Monday, May 28, 2018

Time-Out on Western Head

Sometimes, during the first five minutes of a paddle it feels like hard work, and I wonder: how am I going to go x miles today? And then, hopefully, we become a little less aware of the effort, focusing on executing a clean and efficient forward stroke, making a few turns around the rocks along shore, and maybe we start chatting. The miles go past, we get where we’re going, a little more worn-out than maybe we’d like, but we’re paddling again.

It was like that the other day when Rebecca and I left Old Quarry for a two-night trip out to Duck Harbor on Isle au Haut. And we weren’t surprised to feel the paddling muscles grind so slowly into action; we’d just gone through a winter of no paddling – the longest paddle-less stretch we’d endured since we dove into the sport. In Newfoundland, we got in a few excursions into November before the wind and snow and cold made such trips less enticing.

But it felt good to be paddling in the Stonington archipelago again. We’d been here at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures for seven weeks, and we’d kept busy, helping to get the place ready for another summer. It’s amazing how much pre-season work there is to do here: downed trees, tired kayaks, a new reservation system in the office, boats to launch – projects everywhere you look. Old Quarry is even opening a new shop in town. And in early May the kayaking work began to trickle-in again, both here and with Pinniped. So I had paddled some, but only for work. The work/play paradigm quickly reminded me of what a gift last summer was: two months of living out of our kayaks along the Maine coast, just going where we wanted to go, at our own pace. 

A few days before Memorial Day weekend when the season really began, we had coveted reservations at Duck Harbor, Acadia National Park’s remotest and smallest camping area, with only five Adirondack-style shelters near Isle au Haut’s southern end. The day felt perfect: sunny, almost warm, and we took our time, stopping to take-in Harbor Island and then Nathan Island before paddling through the Isle au Haut Thorofare past the village, where hardly a soul stirred. Passing Robinson Point Lighthouse and then Trial Point, we were drawn onward by the gently-building swell and the broad horizon ahead. The southwest shore reached seaward, a craggy stretch, interspersed with cobble beaches. By then, the western sky had darkened with tall cumulonimbus clouds, and it seemed prudent to get where we were going.

It was a good choice. Thunder rumbled as we pulled our boats ashore and carried our gear in Ikea bags up to our site. We’d no sooner stashed everything inside the 3-sided Adirondack shelter when the storm hit. I hung my hammock across the entrance and watched the rain pouring from the roof only feet away. Nice.

We spent most of our time there hiking: slow dreamy hikes out to Ebens Head and around Western Head. We paused on cobble beaches for hours at a time to read, take pictures, have lunch or just nap in the sun. It was pretty quiet: few other people.

While all of Isle au Haut is relatively remote and wild, the southern end, which is mostly part of Acadia National Park is especially off in its own world.

On Friday morning we woke to the white background roar of the sea: strong southwest winds and swell, the surface of West Penobscot Bay a messy froth of breaking waves. It was a challenging start, and a bit intimidating since we were out of practice, but we fell into the familiar rhythm, occasionally pausing as we heard a beam wave rise beside us and crumbling beneath our hulls, sometimes opening a plunging trough before us. Frequent splashes over the bow or the cockpit reminded us of how cold the water was – the buoys all still reporting high forties – and increased our resolve to remain above the surface. We got through it, and past Trial Point we were able to turn north and let the seas push us toward the lighthouse where the waves diminished.

We took a break on Steves and made it back to Old Quarry in time for my afternoon trip.

Duck Harbor Campground requires reservations well in advance and is mostly filled in early April after reservations open. However, the campground has a new online system that is easier than the old mail-in process. It also makes it possible that cancellations could result in last-minute openings, so it’s worth checking, even in mid-summer.

This route is covered in Trip #15 in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England. If you haven’t already, you really ought to buy this book.

