Sunday, October 23, 2016

Otter Cove to Bar Harbor (or Riding a Giant, Salty Fart)

The southeast shore of Mount Desert Island encompasses the western mouth of Frenchman Bay, which, even on a calm day, rolls some swell into the bold, cliffy shoreline, creating the iconic features that make a national park feel like a national park: postcard-worthy, selfie-inducing roadside attractions like Otter Cliffs, Thunder Hole and Sand Beach. The first time I paddled this stretch, the crowds of people on shore and the stench of diesel wafting-down from tour busses on Ocean Drive made me glad to move-on to less-celebrated, but perhaps equally stunning shores.

But now when I get a chance to paddle this stretch, I just try to get used to the fact that we’ll be appearing in the vacation albums of visitors from around the world, that, having paddled around the corner at Otter Cliffs, we’ve stepped onto a stage extending to Great Head, that we’ve become part of the entertainment.

Wednesday was a lively day out there, with strong west winds and big enough seas to create all kinds of thunder when the waves crashed into shore. Nate, Rebecca and I had a rare day off together, and plenty of time, so after launching in Otter Cove we meandered slowly around Otter Point… and then Otter Cliffs, looking to see what opportunities might arise. 

Aside from all that, we were joining the zillions of leaf-peepers visiting to see the gorgeous colors of autumn; the colors really were spectacular, and you get a pretty good view of the colorful hills from the water.

On calm days there are usually few other boaters out there, so on a bumpy day in October, it’s no surprise that, despite the masses of humanity on shore, we were the only ones on the water. Oddly, I felt a little shy of the audiences. Nate and Rebecca would swoop-in for their plays among the rocks while I took pictures, and by the time my turn came it seemed like we’d had enough time on that particular stage and I wasn’t sure I’d look as impressive. 

Not only that, but I didn’t want to screw-up in front of a crowd that we began to expect might have been secretly hoping for blood, the sort of thing that might play well on You Tube: “Watch these idiot kayakers get plastered to a cliff.” Of course, some of the liveliest spots lay just beneath those watchful eyes and cameras and phones, but visible only from the water.

I was relieved to see both Nate and Rebecca, after seeming to consider the slot at Thunder Hole where the railings above were thick with camera-wielding visitors, move-onward. Surely there must be plenty of anonymous, but equally thunderous holes out there.

We landed at the less-populated end of Sand Beach, and after a quick lunch, continued out around Great Head. From here to Bar Harbor, we would see almost no one on shore.

A blow hole occurs where the base of a steep cliff is undercut, so when a big enough wave rolls-in, there’s an explosion of water, sometimes a strong, directed burst of wind, and a rebounding wave. The nature of these dynamics changes by the moment with the tide height and the direction and sizes of the waves coming in.

If you’re game, you can get yourself into a spot in front of the cliff and hope for the best. It might look scary and intimidating, but if you stay seaward of the breaking wave, it can be relatively safe, since you’re getting pushed back out toward open water, albeit you might be pushed in a rather chaotic way. Spewed might be a better word than pushed. The cliff spews you seaward. It’s as if the bowels of the island are farting you back into the sea. It’s exactly like riding a big, juicy fart.

You never know quite how it will play out. Sometimes the spray feels more like a wall of water, hitting your back with almost enough force to knock the wind out of you. Sometimes it’s a refreshing slap in the face. Often, the explosion of water is so enveloping that you have a moment or two of no visibility, when you’re not even sure if you’re still above the surface. For someone watching, the paddler completely disappears in the burst of spray, which might shoot some thirty or forty feet skyward. You might get knocked over, or you might find yourself atop a steep wave, surfing back out toward open water.

I took a lot of snapshots on burst mode, and many of the sequences end in a completely white frame as we viewers were also enveloped.

Looking back over my description, I realize that this might not necessarily look like fun, and that it wouldn’t be much fun if you lacked reliable skills (rolling, surfing, bracing, etc). It wouldn’t be a good spot to swim or try to perform a t-rescue. But we had a good time, going back for the ride again and again.

