Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Garbage Run

This year Rebecca guided Island Heritage Trust’s island clean-up trip to Wreck Island. I had a different trip that day, so I missed-out on the fun, but a few days later Rebecca and I went out in the motor boat to collect the caches of garbage bags and washed-up gear left above the high tide line. 

We left an hour or two before high tide, which seemed to be bringing-in a wall of fog. Should we go? Well, I thought, keep an eye on it. At least with a power boat we might outrun it. 

I’ve been getting a bit more time in this boat that we call “The Bum Boat,” a re-purposed sailboat hull with a 25-horsepower motor on it. The previous day I’d loaded a kayak in it and buzzed-out, against 15-knot winds, to an island where I gave safety and rescue lessons to the renters of a cottage. It’s a very different experience from kayaking. Obviously you move fairly quickly, picking a path between lobster buoys, looking for deep water and avoiding rocks – basically the opposite of route selection while kayaking. You worry a little less about crossing the path of a lobster boat or other bigger boats, since they’re more likely to see you and you can move fast enough to avoid them. And of course when it comes to hauling garbage, a big open cockpit and a strong motor to push it are indispensable. I’ll admit it; it’s fun to buzz around in a motor boat.

The fog held-off as we made our way around Wreck Island, collecting garbage. We could get-in close with the motor, then Rebecca rowed us around the near-shore rocks until I could hop-out onto the beach. At the sandy beach on the east end, we pulled the boat ashore and tied-up to a tree while we dis-assembled the remains of a washed-up wooden dock – our bonus for our volunteer efforts, since I’d been wanting to build a deck for our travel trailer in the campground. The lumber was actually quite a score.

There had been fewer volunteers this year, so a few stretches of shoreline were missed, along with Round Island. It will be tough to get to these during the next, busiest months, but we occasionally have a group of camp kids looking for service projects. 

Unfortunately, there’s never a shortage of garbage washed ashore out there, most of it from lobster boats. And despite my enjoyment at being at the helm of a different water craft, I’m aware that it’s less environmentally kind than getting out there under our own power. It connects you to a place in a drastically different way than our low-to-the-water craft that enable us, or perhaps force us to enjoy the scenery along the way in a slower, more involved manner. 

As we made our way back to Webb Cove, walls of fog had progressed up both Jericho and Penobscot Bays, seeping-in along the edges of the archipelago, encasing us in our own world, but never completely enveloping us.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Leadership Training off of Jonesport

We landed on Man Island, a mostly barren hump of rock rising above the bold southern end of the Great Wass archipelago, and the group meandered to the grassy summit, where we gazed out at the broad line of horizon over the open ocean and the late afternoon sunlight coating our surroundings in the oversaturated sort of glow that makes everything feel just a bit unreal. The feeling might have been enhanced by this being the end of our sixth day together – six very intense days of training conducted both in the classroom, on the ocean and in the pool, during which I rarely stopped heaping the students with information and tips on personal paddling skills, leadership and group management, as well as critiques of their newly-learned abilities. 

Every trip has its high and low points, and on a trip that doubles as leadership training, those highs and lows are probably more pronounced. This one felt like a high point in both the geographic and psychological sense. On our first day of class we’d demonstrated various leadership styles, accepting that there can be a time and a place for each, but lately I’d needed to use the authoritative or “drill sergeant” style more than I liked. I had needed to be very direct at times, and perhaps not so polite, and yet by urging the group on to this place, I was also hoping that it might help them discover what I like about sea kayaking, and have a little fun with it: a tough balance.

During training, we tend to come-up with a lot of hypothetical situations. We give pre-trip briefings and paddle lessons to the rest of the class, pretending that they haven’t already heard it a bunch of times. We pause at anything vaguely resembling a channel crossing and get the group lined-up in a tight formation. We discuss what all the possible things that could go wrong might be, how we might prevent those scenarios, and what we might do should the worst happen. 

The danger in all of this role-playing and make believe is that the students might start to treat sea kayaking as if it is all one big exercise or game, losing sight of the true potential, or simply the fact that we might have a good time out there.

We’d stopped earlier to set-up camp and eat lunch, and before we headed-out for our afternoon paddle, the leader-of-the-moment shared plans for what seemed a rather short and unambitious trip, so I interjected and suggested a few destinations. When we were a short distance from Man Island, which seemed unmistakably awesome, I once again interjected when the leader announced that it was time to head back to camp. I think everyone, including the leader, was pleased. As much as any kayak trip might be more about the journey than the destination, it occasionally helps to find yourself in an amazing place.