If a guided experience in this area interests you, I will be guiding a multi-day trip in the archipelago/Isle au Haut area, in early August through Pinniped Kayak.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Green Gardens Hike, Newfoundland


The northeast corner of Bonne Bay rises up to a rugged, barren ridge called The Lookout Hills, the biggest of which – Big Lookout – is 600 meters (1968 feet) above sea level. And it’s only about a mile from the sea, so it’s a pretty steep slope that more or less drops right into the ocean. From where we’re living right now, we look out across Bonne Bay at this ridge, as well as the mouth of the bay. It is spectacular. We've been here about two months now, and it is still difficult to look out the window without getting momentarily distracted – a good problem to have.

It’s good to have such a view when you’re inside working much of the time, which is how we spend the first parts of our days. Distracting as it may be, it makes you feel like you’re not totally missing-out on what’s outside. Sometime in the afternoon we usually get out for a walk on one of the shorter trails, not so far away, as much to stretch our legs and get a little exercise as to explore and take a few snapshots. There have been a few days when we realize, usually too late, that it would have been okay for a paddle, perhaps in one of the more sheltered nooks of the bay, but we’ve felt more motivated to walk than paddle. Most days the temperatures have hovered in the low 30s (or around zero, as they say around here) and it tends to get windy at some point. 

I’ve often gazed across the bay at the Lookout Hills and wondered what it would be like over there. Just beyond that ridge, around the corner from this view we have, the shore stretches about 8 statute miles to the southwest, to the town of Trout River. It’s a rugged stretch of coast, but there’s one area with a popular trail, called Green Gardens, so named for the gentle, rolling pastures perched atop the steep, shore-side cliffs. It is all part of Gros Morne National Park.

A week ago we took a hike down to Green Gardens. This is a full-day trip for us, since the trailhead is about an hour’s drive from here, and the hike itself- the short version that just goes from the trailhead down to the sea, and then back up – is about 9 or 10 kilometers (6 or 7 miles total). (The longer version is now closed, due to erosion). The weather forecast didn’t look great- a bit windy in the morning, increasing to a gale warning in the afternoon, along with the arrival of a snowstorm. But it was the day we had planned, the day we could do it, so we stuck to our plan – which, I was too aware, is the auspicious beginning of many outdoor survival stories. 

The trailhead lies high on a plain between The Tablelands and The Lookout Hills, in a treeless, rocky tundra, gorgeously austere, but with nothing to buffer the wind. We had it at our backs for the first stretch, a mile or so in which we climbed a couple hundred feet in elevation, and were aware that returning against it might be difficult. We reasoned that after we crested the hilltop, we would be somewhat sheltered as we descended toward the ocean- and we were. It’s a different landscape on that side, with trees, ponds and meadows. The Gulf of Saint Lawrence came into view, steely grey, corrugated with whitecaps, and we made our way down toward it, stepping through shallow snow, which tapered-out into mud and bare rock as we descended.

It’s a bit backward from hiking up mountains. We hiked mostly downhill to our destination, and had an uphill climb to look forward to for the trip back. But the destination – Green Gardens – was astonishingly beautiful, even now, when it wasn’t all that green. We came to the tops of steep cliffs and walked along these meadows and pastures, dotted with piles of sheep poop, looking down at rocks and sea stacks below. It invited us to imagine paddling there. We were glad to not be paddling then- cold and windy as it was, but what a playground! The near-shore area lay in the lee, the whitecaps and big, lumpy seas beginning maybe a quarter-mile out. The shore had big, dark beaches and cliffs – probably anywhere from fifty to a hundred feet – rising just above them. 

And the pastures themselves felt like playgrounds, grassy fields to romp through, with weird rock formations like sculptures or perhaps the set of a Dr. Seuss drama. On top of that, there are some campsites there: tent platforms, picnic tables, privies. I wouldn’t want to carry boats and gear up there from the shore (and you would probably need to carry everything up, unless you were sure the tide wouldn’t come too high) but it would be a great place walk to and camp. 

We walked a little ways down the shore, had some lunch and then headed back-up. We knew the storm was coming, and as if on cue, the snow began.

