For thousands of years man has gone out on the sea alone in a kayak and experienced what might be the ultimate soul journey on the water. The Orr’s and Bailey Islands are part Harpswell Island chain located off the central coast of Maine. Although they are but two of many islands in the area featuring a myriad of bays, coves and wildlife that can be explored by kayak, Orr’s and Bailey stand out as some of the most magical spots to experience the joys of paddling.
Kayaking season here runs roughly from late May through September and sometimes into October, though some enthusiasts extend their time on the water even later in the season. There are many places to put in on these islands, from quiet bays and coves to open ocean. Coves offer protected waters, while the larger bays will get choppy quickly if there’s even a slight breeze. For open-ocean outings, it’s important to stay updated on weather and tide changes, especially in early spring or late fall. Air temperatures in late May range between 43 and 65 degrees. In October the range is 37 to 59 degrees, while summer temperatures vary from 52 to 79 degrees. These are just averages as plenty of days in July and August can sizzle in the 90s.
One of my personal favorite routes begins by launching from the small sandy beach area at Mackerel Cove on Bailey Island and heading south among the lobster boats and pleasure craft out around the end of the peninsula, then paddling north to Merriconeag Sound. There will be swells during the transition out of the cove to head into the Sound, but otherwise this route is pretty smooth. You’ll cruise among brightly painted buoys that mark where the lobster traps lie, and if you plan accordingly, you can pull in at a variety of places for a taste of the day’s fresh catch or to try a local brew, such as at Cook’s Lobster or the Salt Cod Café, located adjacent to H2 Kayaking Outfitters. You could also paddle through the Bailey Island Bridge–a unique, crib-stone bridge that connects Orr’s and Bailey Islands–and tie up at the float behind Morse’s Cribstone Grill, which puts you back on Bailey Island.
For an alternate route in this same area you can launch your kayak at Land’s End at the tip of Bailey Island and head out the same direction to go over into Merriconeag Sound. This launch point is a very small sandy beach below the end of route 24. If you put in here, make sure to visit the lobstermen’s statue on the ocean side of Land’s End Gift Shop, a bigger-than-life tribute to the many men in this region who make a living out on the water.
There is parking at both launch areas. On a good day with calm seas and you might choose to take a picnic lunch and paddle out to Eagle Island, home of the late Arctic explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary, instead of paddling into the sound. There is a boat landing here and, in season, you can tour the explorer’s historic residence. This route is open water kayaking all the way.
A kayaker can also put in beside the Bailey Island Bridge adjacent to H2 Outfitters. From here a paddler can reverse the direction and instead paddle south down Merriconeag, past Graveyard and Pott’s Points on one side, and the entrance to Mackerel Cove and Land’s End on the other.
Paddlers putting in beside the bridge on Orr’s Island can chose also turn north to head up the sound instead of taking on the open water route. The sound is a great place to enjoy the scenery, take some photos and enjoy a relaxing float in the coves. Orr’s Island Campground is located in Reed Cove on Merriconeag Sound and is the only camping facility on either island.
Another option when putting in at the crib-stone bridge is to go under the bridge and head for the open waters of Casco Bay right away. On this side of Bailey and Orr’s Islands, the water is rougher and paddlers need to pay close attention to weather and tide information before heading out, but views along the rocky coast are unforgettable, whether heading south in the direction of Land’s End or north toward Lowell Cove. This is all open water paddling but within sight of the coast.
When I am out here in open seas in summer, my spray skirt is running with water and I am often sweating under my PFD, but the pure athleticism of paddling combined with the screams of gulls and the rocking of fishing boats at their moorings brings incredible satisfaction and peace. As I watch the rocks along the coast, the occasional seal will pop up to look at me and the sleek, dark cormorants often perch on ledges to dry their wings. When a fish jumps or a seal surfaces I know I am sharing a special moment with these water creatures that have come to meet me.