to see if we could do it. “Wow,” he exclaimed. “That sounds really awful.”

I didn’t feel as though I had anything in common with the kids that I met at college, many of whom hailed from suburbs in Pennsylvania. They all thought high school was boring. In Maine, my high school years had swelled with memorable outdoor adventures.

It was only when I left home that I realized how truly unique and beautiful Maine is. For several years after graduating college, I returned to my hometown during the warm summer months to work and save money to travel come fall.

It was during this time that I discovered sea kayaking. After long days of manual labor, I got my explorer’s fix by paddling solo through the ocean in one of my parents’ kayaks. The thrill of gliding through waves and landing on the rocky crags of distant isles quickly convinced me that my own home deserved more thorough exploration.

I dreamed of one day spending a summer paddling along the Maine coast, stopping to camp on the designated islands of the Maine Island Trail system. But the magnetism of foreign locales always instigated me to keep working in order to escape my hometown. So I put it off another year. And another. And another.

This spring, I decided that things would be different. With a new job lined up for the fall, I put in my two weeks’ notice and, yes, came home again. Having written a few letters asking for support, I jumped in surprise and delight when Lloyd Hall, manager of Old Town Canoes and Kayaks, agreed to sponsor my trip with a Necky Chatham touring kayak and gear.

That night on Rock Island, I watched as a full moon rose and illuminated the gorgeous seascape before me. I had perhaps never felt more connected to my childhood home.

The coastal landscape couldn’t have looked more familiar. This was exactly what I had come out here to find.

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