We encountered a young woman walking toward us, which came as a surprise, with the storm coming, and she didn’t look terribly prepared. But she also looked young and energetic. The wind increased as we climbed – we had nearly 800 feet in elevation to attain – and as we came back over the ridge, it hit us in the face, driving the snow – and sometimes painful bits of sleet – into our faces. But we were warmed-up from the climb, and just leaned into it, savoring the severity of the scene. It was a relief to climb back into the car. 

We worried about the young woman we’d encountered, and stopped at the park office to let them know she was out there. A ranger said he’d keep an eye out and make sure she got back to her car.

This hike is in Gros Morne National Park. Visitor’s centers are closed for the winter, but you can find information on their website. They sell a small-scale topo map that covers the whole park – not a lot of detail, but it gives you an idea where you’re going.

I also have enjoyed Hikes of Western Newfoundland, by Katie Broadhurst and Alexandra Fortin. It provides basic details for a number of hikes in the area, including several off-trail, multi-day backcountry hikes, which certainly fuels my imagination for warmer-weather treks. Alex Fortin and her partner Cory also have a website called Wildly Intrepid, which is full of inspiration for adventure travel.

I’m really pleased that a photo I took was chosen as the winner of The Preserve Prize in Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s Wild Maine CoastContest. The photo was taken at Western Head Preserve in Cutler, and is described in this blog post from September. There were a lot of gorgeous photos entered in the contest; I’m very grateful to have been chosen.

We still don’t have much in the way of plans; we’re mostly focusing on the present, trying to get as much work done as we can. Hopefully we’ll share some of that before too long. Of course, lately our distractions have included not just the magnificent view from the window, but from where I sit at the kitchen table we see the occasional spouts and diving tail flukes of humpback whales, as well as others. There's herring in the bay, and at night, the lights of seining boats float out there in the dark.

We’ve also been able to spend some time with Rebecca’s parents, and with other family and friends. I’ve continued to post snapshots every now and then on Instagram. I’m still not sure why I’m doing this (a bit like writing blog posts) but it is oddly compelling, and I enjoy perusing other people’s photos more than a lot of the ‘content’ that gets passed-around on Facebook. 

Oh yes, I suppose it's worth mentioning: my sea kayaking guidebook, AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England makes a great gift. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Gros Morne Mountain, Newfoundland

Gros Morne Mountain lies just north of Bonne Bay, a fiord reaching fifteen miles into Newfoundland’s rugged western coast. At 806 meters (2644 feet) it is the second-highest mountain in the province, and for anyone with hiking aspirations in the valleys around it, the peak is the elephant in the room, constantly beckoning. And while it doesn’t rise that much higher than some of the high spots atop the plateaus around it, the other peaks don’t have marked trails ascending to their summits; one could certainly get up them, but it would be a great deal more work. While mountains of this height may not sound so big, remember that the hike itself starts at an elevation of just 10 meters, so the elevation gain is akin to some of the bigger hikes in Maine or New Hampshire.

I’ve wanted to get up the mountain on previous visits to Newfoundland, but since those visits have been during colder months, I never had conditions to do so. This visit was beginning to look the same until we got a break in the weather a few days ago: no rain, not much wind, and air temps in the sixties. Judging from the five or six cars in the lot, I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the nice day. The first 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles – I’m doing the conversions as much for myself, since I still think in miles) is a gradual ascent through mossy forest and bog. It’s well-trodden, and well-maintained, with plenty of boardwalks and steps. It isn’t that steep, but I still found myself huffing at some point, something that seems to happen on a lot of hikes. It’s like I wanted to get up here so much that I forgot that it’s work. But then I slow down and it gets easier.

At an elevation of 1100 feet, the trail reaches a saddle below Gros Morne Mountain, where Ferry Brook flows down a valley and forms a series of small, shallow ponds. It is an astoundingly gorgeous spot. The mountains rise steeply above, and stretch below to the towns along the edge of Bonne Bay. I sat and ate a snack, watching a moose do the same down below in a pond. I could also see the tiny specks of hikers beginning the ascent of The Gulley, which looks more like the site of a landslide than a trail.

