Getting the hang of paddling a sea kayak, veteran guide Rich McDonald says, can make one feel like a different animal altogether.
“Your legs are under the spray deck, you’re connected with a spray skirt,” he said. “Suddenly you’re like a kayaking centaur. If it’s raining or sunny or buggy, the lower half of your body is protected.”
You’re near the level of the water, much closer than in other kinds of boats, and can move quietly. It’s the ideal vantage point for getting close to birds and other wildlife.
For kayaking early in the season, guides choose destinations that are sheltered from what might be cold or rough conditions on exposed shoreline. Bass Harbor Marsh is a beautiful one with some interesting marine ecology to explore, especially with a well-versed naturalist.
There are two access points for paddling the marsh, MacDonald said. On the east side, you can carry boats across the field near the Tremont Grammar School and launch on the rocky shore there. Or you can put in at the bridge that connects Tremont to Southwest Harbor, known to some as “Abner’s bridge.”
“It’s not a long paddle,” he said. “But there are some really cool things. It’s protected and relatively quiet, but you can hear the traffic on the road. There are saltwater marsh plants because it’s a brackish zone in the estuary. The water is full of tannins there, so it looks like tea.”
You’ll see birds, including heron, egrets, ducks, kingfishers, sandpipers in the mudflats and eagles overhead.
“But if you know your birdsongs, you might hear a few more,” he said, like maybe a prairie warbler or a Nelson’s sparrow.
It’s best to be from mid-tide to high tide, he said, “but if you’re in there at low tide chances are you’re probably not going to get stuck. That’s a bigger issue in many of the tidal marshes in southern Maine.”
Other sheltered destinations include Northeast Creek, also known as King’s Creek in the Bar Harbor village of Salisbury Cove.
“You can paddle over a little more than a mile up,” MacDonald said. Along with the bald eagles and kingfishers, you may see blackbirds, sparrows in spring and fall, even sometimes muskrats or river otters. Watch for warblers along the creek banks or a northern harrier, a beautiful slim, long-tailed hawk, hunting over the cranberry meadow.
For saltwater adventuring, try launching from Hadley Point and paddling along the shore up toward Thompson Island.
“In almost any wind it’s a sheltered area,” MacDonald said. “I almost always see great blue herons from the bridge there on April 1.”
Mostly, when planning a trip, he said, “I don’t want clients paddling into the wind, if I can help it.” He loves watching for offshore seabirds that venture in closer once in awhile, often on foggy days. These include puffins, razorbills and storm petrels.
One way to escape crowds in the summer is to paddle on Mount Desert Island’s lesser known lakes and ponds, such as Seal Cove Pond.
“You usually have it to yourself,” MacDonald said. On Long Pond and Echo Lake, he loves taking groups to find out-of-the-way places to swim.
MacDonald became a kayak fanatic in college, after growing up doing a lot of canoeing.
“I took a class to learn how to do an Eskimo roll [a way to safely escape from an overturned kayak], and it just took.”
Visitors on a kayak trip often want to take photos. For smartphones and small cameras, he said, small plastic bag-type cases are available that allow the device to be safely used around water. He recommends storing more heavy-duty camera equipment in a dry bag provided by guides.
“In the ocean, a wet camera is a dead camera,” he said. “I’ve been guiding since 1989 and only had two cameras dropped in the ocean on my trips.”
The test for becoming a sea kayak guide in Maine is the most rigorous in North America, MacDonald said.
“There are a lot of variables around here, tidal currents, dealing with fog, and being aware of other users of the water from lobster boats, to recreational vessels to other kayak groups.”