The rest of the paddle back to Bar Harbor, where we’d set a shuttle, was relatively mellow.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Moonlight on Thomas Island

I’m not crazy about waking-up in the middle of the night to pee – one of those things that most of us can look forward to with increasing frequency as we get older – and it is certainly complicated by the need to climb out of your sleeping bag, find your shoes in the tent vestibule and stagger-off over unfamiliar terrain, but it also gives you the chance to experience this place you’ve gone to some effort to get to in yet another sublime moment. You could call it a bonus moment, or perhaps more of an interlude.

Rebecca Daugherty photo - Greenlaw Cove

Late on Saturday night, the full moon shone over a calm stretch of water, high tide lapping only a few feet away from my tent. To the south, Thomas Bay – an area that had been an enormous mudflat when we’d arrived – glimmered brightly, and headlights snaked up and down the road on Cadillac Mountain.
It was a good moment. One might theorize that beyond biological function, these increased mid-night interludes as we get older are meant to give us more opportunities to enjoy life; that with our remaining time on this planet constantly decreasing, we need these opportunities to have a little breather and look around, enjoy the moment, take stock of where our kayaks have brought us.

It’s autumn, and I’m prone to these autumnal thoughts, the ones where you wonder how much life you have left and what you ought to do with it, but I’m more prone after a trying couple of weeks that left me feeling particularly uprooted and detached. We moved from one house-sit to another, but before really moving-in, went to a reunion of sorts for R’s family and well, a reunion of sorts for my own. 

There were ups and downs. One late-night interlude found me with two of my sisters in a non-descript motel in a non-descript highway-side sprawl in the Midwest, at least a thousand miles from any ocean, but is across the street from the place where my mother, whose memory of me is intermittent and vague at best, now lives, often wondering how she came to be there. 

But I also paddled (in canoe and kayak) on Squam Lake and hiked in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, standing alone atop familiar peaks and with an old friend, walking a trail to a waterfall that I thought I’d never been on, but became increasingly familiar. 

There’s something vaguely unsettling about that- about realizing how much you’ve forgotten, and it reminds me of at least one good reason to keep writing this blog, since I do constantly wonder why I am doing it. But I think it’s akin to the journals I kept for the first part of my life and finally abandoned when I decided my writing time should be focused on more productive writing pursuits. With the journals and the blog, I can at least look back and see where I’ve been, but with the exception of my guidebook, most of those “more productive pursuits” are as forgotten as the trail to the waterfall that now feels only vaguely familiar after I’ve been on it for hours, inspiring more of a sense of deja-vu than anything particular. A dream we dreamed one afternoon, long ago.

And I suppose I get some comfort out of the sense of continuity that writing brings. I’m sitting in a new place (a wonderful place with a view over a placid cove and Mount Desert rising in the distance) (I’m sitting on the deck where the railings are festooned with drying kayak gear) and I’m engaging in this process that both connects me to the past and helps me move forward, but most of all, connects me to this moment.  

Come to think of it, this process has some similarities to the process of paddling. With all I had to do over the past couple of weeks – the traveling, the ups and downs, I’d come to view guiding and teaching this weekend trip as a hurdle before I could relax a little, after months with very little down-time. I returned “home” late Friday night, my first night there, only to pack my kayaking and camping gear and strap a different kayak atop the car, getting only a few hours of sleep before I had to drive to Bar Harbor. But even if it’s work, getting on the water is a balm, and I quickly began to feel like myself again.

Saturday’s forecast was mellow, but Sunday’s called for strong winds from the southwest. I had a small group of College of the Atlantic students learning kayaking and leadership skills, so I put the choices into their hands, and we paddled the northeast coast of Mount Desert Island to a campsite and a route that kept us mostly sheltered from Sunday’s winds. 

I tend to think of MDI’s northeast shore as one of the less interesting parts of the island’s shoreline, but I paddle it every now and then, usually when southwest winds make the wider expanses of Frenchman Bay livelier than desired. Most of the shoreline is sprinkled with homes, and there’s not a lot of public access, but a couple of areas stand-out.

Just east of Sand Point and Salsbury Cove, The Ovens are a series of steep cliffs with undercut hollows along the high tide line. Steeped in Wabanaki mythology, the features were a more popular tourist attraction in the Victorian era, before private property limited public access.

It’s still private, and of course Maine riparian rights laws extend private land to the low tide line, so access remains tricky. At high tide though, you can get right into The Ovens, and at a very high tide even paddle through a natural arch. And if you’re quiet about it late in the season, you might even get away with lunch on the smooth, flat stones.