Getting to these ponds would be a worthwhile hike in itself, and the park signs suggest as much, encouraging those who are less-prepared to call it good and linger here awhile before heading back down. The sign says, in effect “So you think that was a hike, do ya?” The signage also counsels that if the top of the mountain is obscured by clouds, don’t proceed any farther, that the trails are not that well-marked. But when I crossed the bridge over the brook and started-up The Gulley, the sky above was blue and cloudless.

At the bottom of The Gulley, it seems inevitable that you pause and consider the climb ahead. It rises some fourteen to fifteen-hundred feet in under a mile – a steep ascent over a loose jumble of boulders. After such a well-marked trail below, it’s a bit of a surprise to find this stretch almost completely unmarked, almost non-existent in places. Unlike the trails in New England, these have no painted blazes anywhere. There are maybe three stone cairns, each one supporting a post with an arrow that essentially points up. Of course, you couldn’t get lost in the Gulley, but it takes a little more effort to put your feet onto rocks that don’t shift sideways, so you’re always looking for the easiest path.

But you get a lot of bang for your buck very quickly. I kept pausing to look out at the view and down at the ponds where I could still make-out the moose, knee deep, munching away like a cow in a pasture. These pauses helped me slow-down and catch my breath.

At the top of The Gulley, the edge of the plateau is fairly distinct: arctic tundra on top, thousand-foot drops below. The landscape levels-out somewhat, gradually climbing toward the summit over the next half-mile, following cairns supporting fluorescent yellow trail markers. The markers are not that far-spaced, but it's easy to imagine being here in dense clouds, unable to see the next one. It would be very easy, compass or not, to lose the trail and venture closer than you want to some very precipitous drops.

The wind picked-up as I ascended the last gradual stretch. At the summit, a couple sat in the lee of a stone wall and I found another where I ate my lunch. Someone had tied a Canadian flag, inscribed with many signatures, to the summit sign, which had a generic, Department of Transportation look, in both French and English. But it let you know you were in the highest spot, which is good since the rise from the rolling tundra around it is so gradual. After awhile, I noticed a few rock ptarmigans nearby, a grouse-like bird with white arctic coloring that blended-in extraordinarily well.

The couple headed onward and I watched them until they became specks, giving the massive landscape around us some scale, as did, half mile away, a herd of caribou moving slowly across the plain.

The trail continues as a loop, gradually descending the summit along the edge of a huge drop down to Ten-Mile Pond. This stretch of trail takes over three miles to get down to the junction with The Gulley section, so it is a good deal more gradual than the ascent. But the views are over the top the whole way; I often stopped to just take it in. Back at the ponds, the moose (I assume it was the same one, a female) hadn’t moved much from where she’d earlier grazed, and now the light on the mountains began to take-on that late-afternoon glow as I hiked the last few miles back to the car.

We've been sea kayaking a couple of times and I'll write about that in another post soon.

Off Center Harbor, a subscription boating website made an eight-minute video about out summer paddling trip along the Maine coast. For now at least, they're sharing it for free (click here) so that Pygmy Boats can share it with their subscribers. I'll admit it's a little weird to see myself on video, especially as I rhapsodize about the differences between skegs and rudders (not really a favorite topic, but it was of interest to the filmmakers).

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Two Hikes in the Southern Presidentials


After hiking up Mount Washington, I wanted to get-out to some of those ridges and peaks that surround it. It seemed a good idea to follow the hike with something a little less challenging to let my legs recuperate, and Mounts Webster (3910’) and Jackson (4052’), at the southern end of the Presidentials seemed like a good plan. The two peaks can be hiked as a loop on the Webster-Jackson trail, with about 2400’ of elevation gain. The day felt unseasonably warm and sunny, and it felt great just driving to the trailhead, listening to music, drinking coffee.  The fall colors in the morning were not as brilliant as they would be for the return drive.

