Maine can certainly claim its share of firsts over the course of its 193-year history, like the first ear muffs, steam-driven automobile and doughnut, even the first place in the country to see the sun rise, among so many others, which leaves little doubt as to why our state motto is Dirigo, Latin for “I lead” or “I direct.”

For us outdoorsy types, a very notable first is the Maine Island Trail, the first recreational water trail in the United States. The 375-mile trail is composed of a string of islands and mainland sites extending from the Piscataqua River in Kittery to Cobscook Bay on the Canadian border. Established in 1988, the trail is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

The Maine Island Trail Association, just a year older than the trail itself, is charged with maintaining this precious resource through stewardship, outreach and education, conservation efforts, and lots of dedicated volunteer help.

“We’re people who love the coast and stand for the protection and enjoyment of the wild islands of Maine,” said Doug Welch, executive director of MITA. “We’ve got a community of island users and island owners working together for the stewardship of these special places.”

The trail was born of a survey done by the Island Institute in the late 1980s that identified 30 islands owned by the state that had great recreational potential as a waterway for small boats, with places to spend the night en route. Enough people were interested in the concept to make the trail and a supporting membership association a reality in just a year’s time.

“It was amazing. Symbolic really,” remarked Welch, who has captained the MITA ship for the last six years.

As interest in sea kayaking grew through the 1990s, so did the Maine Island Trail, which added a significant number of private family owned islands to the trail system. Recent years have seen the addition of many islands owned by coastal land trusts, and today, more than 200 island and mainland sites are part of the trail. Two-thirds of these sites are private.

This last point is an important one, and one of many good reasons to become a member of MITA and add another steward and voice to the already 3,600 members, half of whom are kayakers, a quarter sailboat owners, and a quarter motorboat enthusiasts.

The fragile environment of Maine’s islands demands extra special protection and thoughtful use and monitoring by caring people. And since the majority of the trail’s islands are private, there is an added degree of responsibility to meet the wishes of the landowners who graciously allow public use. In practice, this applies to private land anywhere in the state where public access is granted. Public lands, of course, deserve equal respect.

MITA members gain permission to access and use all trail sites — not just the public ones, but the private islands that are not usually open to the public. All the information you need is contained in the Maine Island Trail Guide, available only to members.

Published annually both in hard copy and online, the guide features detailed descriptions and usage guidelines for the entire system. Members also get newsletter updates, e-news blasts and discounts on gear.

Further, member dues support the monumental efforts to maintain and supply MITA’s volunteer island monitoring and clean-up teams.

Celebrate with MITA this summer and fall with a trek out to the islands for a day or an overnight campout. Enjoy the watery freedom and solitude amid the salty air, maritime forests, cobble and sandy beaches, rocky ledges and abundant marine life. And bring your hiking shoes, as many islands sport lovely trail networks.

Find out more about MITA by attending its day-long 25th Anniversary Small Boaters Conference & Celebration on Saturday in Portland. For more information, visit or call 761-8225. 

Carey Kish of Bowdoin is an award-winning member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association. Send comments and hike suggestions to:

[email protected]


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