Hadley Point is a town-owned launch and picnic area. On Saturday, we ran out of energy just short of our campsite and had a picnic at Hadley Point, but it’s also a good place to launch if you want to explore the Mount Desert Narrows area or The Ovens. Judging from the litter and the occasional headlights I saw pull into the parking area that night, I’m guessing it’s also a good spot to watch submarine races.

Thomas Bay turns to mudflats at lower tides, but it is sheltered from southwest winds, and popular among birds, including the bald eagles that nest on The Twinnies, a pair of wildlife refuge islands. Just across from them, also attached at low tide by the massive mudflats, is Thomas Island, owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust. When Sunday’s winds picked-up, we got into a couple of windy spots, but for the most part were able to paddle back to Bar Harbor in the lee.

The arch pictured above is in front of the gorgeous campus of the MDI Biological Laboratory, a nonprofit biomedical research facility in operation since 1898. 

“I went outside to take a leak underneath the stars – yeah that’s the life for me.” The Poet Game by Greg Brown,

“It’s all a dream we dreamed one afternoon, long ago.” Box of Rain by Phil Lesh & Robert Hunter

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Frenchman Bay

In my guidebook, AMC’sBest Sea Kayaking in New England, I divided Frenchman Bay into two basic routes: the eastern side, from Sorrento out to Ironbound Island, and the western side – essentially the Porcupine Islands, which could also be expanded to include Ironbound Island.  There are, of course, plenty of other great places to paddle in this neighborhood, but with a Best of guidebook, the nature of the beast is to seek-out the highlights. Over the past couple of days I’ve been fortunate enough to have full-day trips that covered both routes, or at least some version of them. 

On Saturday evening, as I drove home from a class at Sullivan Falls, Sunday’s forecast called for 10-15 knot winds from the northwest with gusts to 25, which was more than M really wanted. We were hoping to explore some of the eastern side of Frenchman Bay, essentially M’s backyard, and we especially hoped to paddle along the rugged southeast shore of Ironbound Island- a tough spot in rough seas. I reasoned though, that we could launch in South Gouldsboro and paddle mostly in the lee of islands as we made our way south. We could even set a shuttle in Winter Harbor and avoid paddling back against the wind. We decided the trip was a go, and I hoped that my optimistic theories would hold true. Rebecca decided to join us, so we loaded two boats on the car.

The launch in South Gouldsboro is dominated by local fishermen and has very limited parking, but I included it in the guidebook with the caveat that it might be more practical later in the day or in the off-season. Sunday morning the place was quiet, with most of the lobster boats still bobbing on their moorings. We made our way out to Stave Island and found calm with a bit of wind and current pushing us south in the lee of both Stave and Jordan Islands. Lively seas dominated the openings between the islands – following seas south of Stave, while howling wind and beam seas funneled into the gap between Jordan and Ironbound. Shortly after that though, we had nearly two miles of very calm water along the cliffs of Ironbound Island.  

Part of the thrill of paddling Ironbound’s southeast shoreline is how it unfolds, and I like watching people react to it as we make our way south. The place inspires a certain reverence and awe, and our pace dwindles. After the first stretch, it would be easy to think you’ve seen the cliffs, great, but now I’m ready for lunch. But then, beyond a rock outcrop jutting into the sea, the next vista reveals cliffs twice as high as the first, stretching a mile ahead. One could paddle a quarter-mile out, just checking-out this impressive wall of rock, but unless conditions prohibit it, you ought to get in close, and if you’re lucky with the swell and have the wherewithal for it, you get-in really close. It’s much more than a wall of rock: some of those dark shadows along the base contain caves, some of which you might enter at the right tide. And of course, depending on tide height and conditions, you might find rocky passages, towering chasms and the occasional overhanging tree limb supporting an eagle or peregrine falcon 150 feet over your head. 

After lunch, we left the lee of Ironbound and made our way south along the islands off Grindstone Neck. With mid-teen winds gusting into the low twenties, we were grateful that we’d arranged for a shuttle in Winter Harbor, so we wouldn’t need to paddle back against the wind. We took one last break on a cobble beach near the north end of Turtle Island (owned by The Nature Conservancy) and made our way around the decommissioned lighthouse on Mark Island, before heading-in to Winter Harbor. 

