Always inspect your rudder. Jim Lenke isn’t a guide, but that’s the moral of a story he tells the uninitiated sea kayaker.
Lenke, his wife and a friend were traveling through Patagonia, when they decided to paddle the Strait of Magellan. Though their guide spoke zero English, they understood his advice to paddle quickly: finicky tides allow only the narrowest window for crossing the Strait.
Only on their way out did Lenke check his boat: “I look back, and there was shoelace and wire and stuff holding my rudder together,” he said. “And then I heard a SNAP, and I look at the guide and he was just saying, ‘Go!’”
Lenke told that story on a morning in Bucks Harbor, where you’re much more likely to find lobstermen than paddlers. Lenke, who was taking video for the Facebook page, “Visit Machias, Maine,” and his wife, Karen Beeftink, were in a tandem kayak. Our guide for the morning, Andrea Ednie, and your uninitiated correspondent paddled solo.
Before hitting the water, Ednie explained what separates sea kayaks from their river cousins: fore and aft bulkheads let you store gear and prevent the boat from getting swamped, while toe pegs at your feet control the rudder—press the right one to turn right, the left one to turn left.
Our gear stowed and skirts stretched over the cockpits, Ednie led the way from the lobster-trap covered beach. Though conditions were calm, the pegs and wobbliness of the narrow kayak took getting used to. But just as the steady exertion of paddling warmed us to the cool breeze, the steering clicked by the time we entered the main harbor, sticking close to the granite bluffs. Though the tide was high, Ednie said it can be fun to study the tidal zones at other times.
She would know. As Maine guides go, Ednie is something of a superwoman. Coming from an outdoorsy family in Quebec, she began guiding in the Bay of Fundy at the age of 15, staying with the same company for 15 years before pursuing a PhD at University of Maine in Orono. She focused on recreation and natural resource management and now is an associate professor of environmental recreation at the University of Maine at Machias.
Also licensed as a Maine guide by the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department, Ednie regularly gets out on the water, whether for teaching or just to get her 2-year-old son accustomed to a paddle. This spring, she had to perform an actual rescue when she brought experienced students out into Cobscook Bay, which boasts some of the trickiest currents Downeast.
“I wanted to teach them first hand what the issues are,” Ednie said, nonchalantly. “So we kind of put ourselves in the middle of it.”
As we headed north across Bucks Harbor, Ednie was determined to spot an eagle, but signs of life were limited to lobster pots and a naval station across adjacent Machias Bay. Eventually passing Yellow Head Island, the waves bounced back into the harbor to create cross-currents known as “confused seas.” No rescues were required, although our skirts—which normally keep water out of the cockpit—were meant to easily pop off in the event that a kayak rolled.
“I call it ‘big water.’ It makes you feel like you’re pretty small, because it’s such a wild area,” Ednie said of bodies of water in the Downeast region, some of which require considerable experience, and which she learned to paddle from the Canadian side.
That wildness makes Washington County ideal for marine activity, with pristine parkland and the ability to spot whales, seals, porpoises and (presumably friendly) sharks, particularly in the deeper water near the Canadian border. But with stronger currents and more exposed rocks, anyone looking to go sea kayaking should consult a local outfitter before a trip.
As we looped around Yellow Head Island, some people could be seen walking over it. Finally we were bee lining back to shore, when Beeftink (who also teaches at UMM) yelled back.
“Look, an eagle!”
The raptor was flying away from us, disappearing into the spruce forest back on shore. Soon we were also on shore, just as a truck was dropping more traps onto the beach. As we lugged our gear back to our own truck, a strong odor wafted from the lobster plant across the beach.
The fishermen remain friendly as long as you paddle in a straight line and don’t interfere with their buoys, Ednie said, which is good news. Unlike anywhere in Bar Harbor or Camden, they are just about the only ones you’ll encounter Downeast.
“You get of all of the nice areas,” Ednie said. “Without any of the people.”
When sea kayaking, bring water, sunscreen and synthetic clothing that dries easily. Call or visit a local outfitter to hire a guide, find a route, arrange tours and rent equipment. Some options in the Downeast region are:
Maine Island Trail Association; 58 Fore Street, Portland; 761.8225; [email protected]; mita.org*
*Though not an outfitter, the Maine Island Trail spans 375 miles of the Maine coast. This stewardship organization can give you general advice and put you in touch with guides and private landowners.