I spent one of my last nights on the Maine Island Trail camped in the yard of a couple who lives in Machiasport. A small grove of pine trees opposite a dirt road rising from the rugged Down East coast marked one of several mainland campsites in the area available for paddlers to take refuge during stormy weather.
Rain had poured from the sky for days when I arrived at this soggy patch of gnarled roots. I scurried into my damp tent with a desperate sense of relish.
The next morning a thick mist and cloudy skies signaled the end of the rain. I lugged my kayak down to the coast and prepared to head out to sea one last time.
At a small boat landing nearby, an old woman and her son looked on as I fiddled with my gear. A wide cove, brimming with water at high tide, expanded out from the boat landing. On one side a dirt road disappeared into the water. On the other, it reappeared from the salty depths. Before I left, a gray-haired man with a tough, chiseled face that warmed when he spoke paddled a dinghy over to meet his wife and son.
“Where you heading?” he asked.
“Ram Island,” I said, the furthest point east on the MIT. “What about yourself?” I asked.
“House is just over there,” he said, pointing across the cove.
“Do you walk over at low tide?” I asked.
“No, we drive!” he said.
In the last week, I realized there really is something different about Down East. Here, in this secluded part of the world, people both welcome outsiders and exhibit a rare sense of self-reliance. Many amiable fishermen, offering kind words or a helping hand, had reached out to me while I paddled here. When I returned to the boat landing at low tide the next day, I watched as locals sped over the exposed mudflats in small sedans that most people wouldn’t have risked taking out in a snowstorm.
Ram Island is situated roughly two miles out to sea past ferocious tidal currents and tall sea swells. In recent days, I had begun tiring of paddling in these conditions alone, afraid to imagine what might happen if something went wrong. So I breathed a sigh of relief when I managed to land my kayak — spit up on a cobble beach from a large sea swell — on Ram Island.
A towering expanse of grassy hills, without a single tree, rose up from the sea before me. I climbed up to the island’s designated campsite transfixed by the view. In the distance, several other similar-looking, mountainous islands towered against the horizon. This place resembled northern Scotland more than any part of Maine I had ever seen.
Later that night, while cooking dinner on the beach as a full moon rose over the windswept sea, I reminisced about my experiences on the MIT: Being woken up by the colorful language of lobstermen at work in their boats while camped on islands south of Stonington; having lunch in Milbridge with a Mexican family originally drawn north to rake blueberries; becoming lost in the fog and rain — more than once.
Along the way, I camped on islands designated as part of the Maine Island Trail Association, a system of stopover points for kayakers maintained by local stewards where visitors are asked to practice strict Leave No Trace guidelines. Although MITA is a stunning example of conservation, while paddling the coast, I saw how Maine islands daily align with the lives of humans. Even on the most pristine, remote isles, several plastic bottles had always washed up along the high-tide line. Despite the wild quality of the environment, I daily saw evidence of humans.
“All visitors to fragile coastal environments need to understand that their presence has an impact,” said Jim Dow, executive director of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, “and that they have the responsibility to minimize that impact.”
While paddling the Maine coast, I encountered numerous people trying to uphold this ideal.
“Maine is a relatively isolated part of the world where locals still work closely with the ocean,” said Carla Guenther, fisheries science and leadership advisor of the Penobscot East Resource Company, a nonprofit in Stonington that strives to foster sustainable fishing practices in Maine. Recently, Guenther has headed the organization’s Community Fisheries Action Roundtable, a series of meetings held around the state with local fisherman to discuss the future of the scallop fishery, with the hope that fisherman can work with state regulators to create sustainable fisheries and marine environments.
“The most exciting aspect of these meetings has been the leadership of the younger generation,” said Guenther.
At a small dock in Milbridge one summer afternoon, I caught up with one of these leaders, a young scallop and lobster fisherman named Curtis Haycock.
“As a teenager, at times we hauled in three to five hundred pounds of scallops in a day!” Haycock remarked. “Now, we’re lucky if we get 100 pounds.”
“I’m really excited to take part in the preservation of this fishery,” he added.
While kayaking the MIT, I increasingly felt aware of the intense human impact on our planet. Camping alone on places like Ram Island, I experienced a deep solitude. Before I left the next morning, I noticed a rusty nail sticking up from an old piece of driftwood on the beach. Maine islands are remote places that give you the sensation of having escaped the world of men. But they are also places where you can still cut your foot on a rusty nail.
In America — land of the automobile and interstate — I think we often feel a sense of entitlement to be able to explore the length and breadth of our country. I know I often do. But rarely are we asked to consider the weight of our presence. On the MIT, you consume only the food and water you carry. And you must pack out all trash and human waste. This gives one a calculable insight into our daily impact on the world which, in the age of 21st century conveniences, often remains invisible.
In many ways, my decision to paddle the MIT was a way of reconnecting with my childhood home prior to departing for more distant points. Ocean kayaking is a thrilling, dangerous sport, and on my solo journey I became terrified for my safety more than once. But I loved the places that I saw. And am overjoyed to know they will be preserved for future generations.
This land is beautiful, I thought while paddling back to shore. It’s the most beautiful land in the world.