April 07, 2020

Maine sea kayak guides among the best

If you’ve ever wondered how the Maine’s sea kayak guiding and instructing community stacks up in relation to the rest of the country, wonder no more. Maine is the only state in the country to require state-issued licenses for sea kayak guides. Anyone who accepts money to take you out on Maine waters must be licensed to do so by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

A licensing process assures you, the paying customer, that your guide has passed the state’s requirements.

Beyond that, many guides and outfitters constantly are trying to remain on top of their games by taking American Canoe Association-approved paddling courses, first aid training, and gaining membership in the Maine Association of Sea Kayaking Guides and Instructors. This group of 75 members provides the forum for guides and instructors to learn what’s happening in other “shops” and operate their individual businesses at a constantly scrutinized standard.

For example, at last Wednesday’s meeting in Southwest Harbor, 30 outfitters and guides heard a progress report from Bill Smith of the Marine Patrol, who is writing a curriculum for teaching sea-kayak guides, and from Al Johnson, safety officer of the Coast Guards’ 1st District, on the success of educational efforts to reduce recreational boating fatalities by getting people to wear personal flotation devices.

Rachael Nixon of the Maine Island Trail Association’s Portland office briefed the guides on last month’s stakeholders meeting in Wiscasset, where island camping capacities on 35 of the 45 public islands were discussed. Maine’s Bureau of Public Lands and MITA have been working on a way to reduce the wear on these fragile island environments.

Over last winter, MITA and BPL came up with group size limits and set an overall limit on the number of overnight visitors per island. With one season of experience behind them, MITA and BPL now are working on revisions in the policy that likely will include an overall per-night limit per island and, in some cases, a restriction on camping to specifically designated sights.

In some instances, this might be accomplished by building tent platforms, such as the one built last August on Hell’s Half Acre Island off Stonington. On a heavily used island such as this, erosion and soil compaction can be reduced by the use of a tent platform. The next step in protecting fragile soils might be to restrict tenting to platforms only.

Another effort MITA and BPL have undertaken is to close a campsite to use and thus prevent further degradation, such as has been done on the western end of Hell’s Half Acre. MITA and BPL are looking at other heavily used islands in the 300-mile-long trail. In the Casco Bay area, Jewell Island will have a caretaker next year who will be on hand to monitor use, educate and work with people on stewardship projects, and, it is hoped, discourage inappropriate activity by serving as a good role model, Nixon said.

MITA and MASKGI will be talking about other use issues as well. Next March, in a series of regional meetings (March 14, Portland; March 21, Rockland; and March 28, Ellsworth) they will explore the possibility of posting informative signs at launch sites to help spread a “Leave No Trace” message, encouraging anyone using the coast and the islands to do so responsibly. This likely would include a reminder not to harass wildlife and to pack out (and dispose of properly) trash and human waste.

Another area of interest to MITA and MASKGI is trying to establish a system to prevent more than one commercial group from showing up to use the same island.

MASKGI tried last year to develop an internal system that would allow members to know which islands or areas of the trail outfitters would be using on a given weekend. This would allow an outfitter to make alternate plans to avoid overcrowding or campsite conflicts. Only five members participated, so the system met with mixed success.

Members voted Wednesday to try again in the next few months to come up with another plan to resolve potential group “conflicts.” MASKGI president Matthew Levin appointed a committee of three to submit in February a draft plan for the association to consider. While the overcrowding situation is not quite at the point as on certain portions of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, Nixon cautioned, it’s not inconceivable it could be in the near future. The Maine Appalachian Trail Club is already using a clearinghouse system whereby groups funnel their plans through one person, Heather Mirczak, who notifies trip organizers of conflicts. Leaders then can discuss alternate plans.

The goal is to preserve both the islands and the experience for all of those using the islands. At the moment there is a silent faction of individual users who are not excited about the commercial use of public islands. Steve Spencer, a recreation specialist with the Bureau of Public Lands, said there has been some thought of encouraging the use of mainland campsites to help relieve the pressure on islands.

Another pressure reliever would be to plan trips around mainland lodging or to use a combination of mainland lodging and island camping. Another option is for commercial users to contract with private island owners to use their property.

On the topic of safety, Johnson told the group he was available to take his safety show on the road anywhere in New England. He said novice boaters often benefit from the example set by guides. For example, if they see a guide using a personal flotation device all the time, they will too. Guides always go over a safety checklist before each trip with clients, including such topics as: proper PFD fit, paddling strokes, how to exit a kayak in the event of a capsize, how to respond (as a group) to such an emergency, communication on the water, channel crossings and other danger areas, and what to do should someone become separated from the group.

Guides are expected to carry a pretty comprehensive assortment of safety gear such as flares, a whistle, a rescue knife, strobe light, fog horn, signal mirror, tow line, paddle float, bilge pump, flashlight, first aid kits, VHF radio, compass, spare clothing and the like.

While serious injury or death are minimal on group-led trips, recreational boating is second only to automobile deaths in this country for such occurrences.

In Johnson’s district, which encompasses New England, New York and New Jersey, 43 people have died this year in boating accidents (through Nov. 20). Maine has had 10 fatalities this year, three in canoe capsizes (none in kayaks) and seven in motorboat accidents (five fell overboard, two died in capsizes). None of the victims was wearing a personal flotation device. No national totals are available for this year yet, but in 1999, Johnson said, at this time of year 49 people had died in this district while a total of 724 died nationally in boating accidents.

Following through on an earlier discussion of creating a safety committee in MASKGI, Levin appointed a three-member subcommittee to draft a list of safety standards the association will consider for adoption. The subcommittee will draft a safety talk and equipment list for the rest of the group’s members to consider when it meets in February.

Jeff Strout’s column is published on Thursdays. He can be reached at 990-8202 or by e-mail at jstrout@bangordailynews.net.

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