It had rained the night before and the air still felt moist, the rocks in the trail still damp and slippery, the ground dotted with bright red berries that had blown down from the treetops. I took a side trail to take-in the view at Bugle Cliff, and it occurred to me that I’d been here before, probably multiple times, and probably not all that long ago. I suppose I must gravitate toward easy loop hikes with a view. I was happy to hike it again, but perhaps wondering why I can look at a chart of the coast and pretty much imagine - in detail- every place I’ve been, while mountains seem to blend together in my memory. Maybe I just need to hike more often.

Not far below lay the AMC Highland Lodge beyond a stretch of still mostly green treetops with a few reds and yellows sprinkled-in. Farther off, the red roof of the Mount Washington Hotel looked like another splotch of fall color. There’d been a woman ahead of me on the trail, and I’d taken the cliff detour as much to give her some space as for the view… giving myself some space really. I wanted to be in my own world for awhile, and I was: no other hikers. It’s worth mentioning that this was mid-week.

I paused at a pool below a waterfall on Silver Cascade Brook, and the trail climbed gradually up to the white-blazed Webster Cliff Trail, and took a short detour to the summit of Webster. I found a spot out of the wind and ate a snack. There’s a great view of Crawford Notch and the mountains off to the west, but stunted trees obscure the view to the east. But this is also the beginning of the ridge that, with a few significant ups and downs, leads toward Mt Washington. For me, some of the thrill of hiking to these places is akin to exploring in a sea kayak: just taking-in the lay of the land, seeing the contours you’ve studied- now in 3-D. It is weirdly satisfying.

Atop the ridge, the path over to Mount Jackson feels pretty relaxed: a meander over bog and damp, mossy forest spanned by timber boardwalks. Like Webster, the top of Jackson is mostly forested, but a rocky outcrop affords expansive views of the ridge leading up to Washington, around which blew turbulent, swirling grey clouds. I sat and ate a sandwich with my map on my lap, identifying the bumps on the ridge: Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe.

I hadn’t planned on continuing to Mt Pierce (4312’) but I felt good, the day was still young, and it just seemed a waste not to. It only added 2 or 3 miles and a bit of ascending. Plus, there’s something about walking on the AT that urges you onward, following those white blazes and the footsteps of so many before you. There are some pretty spots along this walk, damp, grassy bog-meadows that open-up in the trees, with the mountainous backdrop behind.

Pierce is partially forested like the previous summits, but just a little higher-up and a bit more open. As I began descending the Crawford Path I started running into a few hikers, including a loud-talking group that fell-in behind me, encouraging me to increase my pace, skipping down the trail with the help of my trekking poles, until I could no longer hear them. And I kept going.

On Saturday, I had a family dinner to get to in the early afternoon, so again I wanted a hike I might be able to finish quickly enough. Having been up Monroe and Washington and then the southern Presidentials, I felt drawn to the one peak right between them: Mount Eisenhower. And the Edmands Path, a 3.3-mile trail that ascends 2750 feet seemed a good choice. At 8 am, mine was probably the fifth or sixth car in the lot, and I passed only one pair of hikers - backpackers - en route to the top.

The Edmands Path is handy, and a relatively quick way up to the ridge over a not-too-bumpy trail, as well as a nice walk in the woods, but most of it is just that- a walk in the woods. As you ascend, occasional openings in the trees afford views over to the Cog Railway base and the flanks of Mt Monroe, but on Saturday even those views were soon obscured by clouds. At the ridge, I donned a couple more layers and headed-up the Eisenhower Loop, encountering very strong winds as I made my way up.

Approaching the summit, I remembered a photograph from my first hike here, which was in ninth grade- maybe 1978. The photograph was in the local newspaper, and accompanied my first ever trip report, which I co-wrote with my friend Noel, a Filipino exchange student whose vocabulary was much broader than my own, and included a few fancy words that I’d still have a hard time using in a casual sentence. Like, for instance, ‘scintillating.’ This was probably my first trip with a school program called ‘Project Exploration,’ and our victorious pose upon this mountaintop expressed what a big deal this was for us. Our shapes were jaunty, near-silhouettes against the cloudy backdrop, and I stood off to the side of the group, hefting a stout hickory walking stick, and a brimmed hat upon my head- gifts from my parents they must have hoped might encourage these outdoorsy pursuits I was lately into.

