Sunday, January 1, 2017

Greenlaw Cove

I got out for a short paddle today in Greenlaw Cove, where we're living this winter. It was typical of the trips I've taken lately. I carried the boat down to the water and took a left. Then I closely followed the contour of shoreline for an hour or so, in and out of rocks, below overhanging trees and dripping icicles. For January first, the weather felt reasonably mild: sunny, high thirties, but some gusty winds out of the west that I was mostly able to avoid if I stayed close to shore. Over the past few days we'd had some high winds and a rainstorm that left snow pretty much everywhere besides Deer Isle. The mountains on Mount Desert Island were white on top.

It's a different kind of paddling than I do most of the year. I'm paddling to get out of the house, get a little fresh air and exercise, much the way I would go for a walk. As always, I have an eye on the weather for an exceptional stretch in which to get out for a full day somewhere, but most of the time our focus is on making the most of the winter and getting our work done, and I'm content with these little forays.

If Rebecca joins me, I'm more likely to bring along some hot chocolate and take a break somewhere like Campbell Island, but more often than not, I'm just paddling non-stop, usually trying to make the most of the short hours of daylight.

It was just about two years ago that we closed our art gallery in Stonington, moved out of the apartment above it where we'd lived for about twelve years, and went down to Georgia to do sea kayak work for that winter. Since then we've lived as cheaply as we can to make this lifestyle work, and part of that formula has been to avoid rent. Housing was provided in Georgia, and at Old Quarry we worked in exchange for the apartment our first summer, and for the space in which to park our trailer last summer. We're living in the third house we've sat, all in roughly the same part of Deer Isle. It's been satisfying to become accustomed to a new view and get to know each paddling neighborhood well.

Paddling-wise, maybe it's a bit of a holding pattern: trying to get out just enough to stay in some sort of shape, not letting the callouses totally go away, to keep the movement of the paddle somewhat fresh in our muscle memories. And some days, when I'm walking in the Tennis Preserve and I look out at Marshall Island, only a few miles away and think 'I want to go there,' it's a little frustrating, since we have the time do these things now, but not the weather or the daylight, and in the summers we're so busy with our kayak work that our own excursions get put on the back burner... in favor of making the money so we can have periods like the one we're in now. We're hoping next summer will be a little different, but it all really just comes down to having enough money. And part of that is dependent on our making the most of this time now. To be sure though, we're in a good place to watch these days come and go.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Super Moon at Sullivan

When you hear that the next full moon will be a “super moon,” – the closest that the moon will come to the earth in many years, you might think “okay, so what do I do with that information?”

Well, for one thing, there’s just something stunning and gorgeous when the moon looks a teeny bit bigger than usual and you see it coming-up. The evening before the full moon I had a ‘holy-cow’ moment when I looked up from the kitchen table and saw the moon rising over the cove. I grabbed a camera and went outside. For most people, that’s it – it’s something to see, especially when the moon rises and there’s some foreground to give you a sense of scale- in this case, the mud flats of Greenlaw Cove, with less water than usual. Certainly, it would have been cool to be out paddling, and I saw some nice photos on the Internet of people around the world doing just that.

Instead, we went-out for a mid-day paddle in Greenlaw Cove, where we’re living this winter, and forayed along the shore into nooks that would ordinarily be unreachable. Later-on when the moon rose, much of the cove was emptied-out, and it would have been a long walk (or a car-top elsewhere) to float our kayaks.

But, aside from the visual treat, the nearness of the moon and its amped-up gravitational pull also translates to an increased tidal range. The range over the past couple of days – meaning the difference between tide height at low tide and tide height at high tide, has been 15 to 16 feet. Spring tides in this area (the tides that occur twice a month, during the new and full moons) tend to average closer to 13 feet.
Higher tide range is evidenced several ways. There’s more water coming-in and going out. At high tide you could paddle in places that are seldom under water, and at low tide you could walk in places that are rarely dry. In addition, that plus-size water volume still needs to pass in and out during the same time period, which means stronger currents.
If you want to experience those stronger currents, go to a place where the moving water is already constricted by topography and depth, like Sullivan Falls. Even without spring tides, a nine-foot range there produces lively water with plenty of surf-able waves. So the morning after the super moon, we went to Sullivan Falls for the flood.

