Down East 2013 ©
Photographer David McLain was on assignment for National Geographic in the arctic a few years ago when he had something of an epiphany. “It occurred to me for the first time that kayaking is a winter sport,” he recalls. Paddling with the Inuit of Greenland as they searched for narwhals, McLain realized that it was in the frozen waters of the north where the sport he loves had its beginnings. Kayaks were made for the cold, originally developed to navigate the frigid briny, cruising past islands of ice and snow under the low light of winter. “Yet,” he says, “we all think of kayaking as a summer sport.”
For McLain, that changed when he returned from the Greenland trip. He called up a few of his kayaking buddies — registered Maine sea kayak guides all — and they were game. And they were all neophytes. “Even these guys, who were all pro-paddlers, it was their first winter trip as well.”
Off they went on a three-day odyssey way Down East, piloting their skinny crafts through the islands off Steuben, just after a large snowstorm. “It was so beautiful,” the photographer says. “One of my favorite kayak trips.” The quietude, the slanting winter light, the cold and ice — it all made a simple coastal paddle seem infinitely wilder.
Everything about it made sense to him. “I found it perhaps the most comfortable trip I’ve ever done,” he says, explaining, “As a kayaker you have to dress for the water [temperature] and not the air. In the winter, the air and the water are roughly the same temperature, which makes the fleece and the dry suit you’re wearing for the sea perfectly suited to the conditions on the surface. You’re one with the boat and the sea.”
Winter paddling is nothing new to guide Theresa Willette. Owner of Coastal Maine Kayak in Kennebunk, she’s been exploring the frozen seas for the twelve years she’s been kayaking, making it a point to get out at least once every month. Safety, of course, is paramount in the cold-weather months — but, Willette notes, it should be any time you’re on the ocean. “Even in May,” she says, “the water can be dangerously cold.” A dry suit, the same sort of garment worn by divers, is an absolute necessity.
When she heads out, she’s ready. She chooses a route that is closer to the mainland than she might in summer. And she fills her kayak with gear. “VHF [two-way radio], compass, flares, extra water, chemical hand warmers, Jetboil stove, dry bag with a change of clothes,” she lists all the equipment she tucks into her hold. “I feel like the boat is twice as heavy.”
“The water changes in the winter — it becomes a whole different animal,” says Willette, “and the wildlife changes, too.” The guide has seen ice seals, which usually inhabit frosty seas far to the north, and she says a friend has even spied orca off Casco Bay’s Halfway Rock, south of Bailey Island.
David McLain and his kayak pals saw their share of animals — deer, pintail ducks, old squaws, and a barred owl — as they paddled past the national wildlife refuge on Bois Bubert Island and glided by its neighbors. They also saw scallopers fishing and were able to land a meal. He was smitten.
“People typically don’t get to experience the islands in winter,” McLain says. “I found them even more magical. It’s not like the beauty of the Maine coast turns off at the end of the summer.”