Scott Shea recently welcomed an afternoon guided tour group at Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg by asking for their names, where they were from and the last time they went kayaking.

On this day it was three families from North Carolina, Georgia and Vermont. Most people had gone kayaking last summer, though a few had never been.

“I kayaked,” Shea paused to think, “this morning. I made it back!

“It was my first time, so this will be my second trip,” he joked. “So you guys will be able to show me what to do.”

In truth, he has been kayaking since he was young, growing up in Wiscasset. He became a licensed Registered Maine Guide and opened Seaspray Kayaking when he was 18, teaching and leading trips with a couple of used boats from an outfitter in Bar Harbor, which at the time was pretty much the only one in the region.

Today, there are dozens of outfitters, guides and guiding companies to choose from, each with a different style to match the needs and interests of every kayaker, whether experienced or new to the activity.

And the guides know what they’re doing. As the group paddles out of the protected cove of the resort, Shea gestures toward the Atlantic Ocean: That’s where we’re going. But not before he points out Horse Island, the first piece of land in the state of Maine to have proof of ownership by an African-American man, and he explains the laws and considerations of navigation in the harbor.

Paddling out, the “water” is “bigger,” meaning the waves and wind are more extreme, a stark difference from the lake-like calmness just around the bend. It’s hard to predict that when you set out, Shea said, which is why it’s important to know the waters, or go with someone who does.

“Even on a beautiful day like this” — 80s and sunny, not a cloud in the sky — “you get out here and — whoa,” he said. “This is pretty challenging for somebody that’s not used to it.”

Shea just wants everyone to have a good time. But with views of the world-famous Maine coastline, unique wildlife sightings and interactions with passionate Mainers — plus an extra safeguard of a knowledgeable, experienced guide — it’s hard to imagine ever having a bad time kayaking on Casco Bay.

The Guides
Alice Adrenyak is the founder, director and guide of Alice’s Awesome Adventures, which specializes in private, customizable tours in and around Brunswick. In fact, she’s the only employee, allowing her a flexibility that larger companies don’t have. She’s done camping trips, birthday parties, graduations, honeymoons — all with the goal of showing people a part of Maine that they may have never thought to explore.

“It’s a really big deal to me to open the outdoors to people, so that’s what I do,” she said. “It’s so much fun.”

At H2Outfitters in Harpswell, the motto is “We Take Fun Seriously!” Founded in 1982, H2Outfitters is one of the oldest instructional kayaking schools in Maine, and it places an emphasis on proper sea kayaking education and safety, explained co-founders Cathy Piffath and Jeff Cooper. In addition, H2O offers trips, ranging from day trips to international trips in Europe, Asia and South America.

For Cooper, teaching is one of the highlights of his work.

“To see someone move from one level to another level, no matter how small that success  may be — even if it’s just getting someone to learn how to get into their boat safely,” he said. “I think allowing people to achieve success is what I find most satisfying.”

Shea, of Seaspray, loves the variety of leading tours. Two times a day, people from near and far come together to experience the coast of Maine.

“Everything’s always changing,” he said. “So today, when we went out this morning, group from all over. Different backgrounds, fascinated by different things, than the people who came out this afternoon.”

The guides form a sort of group of like-minded fanatics, said Sam Frankel, an instructor at Portland Paddle.

“We have a pretty amazing paddling community in Maine, and it’s pretty easy to access,” he said. “You can just find an outfitter, find a shop, talk to them. Find some guides, and folks will try to get you with the infectious enthusiasm for it.”

Frankel is also this season’s president of Maine Association of Sea Kayaking Guides and Instructors, a voluntary professional organization of sea kayak guides and instructors that seeks to raise the standards of the industry and advocate for the guiding profession.

MASKGI also serves as a kind of liaison between guides and the Coast Guard, as well as with the Maine Department of Island Fisheries and Wildlife, which administers Registered Maine Guide licenses that permit guides to lead trips.

