A relief print of Little Hen Island, off the eastern shore of Vinalhaven. COURTESY OF REBECCA DAUGHERTY

Kayak guides take time out for themselves to explore coastal Maine



STONINGTON — “From out of the fog came the shape of the island, vague at first so we weren’t even sure it was there, then definite, familiar.”

And so begins the journey of Michael and Rebecca Daugherty as they set out from their hometown of Stonington on a journey “upwest and downeast,” which also is, fittingly, the title of their new book: “Upwest & Downeast: Meandering the Maine Coast by Sea Kayak.”

“You just work all summer,” said Michael, of the couple’s experience running first an art gallery (Isalos Fine Art) and now a kayak guiding business (Sea Kayak Stonington, formerly Upwest & Downeast Sea Kayaking). “You start resenting all these people who are having fun and you’re not … we were on the water but working all the time.”

The Daughertys moved to Stonington in 2003. For a while they lived above Isalos, where Rebecca’s studio overlooked the town’s fishing fleet and the islands of Merchant Row beyond.

 Late afternoon light strikes Ram Island’s shoreline in Rebecca Daugherty’s oil on panel. COURTESY OF REBECCA DAUGHERTY

“We knew we wanted to get onto the water and wanted to get out to those islands,” said Michael, who dreamed of a small sailboat, but didn’t want to spend the money. “The kayaks seemed like the obvious way to do it and the lowest cost.”

It took a few years, but once they started, they were hooked, spending as much free time as possible exploring the nooks and crannies of Merchant Row. Michael bought a touring kayak, and Rebecca built one, a 17-foot-6-inch Pygmy Coho, from a kit languishing in her father’s garage. They became Registered Maine Sea Kayak Guides and brought visitors on trips to their beloved archipelago.

Then, in 2014, an opportunity presented itself: the gallery’s property owner sold the building. The Daughertys were given the option to buy, but, after careful consideration, declined.

“I was ready for something different,” said Michael. “We’d already become sea kayak guides; we did it on the side. We decided that would be our main way of making money.” He had just finished a book, “AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England,” and the couple were looking forward to a new chapter in their own lives.

But losing the gallery was disorienting, as Michael explains in “Upwest & Downeast” (he wrote the text, while Rebecca did the illustrations). Stonington “had been home for more than a dozen years, and at times I’d felt like I’d somehow landed in the right place, among the right people, and I felt fortunate. After closing the gallery though, I wasn’t quite sure we belonged anymore.”

The couple tried to regain their sense of place by throwing themselves into paddling. They led trips around the islands, honed their skills and started a guiding business, taking bobbing visitors past the pink granite cliffs and out among the formidable Stonington fishing fleet.

“We wanted to do a bigger trip,” said Michael. “It was a tough decision to do it in the middle of the summer, but the opportunity was there in front of us.”

“We’d lived in Maine for nearly 15 years,” Michael writes, “and yet our summers — those warm, idyllic months that drew most visitors to our coast —were consumed by work, entertaining, in some form or another, those summer visitors.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF REBECCA AND MICHAEL DAUGHERTY

And so they did: in the summer of 2017, the couple cleaned their house, winnowed down their possessions, took final showers and scoured the floors of their rented house, moving what remained into Rebecca’s studio for storage. Rebecca “obsessed over what art materials she would bring, finally fitting them into a dry bag the size of a toaster oven that dominated her kayak’s stern hatch,” Michael writes.

And then they shoved their heavily laden kayaks into the surf and paddled off.

“We didn’t do a lot of planning as far as itinerary,” said Rebecca. “In some ways we didn’t have a plan, but in some ways we had years of planning.”

The couple first headed west, through the Fox Islands Thorofare, down to Muscle Ridge, the Damariscotta River and finally to Bangs Island in Casco Bay.

“The pace we were going which was fairly leisurely,” said Rebecca. “We were just basically going where we felt like going. The kind of stopping in places, being a tourist in a town, was kind of more like cruising than an expedition where people have things sent to them ahead.”

They had leisurely mornings, “looking at the weather, deciding from there, said Rebecca. “We really just wanted to be exploring and having fun.”

If the weather was poor or a place was particularly inviting, they stayed for several days, constrained only by their savings, food and water.

“We gave ourselves a lot of time,” said Michael.

They also spent time writing and painting.

“My portable office is the hammock,” said Michael. “If an island had a good hammock site, I was much more likely to get some work done there.”

Meanwhile, Rebecca would go off with her sketchbook and paints and panels. She worked in color, in oils, which would later be transferred and made into black-and-white relief prints.

“The illustrations are sort of an indication, but you have to still use your imagination,” she said. “The idea of what the book would look like evolved over time,” Michael added.

They continued like this for several months, back to Stonington and then to points east, past Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Isles to the Bold Coast and Sumac Island, where the fog lay thick.

“We were out in the fog sometimes for long periods,” said Michael, sometimes offshore for hours without a GPS. “We were dead reckoning judging from the current and what that’s doing from the lobster buoys.”

“I get really wistful thinking about it,” Michael sighed.

To order a copy of the e-book, search for “Upwest & Downeast” on Amazon. To paddle with the Daughertys, visit upwestanddowneast.com.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Digital Media Strategist
Kate is the paper's Digital Media Strategist, responsible for all things social, and the occasional story too! She's a former reporter for the paper and can be reached at: [email protected]