A single cairn marked the high spot, obvious as the summit only because the earth sloped away –off into the clouds- in all directions. A man hunched behind the cairn, and before he left, remarked that it was probably blowing forty. I stayed for a few minutes, watching as the clouds blew past, occasionally catching a brief tease of mountains beyond the clouds.

On my way down, I encountered other hikers- and soon even more other hikers. I stepped aside to let them pass (whatever the etiquette, they were working harder than I was, and I didn’t mind a brief breather to let them pass). Many asked how far it was and what the conditions were like, and after witnessing enough disappointment, I changed ‘windy and cloudy’ to ‘dramatic.’ It was a bit stunning really, how many people were coming up the path, and when I returned to the trailhead at about noon, the parking lot was overflowing, with cars parked on the roadside far in each direction. Even more stunning was the volume of parked cars and traffic in Franconia Notch. The colors were pretty, yes, but I think I’d look for a quieter spot if I encountered such congestion. I was glad I’d made an early enough start.

That’s it for New England for a bit. We’re now en route to Newfoundland, where I expect we’ll do some walking and paddling as well. It’s not as simple as it might sound, this uprooted lifestyle. We’ve just spent an evening and a day at Rebecca’s rented studio space (and our storage space) in Stonington, Maine, unpacking and repacking the car, trying to figure out what we might need for a journey of indefinite length – the art stuff, the kayaking and hiking stuff… and the cold weather stuff, should our stay extend beyond the fall. All this dealing with stuff just makes me appreciate even more those unburdened days that somehow feel stolen, in which I can get out and stretch my legs, and get to a place that makes it all feel worthwhile.

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Tale of Two Summits: Mount Washington and Katahdin


A couple of days ago I walked up Mount Washington, New England’s highest peak. I’ve been trying to go somewhat easy on myself, looking for the longer, more gradual trails than the shorter, steeper ones, so I opted for the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, which follows the headwaters of the Ammonoosuc River as it cascades down from the saddle between Mount Monroe and Washington, where the Lakes of the Clouds Hut sits close enough to a couple of alpine ponds to appear to have the twin benefits of mountain access and waterfront property. 

It’s an awfully nice hike. Perhaps the frequent stops to admire waterfalls and pools made the hiking easier, keeping my pace moderate and my eyes open. In addition, we seemed to have been experiencing, by my count, our third Indian summer, and the air felt warm, and the sun shone as if it were a summer day.

As the ridge to the north became visible, I caught a glimpse of a bright, aqua-green rail car being pushed by a white engine on the Cog Railway, slowly ascending. It reminded me of my first (and probably last) hike up Mt Washington. I was in 7th or 8th grade in Massachusetts and a kindly teacher drove “The Outing Club”- probably 4 or 5 of us in all – in his VW microbus to hike up the Jewell Trail. We left when the train began its ascent, and arrived at the summit – I remember it was cool, clouded-in and blustery – just as the train arrived there. I doubt the summit that day was anything like the circus it can be, but it was enough of a glimpse that in the last 40 years or so, I’ve tended towards mountains that don’t have an auto road and a cog railway taking people to a mountaintop where they can eat in the cafeteria, shop for souvenirs and visit a museum and historical sites. For some reason today, those things didn’t hold me back.

I took a side trip up to Mt Monroe’s summit where I ate my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then continued back down to the hut (closed) and the lakes, where a group had hiked down from Washington’s summit and were posing for all manner of photos with the pond and hut behind them.