Another day on the bar - no hordes, but the usual mild drama

Monday’s trip left from the bar in Bar Harbor, guiding a couple from Texas in a tandem on an open-ended excursion. They wanted something more than the usual tour out of Bar Harbor and I knew what they meant. In Bar Harbor, a ridge of gravel stretches from the end of Bridge Street – you can drive right down the street and onto the bar – and at low tide the water goes away and is replaced by hordes of tourists. I usually avoid the “T” word- most of us travel and are occasionally visitors in other places. “Tourists” often enough connotes the less admirable traits we sometimes exhibit while traveling. For similar reasons I would usually avoid the “hordes” cliché as well, but the Bar Harbor bar inspires travelers to be tourists and groups to be hordes. And while I have launched plenty of guided trips from the bar, I’m aware that the guided kayak trips that launch from here often represent the end of the kayaking business spectrum that caters to hordes of tourists. Experienced paddlers seem to enjoy turning their noses up at this lucrative end of the business – the “milk run” tours that get a dozen paddlers in tandems onto the water for a couple of hours, allowing them to check the “kayaking” box on their itinerary while the guide wearily coaxes them along, delivering boilerplate narrative about the place while half the group drifts away. There’s much that could be written about this whole experience – I could both defend it and critique it – but my point is that it isn’t so easy for a paddler visiting Bar Harbor to have a satisfying experience. The logistics of renting a kayak are tough, and you will likely end-up in a group of varying abilities and interests. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to Rum Key and back – maybe four miles of paddling over nearly four hours. Or you could arrange your own private trip, like L and L did, and do the Grand Tour out through the Porcupines, Ironbound and even Egg Rock Lighthouse.

We launched at the bar shortly after high tide, and not only did we have the whole day ahead of us with the current to help us along, but the conditions were pretty close to flat – flat enough that we all got into The Keyhole on Burnt Porcupine Island- the first time I’d taken someone in there in quite awhile. That was an auspicious start, as were the reactions of L and L when she started trying to describe what it was she liked about being in such rocky places and I knew exactly what she meant. Some people just seem to like rocks. I told her she’d come to the right place.

We took our first break on The Hop, a small island barred to Long Porcupine with a grand view from the meadow atop its bluffs. If that’s all we did it would have been a great trip, but we continued, pushed by the current into the same gap between Jordan and Ironbound Islands that had been so torn-up the previous day, and we made our way along the shore of Ironbound, again slowing the pace to explore and revel in this rocky wonderland.

That would have been enough, but while we ate lunch, we gazed out at the Egg Rock Lighthouse and it seemed to draw us onward, as lighthouses are prone to doing.

As we paddled the last few miles back into town, our eyes fixed upon a massive cruise ship anchored north of Bald Porcupine, we felt the miles catch-up with us (over a dozen). We’d paddled well beyond the usual Bar Harbor guided trip, and L&L knew they would feel it, but, as we like to say, it’s a good sort of tired feeling.

These routes are covered in Trips #8 & #9 in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in NewEngland.

-The map in the guidebook for Trip #8 shows Schoodic Woods Campground right next to the shore. This is not accurate; there is no ocean access from the campground. (This was probably added amid our many back and forth rounds of edits, and I just missed it).

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Journey Downeast

We landed on the cobble beach: the usual heightened moments of a landing in small surf, focused more on the task at hand than your surroundings – pulling your own boat high enough onto the rockweed before helping the next person land and do the same, until our kayaks were all just out of reach of the highest waves. Then we had one of those “we’re here, now what?” moments. Other evenings on this trip we’d pulled-in late enough that there wasn’t time before dark to do much besides make camp and get dinner going. Now we stood beside our boats, pulled-off our gear and looked around: a fog that had dogged us the last four days had lifted, and from the look of the clouds and the dry feeling in the air, it seemed we might get a break from it. Clear, late afternoon sunlight lit the grassy hillsides around us, and after the shades of grey we’d been living in, the greens and yellows and the blue sky beyond seemed almost unreal. Aside from that, as we’d approached the island, a quartet of black-faced sheep had moved down the hillside toward the cove as if to welcome us, only to bound away after we made landfall. They stood on a distant knoll, watching us until they finally disappeared, but it still felt as if we’d been welcomed.

