‘Welcome to our world’

The first personal account of a trip on the Maine Island Trail I ever read was Steve Callahan’s 2002 article “Reflections at the Water’s Edge,” which documented a trip he and his wife Kathy did on a section of the trail in the pages of “Cruising World” magazine. Callahan and his wife spent roughly a week in and around the area of Mount Desert Island, and his portrait, which chronicled breathtaking beauty, remote destinations, and up-close encounters with wildlife, left a lasting impression on me. The “remote” world he described was usually within sight of the Maine shore, and only accessible, for logistical reasons, by small craft. He and his wife did it – wisely wearing dry suits – on a 16-foot catamaran.

Where and how did I sign up for that?

Fast-forward way too many years. Fifteen, to be exact, and one of my proudest moments as a parent takes place on my first-ever foray on the trail, just one hour into the first day of a July trip. My 11-year-old son Noah and I are paddling an old Blue Jay through a windless “thick-o’-fog” in the direction of Little Ram Island, in the vicinity of Boothbay Harbor, when we hear odd noises somewhere ahead of us. The fog does weird things to the noise, seemingly bending it and sending it at us from different directions. We keep paddling, but stop talking, and finally Noah, who’s informed me beforehand that his one goal on the trip is to see a seal, and has researched them extensively online, turns and says, “Could that be seals?”

I don’t know what we’re hearing, but suddenly the fog parts and the source is revealed: Dead ahead is a ledge that’s been exposed by the tide, and lounging casually atop it are – you guessed it – harbor seals. The black-and-white color scheme of my Blue Jay, I realize, is unfortunate. Will they know we’re not something that wants to eat them? And what’s a harbor seal’s take on sudden intrusions?

We’re about to find out. Six of them slide off the ledge and swim in our direction. My heart races, and I wish I’d spent even a few minutes with Noah researching the seals, whose large, glistening heads approaching us are surreal and strike me (despite my deep, and probably justified, concern) as reassuringly dog-like. They’re so big. Just one of them, I bet, flopped onto the boat’s foredeck, would catapult Noah and me like peas shot from a spoon.

I needn’t have worried. The seals get no closer than about 20 feet. We’re surrounded, but it’s clear that they’re as curious about us as we are about them. Nothing more. They tread water and seem to wait for something to happen, their big eyes, whiskers and canine-like noses making them seem like friendly ambassadors.

“Welcome,” they seem to say. “Welcome to our world.”

When Noah looks back at me he’s grinning ear to ear, and his eyes are misty. He’s seen his seal – and then some. I know I’ve just witnessed a seminal moment in his life. As parents, we’re rarely ever sure.

This year the Maine Island Trail Association (MITA), which is responsible for the stewardship of the islands that Noah and I and two friends visited last summer, turns 30 years old. It’s hard to believe that this already iconic trail, which “Outside” magazine calls “America’s best sea-kayaking trail” and “National Geographic Adventure” magazine once listed as one of their “50 Best American Adventures” has only existed since 1988. Today, what started as 30 state-owned islands has swelled to roughly 200, 95-percent of them privately owned, and most of them are, as in 1988, still visible from shore.

The remote worlds Steve Callahan described in his piece? I’ve seen some of them, and can’t wait to get back. What’s stopping you? All one needs is a suitable small craft, a yearning for adventure, and a willingness to roll with the unexpected.