Mount Washington is obvious for miles around, not only for its height and massiveness (the mountain seems to encompass the surrounding high peaks) but also due to the various antennae and structures sprouting from its summit. Aside from taking away from the wildness of the place, the structures lend a utilitarian quality. I don’t know what all those apparatus accomplish, but they certainly look like they must be doing something important- weather instruments, whatever the observations made by the Mount Washington Observatory are. I began seeing a few people up there too, although from the trail it still felt fairly quiet until just short of the top, where, oddly, I encountered a younger couple hiking toward me, and my first thought was that all these Millenials are really starting to look the same. But then I saw that the guy recognized me as well, and remembered me as the guy who had rented kayaks to him and his buddies last week in Maine.

The wind had picked-up enough that I held my cap in my hands as I entered the summit area and encountered hordes and hordes of people. Okay- Tourists with a capital “T.” It doesn’t get much more touristy than this. Most had obviously either driven-up or taken the train, and now wandered around, mostly looking for places to take pictures of themselves, hunched against the 35-mph winds. The summit sign had a long line leading to it. Thoreau wrote something to the effect that so many climb the mountain, only to look away from it, but now they get a ride to the summit and take pictures of themselves there.

Beside the summit building a long line of people, including a bunch of Amish, the men in flat-brimmed straw hats, waited for the trains to arrive. I joined others taking photos of the engines pushing the brightly-colored cars up the last incline. Nearby, a man in a cap with big NRA letters on front (this was two days after the Las Vegas shooting, and I had to wonder if he always made this statement) stood chatting with a man in a veterans hat, loudly talking about World War II  (no, they weren’t old enough to remember it so fondly). It took some effort to push my way through the waiting line so I could get into the summit building, and I found myself really disliking people in general, remembering why I prefer most of my mountain hikes to culminate at an undeveloped summit.

I went into the summit building, bought a coffee at the cafeteria and sat down for my second PB&J. It felt a bit like a food court at an Interstate rest area, or like a ski lodge where everyone has come-in out of the elements to show-off designer ski clothing, except that when you glance out the windows you look out at clouds just barely higher. It felt dark and noisy and stuffy, but the coffee was good and I was out of the wind. I sat and wrote a few notes and then finished my coffee quickly so I could leave.

I continued north on the AT, turning-off to descend the mountain via the Jewell Trail.

A week earlier, I’d hiked up Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It was a wonderful hike, worthy of more words than I’m giving it here, but the contrasts between the two mountains are worth noting. It was my first time up Katahdin, and I’d grown a little weary of admitting that no, I hadn’t hiked up it- summers and fall had been work-time for me since I’d lived in Maine. But now that we took summers off, essentially taking a vow of poverty and more free time, here I was. It also helped that our friend Susan made the parking reservations and put us up in a hostel in Millinocket the night before.

Katahdin is in Baxter State Park, which according to the wishes of Percival Baxter, the Maine governor who created the park with his own funds and wherewithal, has a few bureaucratic hoops for us to jump through to ensure the park retains its wild nature. It would be easy to whine about having to make parking reservations, or arriving before 7 am to either claim your spot or lose it. And thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail need to secure permits to hike up Katahdin – and the park limits the number of permits it will issue.

Susan and I hiked up the Hunt Trail, the final 5.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and met a few thru-hikers as we walked, which leant a particular feeling to our hike, sharing in a momentous event for people who had imagined this day for months. 

Arrival at the summit is akin to reaching the destination of a pilgrimage. Some arrive at the iconic sign in tears. Some kiss the sign or place their forehead to it for a moment of silent meditation. Some can’t contain themselves and cry-out in joy. Everyone poses for a photo with the sign, often in configurations that have been considered for months. Everyone who arrives at this peak has put some effort into it, and there’s a feeling of camaraderie… of sharing this amazing holy place with a variety of other hikers, who may be diverse, but at least share something- they’ve all taken the trouble to get here under their own steam. People were generally quiet and respectful of each other, quick to share the experience somehow – by handing-off a camera for a snapshot, or saying ‘congratulations,’ or just quietly smiling at one another. 