Not all Registered Maine Guides are MASKGI members, but many are. The MASKGI site has a directory of guides and outfitters, who offer a range of services from private tours, like Alice’s Awesome Adventures, to rentals and group tours, like Seaspray Kayaking and H2Outfitters.

One thing all MASKGI guides have in common, said Frankel, is their passion, and their desire to share it with others.

“Let me tell you something else about sea kayaking!” he said with a laugh. “That’s what I feel like I do to my friends all the time.”

‘Some of the best sea kayaking in the world’
The guides and instructors are unequivocal: Maine is one of the best places to sea kayak in the country, maybe even the world.  

“It’s an incredibly interesting, diverse coastline in terms of kayaking,” said Piffath. “And you don’t get that very many places.”

One of the characteristics of coastal Maine that makes it so unique is the tidal range, or the difference between low and high tides; low tide can be as much as 20 feet lower than high tide in some parts of the coast.

Cooper said that the tidal range, combined with the shape of the coast — finger-like peninsulas and islands, with many nooks and crannies — creates “relief” that makes Maine a very “dynamic environment” for kayakers.  

“At high tide, you’re looking at an open expanse of water, but at low tide you’ll see ledges and rises that were 20 feet under the water before,” he said.

Traveling and viewing by water offers a different perspective of the Maine coast, said Adrenyak, which is one of the reasons why kayaking in Maine is so special to her.

“Kayaking is hiking by water,” she said. “You’re able to see things on the water that you will never ever see any other way.”

For many of her clients on private tours, the wildlife is a highlight. Adrenyak is full of stories of people rendered speechless. Once, a woman stared in awe as a bald eagle flew just feet over her head. She was in her mid-30s, and had wanted all her life to see a bald eagle.

“To be able to give people that treasure?” Adrenyak said. “That’s why I go kayaking in Midcoast Maine.”

Frankel echoed Adrenyak; he loves how much there is to explore in Maine’s coastline, all 3,500 miles of it.

“You can really get out there and see a really wonderful landscape,” he said. “And if you don’t have those skills, there are pretty cool people who are running businesses and teach those, to help get you into it.”

To Cooper, kayaking in the region is a special way to get acquainted with the local culture of Midcoast Maine, which is and has been so dependent on the ocean for generations.

“We live in Orr’s and Bailey (islands),” he said. “It’s an authentic, working fishing community, and so visitors get a real taste of Maine.

“One of our instructors comes from a family of lobstermen, generations back,” Cooper added. “He has some great stories to tell when he’s on the water with his groups, and you just can’t get that everywhere, right?”

Safety first
If there is one misconception about sea kayaking that novices make, it’s that it’s the same as kayaking on a river or lake. Firstly, the kayak is different: Sea kayaks are long, thin and straight-bottomed, which helps them to stay in a straight path and not be pushed by the wind or the ocean’s currents. A kayak that is too wide has a harder time gliding through the waves and is more likely to tip.

Secondly, the conditions are unpredictable. The bay is always changing, said several of the guides, and that could mean higher winds, waves and even storms.

“They go out and it might be calm in the morning, but things change in the afternoon,” said Piffath. “You get wind, you get waves, you get fog rolling in, and it’s a whole different ballgame.”

For that reason, both Adrenyak and Frankel encourage experienced kayakers to still reach out to outfitters and guides who are more familiar with the conditions in the region for suggestions about where to go and when.

While there are places that just have sea kayak rentals. Piffath recommends that people new to the sport go on a guided tour.

“They’re going to get some history of the area, They’re going to get the experience of the guide, and the safety,” she said. “It will make your whole experience so much better.”

On Shea’s tour, paddlers had to contend with a strong wind and current in the last stretch of the trip. Shea and one of the other guides (there were three total for 12 participants) each ended up towing a boat; if they let those paddlers get too tired and frustrated, those boats could have ended up back in the open ocean. It’s a safeguard that Shea is always prepared to take. He wants everyone to have a positive experience.

Back on land, the kids, and their parents, are raving: “That was awesome!”

As for the people in the boats that were towed? They might be a bit sorer than they were expecting, but they loved it, too. They’d do it again, they said.