I gave the students a break and took over leading along the southern, exposed stretch of the islands, out around the lighthouse, and handed the reins back over in more protected water. Again, I think everyone enjoyed it, and I hoped that it might be inspiring. Of course, over the next couple of days we had plenty of ups and downs, but I hoped that the glimpse of potential might make it more obvious why it’s all worth it, and why we’re out there in the first place.

If you're interested in paddling in this area, it is covered in Route #6: The Great Wass Archipelago in my guidebook, AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England. If you're interested in joining me on a guided learning journey that visits this area, I'll be leading a 5-day journey along the Downeast Coast in September through Pinniped Kayak.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

South of Bar Harbor


Nate and I had a meeting in Bar Harbor, but by mid-morning it was done and we had the rest of the day to ourselves. We grabbed a coffee and a pastry at the Morning Glory bakery and soon enough found ourselves down at the town pier, looking out over Frenchman Bay, wondering where we might go. With the wind from the northwest, we didn’t expect much swell, and we figured that following the southeast shore of Mount Desert Island south of town might keep us in the lee of the wind for awhile, so we headed that way.

The first stretch of shoreline curves below a hotel and a popular pedestrian path. Just to the south, a rock jetty stretches most of the way from Bald Porcupine Island to the shore, buffering this part of the harbor from the biggest swell. We were in no rush to get anywhere though, and found pleasant distractions in the small waves among the near-shore rocks.

It occurred to me that I had paddled this stretch in one of my first classes with Mark Schoon, probably about ten years ago when he’d gauged my poor edging skills and led me and Todd though an obstacle course of rocks to get us turning better- probably my introduction to contour paddling. 

As Nate and I moved down the shore, playing in one rockweed-cushioned spot after another, watched over by pedestrians above with zoom lenses, we started to realize what a great progression it made, the waves getting slightly bigger until we got past the jetty and you start to feel the unfettered open ocean swell rolling in. But just as the stakes start to raise, there’s a perfect opportunity for a little calm water or a break in Compass Cove, where the National Park owns a beach and a rocky outcrop that shelters it.

Right off of this outcrop we found a sometimes-exposed reef close to shore where the incoming waves built up and poured-over the rocks- a perfect spot to position yourself to catch one of those waves as it spills over. We did this again and again… and again, longer than most people would probably find interesting, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that helps hone skills. And it was just fun in a mesmerizing, childlike way.

We pulled ourselves away and continued south along the shore and found that there are a number of such pour-overs along here. We also noticed the seas gradually building, and our level of care increased with them. In some slots and cave-like undercuts that we’d explored in calmer conditions, we opted to pass by outside of the breaking wave zone.

Just past a spectacular cliff-top mansion called High Seas, Nate ventured close to the overhung cliff and discovered a small roundish indent in the rock that, when the waves hit it just right, ejected a massive eruption of spray and wave. The waves came in and rebounded like a bumper pool shot, and if you positioned yourself just right, you could catch a thrilling ride, enveloped in a thick cloud of spray. In some of the photos we took of our best rides, all you see is water, the paddler completely consumed.

It began to occur to us that the seas were getting much bigger than predicted, and it wasn’t just the near-shore anomalies. If your level of vigilance hasn’t ratcheted-up a notch, it certainly should here. We later spoke of how, when the conditions really build and turn chaotic, we get into a state of hyper-awareness, always on, constantly making a systematic check of all the possible things that might go wrong… looking for that next big wave and anticipating what it will do, inventorying the possible exit plans… where’s the nearest landing? Where’s the route out to open water. Where do we want to position ourselves when the other is trying-out a feature?

In addition to being fun places to play in pour-overs, the offshore reefs can provide places to seek temporary shelter from the incoming waves, but beginning back at Compass Harbor, this stretch of shoreline is thin on shelter or bailouts. We started looking for a spot for lunch, paddling around Schooner Head and into a cove, where we provided entertainment for some homeowners in the telltale binocular-gazing position on their deck. We checked-out one spot after another, and each time a bigger than usual set came-in and pummeled the shore. We even thought about swim landings, but every spot we considered would get wiped clean by the tallest waves. So we paused for a granola bar and turned back, hitting some of those same features a second time on our way north.

