Salt water, standing water, and whitewater: Maine boasts the Holy Trinity of paddling opportunities. Canoeists and kayakers can roam from southern Maine to the coast to the northwoods and never be hard up for a place to put in. In the summer, I don’t even bother taking my kayak off the roof of my station wagon. Maine’s waterways are how the region’s first peoples got around, and it was an epic 325-mile canoe trip in 1857 that won over Maine’s first great tourism promoter—one Henry David Thoreau. He had a Wabanaki guide; you can hook up with a scout of your own via the Maine Professional Guides Association at maineguides.org. Locals all have their favorite inlets and streams, of course—as a midcoaster, I’m pretty spoiled, surrounded by the tidal rivers that characterize Maine’s shaggy coast—but these five represent some of the more iconic paddling opportunities in a boat-crazy state.
Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area
A sparsely visited pocket wilderness owned and maintained by the Nature Conservancy, Debsconeag contains nearly 50,000 acres and a couple dozen absolutely isolated lakes and ponds, along with well-maintained portage trails and knockout lakeside campsites. Come to hear the loons, scope the Katahdin views, wet a line, and enjoy the solitude.
Acadia National Park
Sea kayaking along the coast of Mount Desert Island lets you see the contours of Acadia National Park from a whole different angle. Dramatic cliffs and sea stacks rise up from the sometimes-rough surf. Only experienced ocean kayakers should head out on their own, but a handful of outfitters lead paddling trips out of Bar Harbor and elsewhere on the island.
Allagash Wilderness Waterway
A journey along the remote, 92-mile Allagash is one of North America’s classic river trips. The designated National Wild and Scenic River connects a string of glassy lakes, inaccessible by other means. Abundant wildlife (this is the heart of Maine moose country) and gnarly whitewater segments are a big part of the draw.
In the summer, the 45-square-mile Sebago Lake attracts day-tripping recreational paddlers from nearby Portland. There’s a nice campground at wooded Sebago Lake State Park on the lake’s north shore, and kayakers and canoeists often circle the charming seasonal outpost of Frye Island. Keep your eyes peeled for loons, eagles, otters, and buffleheads.
The largest mountain lake in the eastern U.S., Moosehead is as famous for the lush green mountains that surround it as for its tentacled expanse and more than 80 islands (many with campsites). Anglers come for the unsurpassed trout and salmon fishing, and paddlers can circle Mount Kineo, a 1,789-foot peninsular monolith that rises out of the water like a huge stone whaleback.