Both summits are something other than just the top of a mountain. They each have cultural implications- which is to say that you get to observe some human aspect of the place. Each is interesting in its own way, and worth experiencing. And its not lost on me that there’s something good in the fact that people who might never otherwise experience a mountaintop can get out of a car or a train at the top of Mount Washington. It has been a tourist icon for maybe a century and a half, and that in itself is interesting. It is what it is. But I am so grateful that Katahdin is undeveloped. Somehow, that experience from Katahdin stays with me a little more than the one atop Mount Washington; in fact it makes it easier for me to shrug-off whatever negative feelings I might have about tourist hordes atop a place that will never again feel so special and say ‘it is what it is,’ just knowing that places like Katahdin still exist.

You may have noticed that this blog post does not involve sea kayaking or Stonington. Yup.

These routes occur nowhere in my guidebook AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sunday Paddle to Fog Island

On Sunday, we had an unusual convergence of friends with a free day and nice weather, so six of us gathered at Old Quarry and, hoping to find a few watery bumps on an otherwise calm day, headed-out along the east side of the Stonington archipelago. It was great just to see friends, and as we paddled-out, often found ourselves in pairs, chatting about how our summers had gone and what our next plans were. As we rounded the corner of Spruce Island and the broader expanse of Jericho Bay came into view, we found a very mild swell washing-in along the glacial erratic boulders, and instinctively, we gravitated toward the places where the waves rose and fell among the rocks. It was a nice warm-up exercise, since as we proceeded southward, the swell - and the challenges among the rocks - gradually increased.

This kind of progression, from flat calm onward,  feels pretty nice. We start the day not knowing what we'll find out there, but we bring along helmets, just in case there's a chance for some play. When you first encounter these waves hitting the rocks it might feel a bit mystifying... 'what am I supposed to do with this?' you might wonder. But you figure-out a safe way to get in there- bow seaward so you can see what's coming and get-out if need be, and get your stern up close and see what happens.

We lingered along the outer shore of No Mans Island. Nothing was too big or imposing, so it was a good spot to refine some skills. A lot of paddlers might never get a chance to try-out a brace if they didn't get into a bumpier spot like this. It's good to see what works well and what doesn't- an effective reality check.

We pointed out to Southern Mark Island and then onward to Fog Island where we ate lunch. By the end of lunch, our group of six was down to only three, since other priorities beckoned for some. For the remaining three, Popplestone Ledges had been beckoning the whole time we ate lunch. Exposed to open ocean and subject to the current squeezing in and out of Jericho Bay, this can be a lively spot. We found some small pour-overs, but mostly just found waves hitting rocks in spots where we really didn't want to end-up. Around the last ledge though, the swell wrapped around it and the waves reared-up nicely, and we all got a few nice rides.

We took our time getting back, stopping at Gooseberry Island, enjoying the warm air, the nice light- all seen through a somewhat nostalgic lens with the feeling that this would probably be our last time paddling together for awhile. Rebecca and I will continue onward soon - to New Hampshire and then Newfoundland, and we don't have particular long-term plans. Gooseberry is a favorite spot: the erratic boulders sprinkled like giant marbles, the backdrop of Isle au Haut and just enough swell to keep things lively. We savored it for awhile and headed back-in.

This area is covered in Trip #14 in my guidebook AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England. If you don't have this book yet, you really ought to get it. Since I've been at Old Quarry, I'm often astonished at the lack of research done by many of the paddlers heading-out here. They may hope to get 'local knowledge' from whomever happens to be at the front desk in the office, but that's a pretty hit-or-miss proposition. When I'm advising people, I often find that one tiny piece of information could make a crucial difference in their trip planning- in their enjoyment of the trip and their safety. Why not educate yourself as well as you can before leaving it all to chance?

The trips in this book are more than just lines drawn-over a map, and often they're more overall background information than just a route. In addition, the introduction to the book contains very condensed background information that would be useful to most paddlers, regardless of how experienced they perceive themselves to be. I'm usually a bit hesitant to suggest my book in such a way, or to make public observations about paddlers, but you don't have to watch people launch from a place like Old Quarry for very long to understand that most paddlers could have a better, safer paddling experience with a wee bit of guidance.