One That Got Away
Just offshore from High Seas, a green can marks the edge of the deeper channel, as well as Newport Ledge just inland. We glanced out there just as a monstrous wave reared-up and rolled toward shore. As we paddled toward the spot, we gauged the biggest waves at 8-10 feet. It seemed like a good enough spot to catch something like that; as long as you’re past the ledge there’s plenty of space between there and shore, and the waves seemed to settle-down fairly quickly. If we’d watched longer, we would have realized that a primary swell was followed by a secondary swell, and occasionally they stacked-up on top of each other, creating… well, a really monstrous wave.

Often Nate goes first, but I seemed to be in position as a good-looking wave built behind me… then another good-looking wave built upon that. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like it before, but suddenly I had what was... a very tall wall of water rising right behind me, starting to break. I’ll admit, it was a lot bigger than anything I wanted to try to surf, and it felt creepy. I straightened my boat and took a deep breath, aware that just about anything might happen in the next moments.  The breaking crest hissed, a sound akin to lightning ripping across the sky, and I felt my stern rise. I took a couple strokes forward… and it passed beneath me. It was like looking off a cliff. I felt a little disappointed that I didn’t catch it, but also certainly relieved.
We hung around there for longer than we should have, trying to catch a wave without much luck, finally heading back along shore, stopping in Compass Cove for a long-awaited break, and tooling-about the near shore rocks between there and town, in waves that felt far more manageable than at the beginning of the day.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Night on Hells Half Acre


We had hoped to camp on Saddleback Island, one of my favorite campsites in the Stonington archipelago, especially for a group, but from a mile-off I could see the colors of boats hauled-up on the rocks, and the blob-like shapes of tents beneath the trees. I interrupted the current leader of our group, and pointed-out that, while we could stop on the island for lunch, it didn’t look promising for camping. 

We had been on the water for well over two hours already, this group of College of the Atlantic students and me, and really, we should have stopped for lunch soon after we had launched, because it was now mid to late afternoon, and the lack of lunch made the occupied campsite feel like a bit of a blow. But as much as possible, I tried to leave the leadership to the students. They chose the destination and the route, and as we progressed, I convened the group periodically to touch upon points of group management and navigation. This, of course took some time that the students hadn’t really planned on.

At the beginning of each academic year, College of the Atlantic gives incoming freshmen the chance to go on an orientation trip in the outdoors, and one of the choices has been a week-long kayak excursion with a guide. It was a fun trip to guide, but all of their other trips are student-led, and Nate convinced the college to get Pinniped to train students to lead the kayak trip as well. We do trainings on day trips, in the pool and on overnights, like the trip I took with this same crew last October. It’s very satisfying to work with the same students over a period and watch their skills progress.

We wanted the navigation practice, so we took the long way to Saddleback, curving north around the Sheep Islands and across to Eastern Mark, a stretch, with the wind pushing against the tide, that turned a bit lumpy, and where I noticed the bright boat colors below our intended campsite. 

We chose a lunch spot around a point from the campsite and talked about the last stretches, which group formations had worked best and what it felt like to be a little out of our comfort zone in lumpy water, and what that would feel like while guiding beginners. I didn’t have any easy answers. Paddle a lot, improve your skills, get comfortable in conditions beyond which you expect to be taking people. Learn to anticipate when conditions might get tricky. We looked back over the stretch of water, which now looked more or less flat. Nobody would have guessed it would be rough, or perhaps had been a half-hour earlier at mid-tide.

While we talked, a group from the campsite, which appeared to be comprised of early twenty-something leaders and teen-age campers, spread-out along the shore, leaving each camper alone with their thoughts and a pad of paper. As we passed the campsite, we saw the boats were some sort of large canoe-like pulling boat. One of the young leaders stood guard with a long piece of driftwood, reminding me of something out of Lord of the Flies. We waved, but he didn’t wave back. It’s great to get the kids away from their devices and into the outdoors, but sometimes it’s no wonder that so many people see outdoor pursuits as ordeals to endure rather than the sweet vacation get away time that many of us enjoy.

The good news is we got to camp on Hells Half Acre, another favorite campsite. We broke branches off one of the big downed trees and had a little campfire below high tide line while we ate our dinner. The night grew dark and the tide rose, the coals sizzling as the water slowly engulfed the remains of the fire. 

