A short, bird-like call echoed over the sparkling Bagaduce River. The shore was too distant to see its source, but Karen Francoeur knew it was a friend saying hello to her on the inaugural paddle up the river this season. She cupped her hand around her mouth and called back.
About 20 minutes later, it was the seals’ turn to welcome the , a registered Maine kayak guide back to the river. A baby seal popped its head out of the water.
“It’s probably never seen a kayak before,” Francoeur said.
A bigger seal, presumably the mother, swam toward the baby.
“Oh, and here comes the mom to say, ‘It’s just Karen back for another season!’ I really think wildlife gets to know you,” Francoeur said.
The seals ought to recognize Francoeur after her 16 years of exploring Castine Harbor and the Bagaduce. She has been guiding kayak trips as the owner of Castine Kayak Adventures since 1997, and she knows the river well. As we glide past the Negro Islands, the paddler points out areas where mudflats will be exposed at low tide.
The Bagaduce is an estuary, continuously exchanging water with the ocean and deeply influenced by tides. Mudflats, coves and tidal creeks make the area rich with wildlife, from the seals playing in the water near our boats to the horseshoe crabs that breed there in late spring.
We point our boats north into “the narrows,” the aptly named area where the river squeezes to only 50 feet wide. The spot has a reputation for wild water, including reversing falls and whirlpools, depending on the incoming and outgoing tides. We hug the coastline and paddle quickly to avoid getting caught in the developing current as slack tide switches to ebb.
Francoeur plans all her trips around the estuary carefully because of its temperamental nature. She checks the tides before deciding when to leave and where to go. Inexperienced kayakers often don’t expect rapidly changing conditions and can be unprepared for a strong current, waves and ledges when they take on the river.
While guiding a group on the Bagaduce one day, Francoeur found a man clinging to his capsized kayak near the shore of Upper Negro Island. After he flipped his boat in the whirlpools of the narrows, the current carried him down the river in the frigid water for about 20 minutes. She rescued him with her safety gear and radioed the harbormaster to come get him by motorboat.
Safety is Francoeur’s first priority, she said. She makes sure visitors, who ask to rent her equipment without a guide, demonstrate their kayaking knowledge before heading out on the water.
“I don’t rent boats to people who don’t know what they are doing because I feel like I’m doing them a disservice,” the instructor said. “If something even kind of bad happens, then they might never go out again.”
To encourage safe kayaking, Francoeur holds clinics, classes and demonstrations to introduce beginners to watercraft safely. She also teaches paddling techniques and water-reading skills during guided trips.
“She’s always teaching,” said John Beckerman, who has taken sea kayaking trips with Francoeur for eight years. “She teaches you to make yourself aware of flaws in your form and technique.”
He’s not kidding. As we meander up to Youngs Island to stop for lunch, the guide still gives occasional reminders — rotate at the abdomen, straighten your arms, don’t forget to push on the foot pegs. Although she earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism and advertising, she minored in environmental education at the University of Maine in Orono.
“I really love seeing people come who have not experienced kayaking and they’re a little bit nervous,” Francoeur said. “You give them pointers and then all of a sudden they’re relaxed and taking in the environment.”
After lunch, we fold ourselves back in our boats in the systemized way Francoeur taught us — paddle touching the ground, left hand gripping both the boat and the shaft of the paddle — and pop our skirts over the cockpits. As we round the corner of Youngs Island, an eagle soars overhead. It carries twigs and sticks in its beak, likely nesting material.
We stop to watch it fly back and forth between the island and the mainland, carrying more material each time, before it finally perches in a tree on the island.
Reluctantly, we turn around and start our journey back to Castine. The water’s rougher now, but nothing Francoeur can’t handle. She has led kayaking trips in Belize, Panama, Ecuador and about four other countries, but she still points excitedly to where seals perch on ledges on both sides of the river. We slip through the middle as quietly as possible to avoid scaring them.
“Guiding isn’t about just going out and having people follow you, it’s about really sharing what you love with other people,” Francoeur said. “If I was doing this to make money, I goofed up a long time ago.”
Castine Kayak Adventures
Where: 17 Sea St., Castine
What: Half- and full-day trips, and bioluminescent night adventures in Castine Bay.