We launched close to mid-tide. The tide had already reached the usual high-water mark, but with three hours before high tide, one could only imagine how the features would all change. Nate immediately slipped down onto some nice waves and rode them a bit before dropping farther down to our more usual play spot. I followed and had my first capsize that I’d had for awhile; indeed, the current shot-through with unforgiving speed- it took only a minor misstep to get flipped around, with little chance for recovery. The water felt cold and fast, but I was only under for a few seconds before rolling-up and discovering myself still facing into the current, only a wave or two back, still surfing. Rebecca went through a similar baptism. And there were more to follow.

We played there for a bit, but the waves seemed to just get messier, so we progressed to another spot. We’ve paddled a lot at Sullivan Falls, including a few days with tides near this range, and we’ve learned that big water volume doesn’t necessarily produce the best conditions for surfing. That’s mostly what we’re doing there: trying to get on waves, facing the current, so we can essentially stay in the same spot, surfing on these standing waves.

But the great thing about Sullivan is how it’s always changing. Variables abound. As the current increases, so does the depth. Waves go away in one spot and evolve in another. Some waves are tall and steep, others are low and gentle. Some develop grabby holes in front of them, and others long, even troughs that allow you to ‘typewriter’ across the crest.

This time, our highlight probably came when we found a set of waves off a point where we’ve never been able to surf before. They were small, but powerful, clean waves and gave us some nice rides- enough time on them that we could focus on our technique and try to improve.

When that spot started to dwindle, we ferried back across the river and made our way up-current before ferrying back again, regaining the spot near the launch where we’d begun the morning- nearly unrecognizable beneath a few more feet of water. This time the attraction was a long, diagonal seam where the water came over a ledge and curled back upon itself. If you get sideways on this wave, and keep your weight strongly on the down-current edge, you can side-surf it, something we’d discovered there a few years ago, but rarely had the opportunity to repeat.

And soon enough that wave also began to disappear. Maybe that’s also part of Sullivan’s attraction, especially with such big currents and rapidly changing features – the ephemeral quality. You can’t step into the same river twice. When you catch a wave, there’s no guarantee it will be there the next time you go looking for it. The super moon’s lure of a huge tidal range draws us there, as much out of morbid curiosity as the desire merely to experience the place in one of its more extreme incarnations. But it’s really just a few hours of playing in the waves.

We didn’t stick around for the ebb. Three intense hours at Sullivan is taxing, and we had a pretty good idea of what to expect after the tide change. There would be some great waves to start with, but they would develop into massive, but very rough and trashy water with a particularly grabby and dangerous hole (that can usually be avoided). The paddling becomes more a matter of self-defense than merely trying to grab a wave. The morning had been good enough.

And if you're looking for ways to stay warm on the water for the coming months,  Wetsuit Wearhouse is having the biggest sale ever for Black Friday, with over 400 markdowns.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Yet Another Way to Paddle Frenchman Bay

Yesterday morning I had one of those “how long can I keep doing this?” moments as I rolled out of bed. I ached in all the usual places, but at the end of a long season of teaching and guiding sea kayakers, it felt like my age was catching up with me. I hate to admit that – to blame it on age. It immediately makes me think of some of my coaches, maybe ten years my senior, still hard at it, more so than I. They’re either just tougher than I am, in more pain than I am, or maybe they’ve adapted in some ways to sustain their ability to keep at it. Or maybe a little bit of all of the above.
         After rolling out of bed though, I spent ten to fifteen minutes on some stretches, and started feeling better. I’ve done those stretches nearly every morning for probably a decade, and they help. Maybe I need to do more. Maybe it’s time for an update of the yoga classes I took thirty years ago.

