It was a novel idea — a water trail along the Maine coast, with campsites scattered on the state’s many uninhabited islands. In the fall of 1987, Camden native Dave Getchell, Sr., presented this vision, “a waterway for small boats,” in a single-page editorial in the magazine Small Boat Journal, and readers throughout Maine wrote to Getchell, stating their interest in the idea and offering to become involved.
Now 30 years later, the Maine Island Trail weaves through islands and along the rocky coast for 375 miles and features 218 sites, some for day use and some for camping.
“We are very proud to say the mission has not changed by one word since the beginning,” said Doug Welch, executive director of the Maine Island Trail Association for the past 10 years.
In recognition of the trail’s 30-year milestone, longtime members of MITA, including Getchell and Welch, gathered on Thursday, Oct. 26, at the MITA office in Portland. At the event, members reminisced about the trail’s humble beginnings and celebrated of the realization of a unique vision.
In a phone interview just prior to the party, Getchell, now 88 years old and living in Appleton, explained how the Maine Island Trail got started.
“Being an outdoors person and very fond of the water, and having done quite a lot of coastal cruising myself, it occurred to me that it would be great to have something like a water trail,” Getchell said.
At the time, the concept of creating a trail for paddlers, sailboats and small motorized boats, complete with boat launches and individual campsites, was new and controversial. In fact, the Maine Island Trail may very well be the first official “water trail” in America.
“When it started out, it was actually really controversial,” Welch said. “People were asking both is this a good idea and will it ever work? And in the end, it’s worked really well, and that’s a testament to Dave Getchell and the early folks who helped him set this up.”
Over the years, the trail and the supporting organization, MITA, have expanded steadily. MITA now has more than 5,700 members, and over the years, the organization has involved more than 30,000 people.
“I would give full credit to Doug, and also the organization, both for the terrific staff he’s put together and also the attitude of the members that help to spread and encourage the care for the islands,” Getchell said.
MITA owns no land and holds no easements. The trail’s campsites are located on the properties of 97 different landowners, ranging from individual families to large public agencies, and the sites are established through simple trust-based “handshake” agreements with each landowner. In return, MITA works to ensure the islands and mainland sites are left in good condition through embracing and teaching Leave No Trace principles, employing a stewardship manager and a fleet of volunteer monitor skippers, and organizing 10 volunteer island cleanups a year.
Nowadays, the water trail concept has become a popular one. In fact, the American Canoe Association provides an online database of hundreds of water trails established worldwide.
Meanwhile, the Maine Island Trail continues to expand. For the 2017 season, 12 new launch ramps, as well as five sites were added to the trail: Tommys Island off Tenants Harbor, Kelley Point in Jonesport, Sandy Point Beach Park in Stockton Springs, Grays Beach in Machiasport and Marshall Point Light in Port Clyde. In the future, MITA is hoping to develop the trail more along the Bold Coast in Washington County and in Southern Maine.
“There are islands that are hundreds of acres, and then there are islands that are less than an acre,” said Welch, who spent two weeks cruising the entire trail in his Boston Whaler three summers ago. “There’s just something incredibly cool about getting to this tiny place and nobody else is there, and it’s all yours for the night.”
“It almost feels like a tiny planet,” he continued, “like in ‘The Little Prince.’ He has this whole planet to himself. You feel like you’re the first person who set foot there. It is quite possible there was somebody there the night before who ‘left no trace,’ and you’ll ‘leave no trace.’”
Whether cruising a motorized boat or sailing or sea kayaking, all trail users are expected to clean up the sites during their stay, and if possible, leave the sites nicer than when they arrived. After all, the ocean is constantly washing up broken lobster traps, plastic and styrofoam.
During the annual island cleanups, volunteers collect boatloads of trash off the islands, and most of it comes directly from the ocean, not from people using the trails. In 2016 alone, MITA removed 750 bags of trash from the shoreline. These volunteer outings are a great way for people who don’t have ocean boating skills and experience to visit some of the uninhabited islands that make up the trail, Welch pointed out.
“The variety is amazing,” Welch said. “Some of the islands have sand beaches and others are pure ledges. Some are pink granite, and others are sedimentary rock like in Casco Bay … each region really feels different.”
All of the day use sites, campsites and proposed routes are included in the Maine Island Trail Guide, updated and published annually for MITA members in print, and as of 2014, the guide is also available in the form of a mobile application, developed by Portland-based Chimani, Inc.
While MITA continues to grow and evolve, the organization and the water trail it stewards operates under the philosophy Getchell put forth 30 years ago.
“I hope that it continues very much as it is now, which is concentrating on the individual taking personal responsibility for the care of the islands,” Getchell said. “That philosophy has worked very well and so I would say I’m hoping that it would continue indefinitely — because we really have a treasure in those islands.”