Along the Maine Island Trail: A valuable navigation lesson

The sun sets before one of the Maine Island Trail sites on Stevens Island off the coast of Down East, Maine.
Photo by Levi Bridges
The sun sets before one of the Maine Island Trail sites on Stevens Island off the coast of Down East, Maine.
Posted Sept. 09, 2011, at 10:58 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 12, 2011, at 8:58 a.m.
Levi Bridges' tent pitched on one of the beautiful Maine Island Trail sites available to MITA members on Stevens Island, Down East, Maine.
Levi Bridges
Levi Bridges' tent pitched on one of the beautiful Maine Island Trail sites available to MITA members on Stevens Island, Down East, Maine.
A easterly view from the rocky shore of Stevens Island off the coast of Jonesport, Maine.
Levi Bridges
A easterly view from the rocky shore of Stevens Island off the coast of Jonesport, Maine.
Paddling towards Stevens Island, Down East, Maine.
Levi Bridges
Paddling towards Stevens Island, Down East, Maine.

One of the final sections of my paddle along the Maine Island Trail this summer brought me to a boat landing near the small Down East town of South Addison. The sun illuminated the earth on a perfect summer day as I turned onto a gravel road, parked and unloaded my kayak, then paddled away into a cove leading out to sea under the curious gazes of several friendly fishermen.

I departed in one of those careless moments of excitement that characterize the rare opportunity of beginning a Maine adventure during good weather. I located this boat landing with my Maine Gazetteer, an amazing cartographic work that I had used all summer to find similar launching points and had come to believe displayed every extant boat landing on the Maine coast. But as I fought against the strong tides Down East and entered the ocean, none of the isles before me matched the topography on my ocean charts.

For several minutes I sat confused in my kayak, head popping up and down like a slinky as my eyes darted between my chart and the sea. With the boat landing and my car still in sight, I realized that I already had become quite lost, an inauspicious beginning to any journey.

I decided to paddle the Maine Island Trail without a GPS. Two years ago, when my college friend Ellery Althaus and I completed our 9,500-mile bicycle trip across Siberia and Europe, we opted to travel without a GPS after hearing that foreigners in Russia had been arrested under espionage charges for carrying mapping devices. During our journey, I fell in love with the old-fashioned method of relying on paper maps and compasses for navigation. The lack of certainty heightened the adventure, and we often wound up in bizarre places that we never would have encountered if we had benefited from the navigational exactitude a GPS offers.

Instead of fighting the currents again and turning back to the boat landing to ask directions, I determinedly paddled around nearby islands trying to orient myself. Finally, after several frustrating hours and a detour to nearby Jonesport, I located my destination, Stevens Island, about three miles out to sea. To my surprise, I deduced that the boat landing I had launched from was, in fact, not listed in the Maine Gazetteer and most likely was located up a long inlet near Jonesport called Carrying Place Cove.

I spent two nights camped on Stevens, a long span of secluded beaches and thick forests, while making day trips to nearby islands. My weather radio predicted a storm would blow through on the day of my departure. To avoid it, I headed back to the mainland early through fog so dense I could barely see farther than my deck compass. After a long paddle I found no boat landing in Carrying Place Cove. I had become dreadfully lost. For another hour, I paddled back toward Jonesport looking for familiar landmarks but found nothing. With no better option, I turned back toward the boat landings on my map in South Addison.

The tempestuous wind and waves of the storm soon descended over the fog. The sky dumped sheets of rain upon me as I endured a slow 4-mile paddle to the nearest boat landing with no guarantee that my car would be there. As the rain poured, I grew exhausted. Eventually, in desperation, I started to cry, tears welling up as the deluge continued.

Just before reaching the boat landing, I came across a nice beach and stopped for a rest. Nearby stood a white cottage, the chimney emanating smoke from a wood fire inside. I knocked on the door to ask directions. An old couple from New York, who had spent summers in Maine for decades, opened the door.

“Let’s get my car,” said the old man, “I’ll help you find the boat landing.”

After driving around South Addison, we found my truck at another landing near Jonesport. I said goodbye to my savior, entered my car and turned on the heater. In my wild elation upon finding the car, I soon realized I already had forgotten the kind old man’s name.

In a modern world mapped by Google, where GPS units can trace our every move, the temptation is strong to forsake technology in the name of adventure. But on that day I learned an important lesson: Never venture out to sea without knowing exactly where you are leaving from.

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