I’d spent the last couple of days with M, who’d come from Tel Aviv and wanted to work on a few things you can’t find easily along the Israeli coast, like rocks and ledges and tidal currents. We told him he’d come to the right place. And since Rebecca had errands in Ellsworth, we had the perfect opportunity to plan a shuttle – get dropped-off at one place and picked-up at another. Nate dropped us off in Bar Harbor and helped us get our gear together while his golden retriever ran on the beach. Nate looked out at the Porcupine Islands: damp spruce beneath a gray, overcast sky. The wind had dropped to almost nothing, and the air temps had risen into the fifties – warmer than they’d been lately. “Looks like you’ll have a good day,” he said.
            I might have suggested that Nate come along, but I knew he was looking forward to getting stuff done around the house and returning to his winter projects in the wood shop. Still, he had that wistful look that we get when we launch someone else and kind of wish we were going.

M and I headed-off into the Porcupines, and it was a good day out there, with just enough swell to create a few challenges. We got into the Keyhole and made our way among the tall chasms on Long Porcupine around high tide. We ate lunch on The Hop, the island barred to the west end of Long Porcupine, where you can sit atop high, meadowy ledges and take-in a view that encompasses much of the south end of Frenchman Bay. M asked me if I went there often and I looked around and nodded.
            “You’re lucky to have this in your backyard,” M said, and I agreed.

We went through the gap between Jordan and Ironbound – the “Halibut Hole” and followed the cliffs of Ironbound's eastern shore. The tide was still high, so we managed to paddle deeply into the caves. I’d started the day demonstrating places that M could get into, but by now he knew the drill. He’d start paddling-in while I waited, keeping an eye out for any jumbo waves. 

When introducing people to rocks, ledges and cliffs, one big concern is that, no matter how much I point-out the need to work on that 360-degree awareness, that hypersensitivity to everything around you, and in particular everything that can go wrong- where the waves are coming from and where they’ll take you, it takes some experience to develop this awareness. There’s always a bigger wave coming and you need to anticipate what that will do to the stretch of water you’re about to enter.

So after M paddled deep into the longest cave, I almost didn’t take a turn – after all, he wouldn’t be getting anything more from my demonstration, and while in the depths of the cave I wouldn’t be keeping an eye out for potential close-out waves. And I knew what to expect. But it would be crazy to not go in; the tide was perfect, waves weren’t too big, and when would I get there again?

I backed most of the way to the rear of the cave, from where the entrance appeared as a massive mouse hole in the cliff face. In the dim chamber, the outgoing waves dragged the rounded cobbles over each other, tumbling them like bowling balls in a giant’s popcorn popper, and then the wave would come, driving into the undercut, bored-out back of the cave and erupt in an explosion of mist that shot all around you. You could feel the booming in your chest, this release of energy contained by a vault of stone, like a bomb going off underground, just behind you.
        It put a smile on my face. I paddled out of the cave, and we headed onward, checking-out every stretch of shoreline, looking for whatever surprises it might offer. 

At the end of Ironbound it just seemed natural to continue southward, across a stretch of open water to the Egg Rock lighthouse. From there it wasn’t much more than a half-hour to the take-out at Grindstone Neck, where Rebecca waited for us as the sun set behind the mountains of Acadia.

We spent the next day at Sullivan Falls. Another day, another story, but probably a big part of why I woke-up feeling beat-up after a couple days of this. I know. Tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

The places on this route are covered in Trips #8 and #9 in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England. As illustrated here, there’s no end to the ways you can approach these routes and mix them up.

The take-out is not really a boat launch and not listed in the guidebook since there isn’t  much dedicated parking, but it can be a useful spot. Just drive down to the south end of Grindstone Neck in Winter Harbor. There’s a wide spot in the pavement to turn around or park, and an old stone bench that overlooks the shore, which is a mix of rocky slabs – probably not an easy landing in rough conditions. No facilities.

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