The next day was a bonus trip, out around McGlathery and back to Old Quarry. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Catching a Breeze

Last week, on one of those not-so-great paddling days with strong gusty winds, Rebecca and I were distracted from our chores at the campground by a pair of paddlers who’d found a good way to take advantage of the wind- with sails. We’ve spent many hours watching and re-watching Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson’s rolling DVDs, and the pair are internationally known as instructors of Greenland technique, but I’d never seen them sailing a kayak. It looked like a blast, and they offered to let us give it a try later in the week, when they returned from a multi-day trip out around the archipelago, their vacation before heading off to teach in Europe for the summer. They paddled Tiderace kayaks, equipped with Flat Earth sails that they’d discovered while teaching in Australia. They’ve since become for the company.

I went first (one of us had to watch the office and answer the phone). They gave me a few basic instructions and words of encouragement and I paddled straight into the wind, letting the sail remain in-line with the boat. I paddled, as I always do, just focused on the forward stroke, looking-out for boat traffic, enjoying the feel of a different boat, until it occurred to me that, oh yeah, I can use that thing to move me forward instead of the paddle. So I turned off the wind and let it take me.

What a different feeling! The wind takes the front of the boat and you move along, without even putting a paddle in the water. Turner had likened it to surfing, where you have forward momentum and need to figure out the best ways to turn it. With the bow weighted with wind, the logical part of the boat to move would seem to be the stern, so I tried a lot of stern ruddering… but then you also realize you’re getting blown sideways a bit, unless you’re heading directly downwind, in which case you just fly along. I took a few tacks back and forth along our waterfront while Rebecca got ready. I could see that you could really spend some enjoyable hours figuring-out how to best maneuver.

Rebecca got in and, thanks to sailing instincts she’d developed as a teenager, seemed to discover the most efficient points of sail pretty quickly. I had half-expected to capsize, but while there were a few jolts when a puff of wind caught me, or I came-about, it felt fairly easy to manage. There’s only two ropes leading back to the cockpit, one to raise or lower the sail, the other to trim it in or let it out. I think I could figure that part out. I didn’t need to learn any salty nautical terms to shout out before making a move.

It could be particularly fun and useful on a longer trip, where you might have some downwind parts of the day to give yourself a break from paddling. Most of all though, it just felt fun and different. As I’ve instructed paddlers over the past few years, plenty of beginners have asked about putting sails on their boats, and since I personally felt I had enough on my plate just learning how to paddle well, I was never encouraging. Cheri and Turner concurred that it is a skill most easily learned by someone who has some experience in a kayak. And with that experience, it feels like another fun way to mess around in a boat. I want one!

Hopefully we’ll get Turner and Cheri here this September for a weekend Greenland paddling and rolling workshop. I’ll post details as we work them-out.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

McGlathery Island in a Tandem

In early May, the weather has been hit-or-miss; plenty of cool, overcast days, rain and fog, as well as the occasional teasing glimpse of sun and actual warmth. Spring chores at Old Quarry have kept us busy, but a friend’s visit was well-timed to get-out for some sight-seeing Downeast, as well as a chance to try-out one of Old Quarry’s new tandems. Barb, who will also be doing some guiding at Old Quarry this summer, joined us as we got our gear together and grabbed the last Scorpio off the rack, since the others had been claimed by a NOLS group headed-out the next day for the next couple of weeks. 

Since it was my day off, I tried to not notice the water jugs lashed atop decks, or the shorts and cotton t-shirts worn by a group preparing to launch (not the NOLS group) but we were glad to be dressed for the water temperature, which still hovers in the forties, especially as the sun slipped behind the clouds, the wind picked-up, and the afternoon began to resemble our more usual weather. We followed a familiar route along the shore toward Buckmaster Point before pointing-out past Grog Island, where the osprey nest has blown down and the birds appear to be building a nest fairly low, atop a shore-side boulder.

Despite the mild winter, it has resulted in plenty of blow-downs, including several large spruce on Hells Half Acre that have fallen across one of the tent platforms. It will be interesting to see how the newly sunny patch of forest fills-in.

We meandered out along the shore of Coombs Islands and Ram Island and crossed over to Lindy’s Cove on McGlathery Island (so-named because, according to local lore, Charles and Anne Lindbergh anchored their yacht there during their honeymoon to escape the paparazzi). We found a spot out of the wind and ate our lunch.

When we set-out on an afternoon paddle with no particular goal, there are so many places to choose from in the Stonington archipelago that it can be tough to pick one. McGlathery Island, though too far for the liesurely half-day guided trips we lead, is just over 3 nautical miles from Old Quarry, and about the same from downtown Stonington (I used to do plenty of after-work, sunset jaunts around the island from town) but just far enough out that it feels you’ve gotten away from it all.

