Notes From The Field: Acadia National Park From The Sea…Not

Here’s the dilemma in which I found myself. I’m in Maine as I write this, on vacation. Most of my vacations, now, are centered on national parks so I can gather together what I hope is good photographic and story material for National Parks Traveler. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that *every* aspect of my vacations are conducted with the Traveler in mind, but I do try to combine the two when I am able.

Three months ago, I’d paid in full for my plane ticket to Maine, my rental car and my vacation cottage in Bass Harbor, on Mt. Desert Island, the home of Acadia National Park.

Enter the Government Shutdown a week prior to my departure. What’s a contributing National Parks Traveler photographer to do?

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There's a lot of room for kayaking around Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

Well, as I emailed to CNN while I was on the plane waiting for it to leave the terminal (yes, they printed part of my email interview), I thought both a kayak tour as well as a biplane tour might be interesting ways to see the park and provide different photographic perspectives.

Acadia National Park from a sea kayak tour: ya can’t see it. Well, perhaps you *could* see it if you possessed a certain degree of kayaking expertise and were willing to paddle along a risky part of the coastline.

Here’s what happened. The day before I departed Texas for Maine, I’d Googled “kayak tours around Acadia National Park” and pulled up a number of outfitters. Since I knew nothing about any of them, I decided to do what I normally do when betting on a horse or choosing a brand of wine: I went with the name I liked best, which was National Park Sea Kayak Tours. I figured, with a name like that, they must have a tour that would show me a part of the park from the sea. Well……not really. But this wasn’t explained to me in total until after I was seated in a tandem kayak with the tour leader (Lou).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I had an awesome time on my kayak tours – yes, plural – I took two the same day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for a total of 15 paddling miles. And I had the same guide for both tours. Lou was not only highly entertaining, but also really smart and extremely knowledgeable about the wildlife, ecology, geology, and local history (including how to correctly pronounce Mt. Desert – it’s “Dessert”). I learned from Lou more about lobster and how they fish for them than anything I could have read, because Lou is a local, born and bred in Bar Harbor. 

Anyway, back to why I wasn’t able to photograph a part of Acadia National Park from the sea. Along the weather- and tide-protected route we took on the west side of the island, all of the shoreline and parts inland bordering the park are privately-owned lands by such families as the Rockefellers, the owners of Fidelity Trust, and the owners of the Weinermobile (yes, that would be Oscar-Mayer). The part of Acadia that is visible from the sea is – naturally – along a very risky area of the coast and not one a kayak tour agency with clients of varying paddle experience would endorse.

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A 60% crop of harbor seals basking on the rocks in the lower-center portion of the image. This is why you should take a lens with a longer focal length. Rebecca Latson photo.

That being said, should any of you ever happen to take a kayak trip within a national park or alongside a national park with views into said park, here’s some advice:

Take the longest lens you can tote. If you go with a tour, the kayak outfitter will provide a dry bag for your camera and lens, which you probably won’t use because the camera/lens combo will be strapped around your neck during the entire paddle trip. I took my Canon SLR with a 24-70mm lens attached because I figured I’d be getting great landscape images. I did, but I would have MUCH rather taken my 100-400 lens with me, because I saw all sorts of wildlife: harbor seals basking on the rock outcrops or poking their heads up from the water, eider ducks, loons, cormorants, and sea gulls. This was wildlife too far off for good shots with a lens that had a focal length no more than 70mm.

Ensure your camera/lens combo is strapped as high up your chest as possible. Otherwise, you risk getting the camera/lens combo wet from the water off of the paddle’s drip rings.

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Maine coastline, Ellsworth Schist geology, and sun flare spots (because I didn’t bring a lens hood). Rebecca Latson photo.

If you aren’t able to strap the camera high enough on you (like me, because the thought never occurred to me to purchase something that would hold my camera high), then make sure you have some sort of weatherproof covering like the Vortex Media Storm Jacket, which not only protects from the bit of water off of the paddles, but dries rapidly if one happens to accidentally drop the jacket into the water (sans camera, ahem).

Oh, and don’t forget to bring along your lens hood to eliminate sun flare spots.

While you are at it, why not affix a polarizer filter to your lens. It will cut down on the glare from the water in addition to saturating the colors a little, deepening that blue sky, and bringing out some contrast and texture to the clouds.

And set your camera’s focus to “Servo” (or whatever your own camera manual calls it). On my camera, “Servo” means it is tracking movement while doing its best to stay in focus. It’s helpful when you are on a kayak bobbing in the water, trying to photograph a flying bird or seal flipping around on a rock outcrop.

Don’t forget to bring along sunscreen and something warm to wear. Even on a sunny day, with the wind blowing, it can get a little chilly. If the day turns overcast (like mine did for Tour #2), the chill can be felt even more, no matter how much you are paddling. And bring along something like biking gloves to keep from wearing blisters into the tender skin between thumb and forefinger as you paddle along.

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American Gothic (or should that be Maine Gothic?). Rebecca Latson photo.

So, I didn’t get to see Acadia National Park from the sea kayak tour. I still had a great time, got some great shots, learned about the area, got more than a passing share of upper-body exercise, enjoyed listening to the tour guide, and learned what to do (and not to do) regarding taking a camera/lens along on a sea kayak. Hopefully, this photographic advice will be of some help to you.

Next article: Acadia From The Air