We carried our gear up some wooden steps to a tent platform atop a bluff, pausing every now and then to marvel at our surroundings. To the west, 7 miles beyond the rounded hilly profile of the nearest islands, lay Great Wass Island, and beyond that, barely visible, Petit Manan Lighthouse, roughly marking the area where we’d begun our trip. To the east, the startling array of 26 skyscraper-height red and white antennae on Cutler Peninsula and the cliffs on Cross Island marked the gateway to the Bold Coast. We would have been able to see these sights earlier had it not been for the fog, but now, getting the big picture, including the bold vastness of the Atlantic south of us, we felt a bit overwhelmed. E, having set-up her tent on a grassy hummock, smiled  and said “this is my favorite campsite.”

We’d begun on Tuesday in Milbridge. We’d hoped to begin farther west, but a tropical storm had paused somewhere south of Cape Cod, leaving us with residual big seas that would last through the week, as well as the warm, moist air that became relentless fog.

For this trip we had the luxury of getting dropped-off and picked-up wherever we pleased, so we spared ourselves the eight-foot seas and whatever that might look like at  Petit Manan Point, and chose instead to follow the edge of Narraguagus Bay as it went from calm to bumpy on our way out to Bois Bubert Island.

With only me and two participants, we were a small easygoing group that came to consensus about our choices fairly easily. As with most journeys, the learning focus would be more on journeying skills – the choices along the way and navigation – than on maneuvering or even play. The seas were usually a bit big for play, especially with loaded boats, but everyone would get plenty of navigation practice.

Over the next three days we made our way east through the fog. On Wednesday, after some navigation instruction, we crossed the mouths of Narraguagus and Pleasant Bays with amazingly accurate results. Then the fog cleared as we passed south of Cape Split and crossed over to Stevens Island, where we camped for the second night.

On Thursday we woke to more fog and like the previous day, took our time getting launched in hopes that it might lift.

It didn’t.

We felt our way up through Moosabec Reach, past Jonesport and across Chandler Bay to Roque Island, where we hand-railed among the outer islands in pea soup fog and rather big conditions. We couldn’t get close enough to the islands to play among the rocks, and yet we wanted to stay near enough to see them. The shore appeared as a series of white explosions where the surf hit below a vague outline of spruce. I kept anticipating the gap between Great Spruce and Double-Shot Islands, hoping to slip from the chaos into calmer water. I would start nosing northward, only to encounter more thundering surf where I hoped the gap would be. Finally we pointed-in through the gap, only to find a tide race where the swells collided with the outgoing current. And the quality of light had dimmed enough to suggest that it was then officially evening. On Halifax Island, we ate in the dark: the end of a long day.

On Friday morning the fog hung around us, about as thick as it gets.

We consulted the marine forecast and the chart and decided to go easy on ourselves. We took our time getting ready and exploring the island and not long after we finally launched mid-day, the fog cleared. It seemed so simple now, to just choose a destination and point to it. We paddled up to Roque Bluffs and over to the MCHT preserve on Hickey Island for lunch. The tall, grassy hills on Scabby Island then drew us south and on to the campsite for our final night.

From my tent that night I could see the moon over Englishman Bay on one side and the blinking red lights atop the Cutler radio towers on the other. The South Libby Island lighthouse pulsed regularly, and way off to the west came the flash from the Petit Manan light. In the morning, I sat for awhile on the highest hilltop, just absorbing the feeling, knowing that it might be some time before I passed that way again.

The waves calmed down a great deal – enough that we spent Saturday morning doing rescue practice in the cove, and then paddled in to Machiasport, where Rebecca picked us up at the launch.

On the way home, we stopped at Wild Blueberry Land, the giant roadside blueberry in Columbia Falls. Since I usually drive past at odd times, it is usually closed, but this time, prepared for the “all things blueberry” experience, I devoured some ice cream and a muffin, wishing we had time for a round of miniature golf.

This route took me to a few new spots, but much of it is covered in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England, in Routes 4 through 7.

Launch: Milbridge Marina
Take-out: Pettegrow Beach, Machiasport
Number of other kayakers seen: 0