July 17, 2011

It's Worth the Trip: Paddlers shouldn't miss Merchant's Row

Sea kayakers have lots of opinions about their favorite paddles on the coast of Maine, but my unscientific polling has revealed that they agree to a person that the archipelago of some 40 islands in the thoroughfare between Stonington and Isle au Haut provides perhaps the most variety and exploration opportunities, not to mention sheer beauty, of any water on the coast.

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Isle au Haut’s Duck Harbor offers a mail-boat stop for visitors interested in exploring the section of Acadia National Park that covers 60 percent of the island.

Staff file photo

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The town of Stonington serves as the gateway to the Deer Isle archipelago.

Staff file photo

Add to that the unique charm of the working village of Stonington, stuck out on the end of Deer Isle, and the rugged coastline and mountains of Isle au Haut, some seven miles offshore, and you've got a combination of attractions that will capture you and command you to return time and time again.

Stonington isn't hard to find, but it is off the beaten path -- good news for those of us who like to have some of our summer more or less to ourselves. That's not to say Deer Isle hasn't been discovered, and the main street often bustles with tourists during the peak summer season. Many are there to take the mail boat to Isle au Haut to hike the section of Acadia National Park that makes up 60 per cent of the island.

Most people get to Deer Isle on Route 15, which leaves Route 1 in East Orland, a few miles east of Bucksport. This route takes you through charming Blue Hill village at the base of Blue Hill. It's close to 30 miles from Route 1 to the end of the island, the last 10 after you cross the bridge to Little Deer Isle and a causeway joining the two islands. You'll often see kayakers in the cove and sun bathers on the beach there, and it's a protected spot for the more timid.

The public launching site in Stonington is the place to start your adventure. Then it's a question of which islands and which thoroughfares to strike out for.

Every island beckons, with their white and pink granite sloping down to the water from densely wooded interiors and tiny beaches dotting the shores. Even the names add to the exploration temptation: Grog, Round, Sprout, Potato, Enchanted. And in some cases, a little less: Hell's Half Acre, Devil, Wreck.

You'll see old quarries on some of the islands, and the remains of stone piers that once bustled when the granite trade was booming. Crotch Island is still the site of a rejuvenated quarrying operation. A word of caution, though: Many of the islands are privately owned and visitors aren't invited. But Wreck, Round, McGlathery and Russ belong to environmental groups, and many others are part of the Maine Island Trail Association, where paddlers are welcome. Just pick up a chart at a local store, or go to the association's website: www.mita.org.

The tight passages between the islands, which I approached with trepidation in my lobster boat for years, make for ideal kayaking, and the plethora of coves and harbors call you to stop for a while to just soak up the scenery.

Once you reach Isle au Haut, you're following in the footsteps of Samuel de Champlain, who discovered, explored and named the island in 1604. And there's evidence that native Americans inhabited the island more than 6,000 years ago. Because of the abundant fish in the waters around the island, the population grew to 275 souls by the late 19th century, but by 1935 the number had diminished to just 75. And the year-round population grew by only four resident, to 79, in the 2000 census.

But thanks to rusticators and others from away who were drawn to the island's rugged beauty, the 1880s saw vacation cottages being built in the village on the thoroughfare between the island and neighboring Kimball Island. So now the population doubles in the summer but stays well within manageable limits.

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