Wherever the wind is coming from, one of the landing spots on the mile-long island is likely to be sheltered, and on all but the calmest days, the southeast shoreline, exposed to Merchant Row and outer Jericho Bay, is likely to have a wave or two.

We often neglect exploring on foot in favor of more paddling, but it’s worth taking a little time to check-out the dry side of the shore. We took a short stroll around the east end boulders and attempted to push one back into the sea. But then, remembering our Leave No Trace principles, decided to leave it.

I took the stern cockpit of the tandem for the trip back and, while I’m accustomed to paddling a more maneuverable boat, enjoyed the challenge and variety of a different craft. Aside from that, it’s good to understand what it feels like for our clients in tandems. Tandems provide the opportunity for teamwork, which we all know can work either way. When you hit a comfortable pace with your partner though, or when she throws-in a well-timed draw stroke to get you around a rock, it feels good, and if you could get enough practice with a partner in a tandem, you might even attain a sort-of dual version of the graceful autonomy we experience in a solo boat.

I suppose this is one reason people acquire large collections of kayaks. For now, I’m still trying to keep my personal fleet small, but it helps to have sixty-odd kayaks and canoes at Old Quarry to sprinkle a little variety into the paddling experience.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Surfin' at Reid


Rebecca and I had a Wilderness First Aid class at AMC’sKnubble Bay Camp over the weekend, so we thought we’d make the most of the trip by squeezing-in a paddle somewhere. The surf report hadn’t looked promising, but since Reid State Park was nearby, we decided to swing by there and have a look, grudgingly shelling-out the $12 to the iron ranger at the gate (up from last year’s $4 a person- time to get an annual permit).

I wasn’t convinced we’d find good waves, so we had a quick look from atop Griffith Head, as much a landmark for its iconic coin-operated binocular devices, swiveling weightily out toward The Cuckholds lighthouse, Damariscove Island and the lighthouse on Seguin Island, as it is for the rocky bluffs that they stand upon. This is a good place to eat one’s PB&J while deciding that yes, those waves look good enough to go for it. When surf is the goal, one quickly adopts some of the radder-than-thou, dude-worthy lingo that still lingers in the teen-age skate-slacker part of the brain… so yes, we decided to go for it.

This is probably exactly the kind of behavior that keeps the fourteen-year-old mind live and kicking inside the 51 year-old body, and when you get into the surf, it’s a mindset that serves you well. Depending on the usual variables of swell and tide height, the steep shoreline at Reid often has steep, dumpy waves that break close to shore, but that 14 year-old mind just didn’t care and said “let me at ‘em.”

We started catching some short, lively rides right away. We got the first capsizes out of the way, and properly invigorated, proceeded to have a blast as we made our way down the beach to the most promising-looking area, catching waves as we went, occasionally landing right on the beach. The waves were biggest and dumpiest beside the rocky point (Little River Ledges) that separates the two beaches, but we continued on to Todd’s Point to ride the lower, but easily catchable surf that rolled slowly over the sandbar into the inlet. A couple of rangers patrolling the shore with garbage buckets paused to watch.

We finished the day with more rides back near the rocky point and did manage to get properly thrashed once or twice, which in an odd, invigorating way, after a long winter, just felt good. The shoreline is so steep there that I often got dropped high on the shore by a wave, but managed to quickly spin around on the sand and begin slipping seaward again in time for the next wave to buoy me away. 

After a particularly thrashy take-down, Rebecca took a break on shore and snapped a few photos - long enough to develop a hypothermic chill – perhaps another useful spring rite, making that part of our first aid training a little less hypothetical. In this case, treatment took the form of hot chocolate in the car with the heat blasting. As we tied our boats atop the car, the rangers stopped by and said they’d enjoyed watching us. I felt an inner relief that we’d dropped our twelve bucks into the iron pay tube at the gate, and concluded that it was well worth it. 

The rangers chatted about other paddlers (most of whom, they said, worry them) and mentioned the couple that had come through a few yearsback on their Lubec-Key West trip and camped (illegally) on the point. Since I’d followed that blog, I was able to inform the rangers that the couple had made it all the way - quite an accomplishment, even if their campsite researching skills needed a little work.

We warmed-up in the car en-route to Knubble Bay.

More information about paddling in this area is available in my guidebook, AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England, in the Georgetown Island chapter.