Monday, April 18, 2016

The Cranberry Islands

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Although we’d been getting out paddling fairly regularly for the past months, it had been awhile since we’d been-out for a full-day trip. And now that the guidebook is out, I’ve had an urge to use it as a reference to go back and paddle all fifty of those routes again. In the best of circumstances – no other commitments, perfect weather, places to stay and not too much time spent driving – it would take at least two months to paddle all the routes again, so it may take me awhile to get around to them all, since my schedule seems to be getting filled.

Sunday morning was a perfect time to get started though, having spent a night after a nearby Bar Harbor pool session in Lisa and Gordo’s posh travel trailer. We’d arrived and found a chart and the guidebook on the kitchen table, along with one of the most important route-planning tools – a piece of string for measuring out distances. We settled on a trip out to the Cranberry Islands, and right away we found a mistake in the distance info that referenced the “Little Cranberry Island launch,” which should have read “Northeast Harbor.” Ugh. Frank came down from New Brunswick and after Barb joined us for a pancake breakfast, we launched late in the morning from Northeast Harbor. 

In the guidebook’s introduction, I made a point that despite the solid-looking line over the water in the route descriptions, paddlers need to make their own choices. I’m aware that some paddlers tend to get their eye on a distant goal, focusing on the most direct way to get there. I’m more prone to keep that destination in mind while focusing on whatever shore I’m passing along, and I zig-zag, making perpendicular channel crossings and following shorelines for as long as possible, rather than making big, open-water diagonals. In fact, I’ve outlined the pros and cons of these approaches in an essay in the guidebook called The Merits of Following the Shore. Aside from the obvious safety and courtesy factors of avoiding channels used by bigger boats, and the proximity of bailouts, near-shore paddling just seems more interesting to me, and it usually adds less distance than one would think. I doubt I would have much passion for simply getting from point A to B in a kayak. Those are highway miles, counting down the distance to the next exit; it’s all in the journey. 

We found plenty of cool stuff along the shore, from the massive osprey nest on Sutton Island and the enticing turn-of-the-century summer homes, to a few spots where small waves rolled in and provided a challenge or two among the rocks. We stopped briefly in Islesford on Little Cranberry, where most of the shoreside homes are still shuttered, but a few lobster fishermen were busy on the dock. We continued around to the beach on the south side and ate lunch while low tide came and went.

The day felt warm, and after a couple of sandwiches and some hot cocoa I felt almost more inclined to lie back and see what sun I might soak-in through my drysuit. But while we ate we’d been watching the various areas where the small swells erupted in white turbulence, and wondered what sort of waves we might find around the next ledges. 

In the past, Rebecca and I had lucked upon some very small, gentle waves that gave us long, easy rides. There are enough variables – mostly swell size and direction, as well as tide height – that it’s tough to predict what you’ll find. 

The waves were small enough to be almost imperceptible from a distance, but once among them, we started catching those long, easy rides. The sea floor there is very gradual, and the open ocean impact is muffled some by further-out ledges, so these waves were small and nicely shaped. You could catch them with a stroke or two at take-off, and if you kept your speed slow enough that your stern hung back over the crest, you could make turns on them all the way into the beach, sometimes falling off the back only to be picked-up by the next one. The water, of course, is still only about 40 degrees, so we all got our share of invigorating wake-up splashes, if not a dunk or two. 

We’d hoped to go-on to see the lighthouse on Baker Island, but we’d launched late and found some features along the way that burned both time and energy. We found it difficult to leave the surf, but decided that we should head back. Besides, brownies and ice cream were waiting back at the house, and there was much to enjoy along the shores of the islands on our way back.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Spring Capsize Practice at Sullivan Falls

After several winter months of spending most Saturday afternoons practicing rolling, rescues and whatever other games we come up with in the 80+ degree water at the YMCA in Bar Harbor, it may be a good idea to gently return to reality by practicing some of those moves in 40 degree water with a strong current. That wasn’t our intention when, on a whim we went for a mid-day play at Sullivan Falls on a 15.5-foot new moon tide, but it’s rare that this venue doesn’t provide a few challenging moments.

Rebecca and I had been vaguely aware of the higher-than-usual tide, but it hit home as we crossed the Sunshine Causeway an hour before high tide, which felt more like a road through the ocean rather than over it. We dodged clumps of seaweed and ran the wipers to clear away salt on the windshield. The previous day, snowplows had been used on the Deer Isle Causeway to clear away seaweed. 

We thought ‘why does Nate always want to go on the biggest tides?’ Of course, part of it is simply morbid curiosity, getting a chance to see and experience Sullivan Falls in all its moods and incarnations. Fortunately we would get there to catch the end of the flood. With such a tide range, the ebb becomes truly massive and fast enough that you can hardly catch a wave, with holes that really will swallow you. We found a familiar spot looking a little less familiar with so much water moving over it, and a wave that was hard to stay pointed into, but upon which you could side-surf for about as long as you could stand it. My capsize came when, while bracing with my right hand on the paddle, made an exaggerated yawning motion with my left. Served me right, I suppose. Chilly water. Didn’t stay down there long.

Despite the tongue-in-cheek title of this post (we weren’t really there to practice capsizes) it is good to do, to get comfortable out there, above or below the boat. 

When this wave started to die-down, we had a nice picnic lunch in the sun. There are worse excuses to get-out of the house for lunch. After the current shifted, we got back out on the water and paddled back and forth as features began to build. It’s amazing how quickly it went from not much to big. The front wave felt smooth and surf-able for about ten minutes, but you really had to work to keep from getting pulled back over it. Then it seemed to be getting just faster rather than bigger, and a wave near the edge was near-perfect for a few surfs- until it too just seemed too fast to catch. By then, we had to go. Nate had to pick-up the kids and I had to get back to Deer Isle – I was on stage crew for an amateur theater production (called Cabin Fever Theater, an ailment we seem to have avoided) which I may have enjoyed more with the feeling of salt still clinging to my skin.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Green Ledge Shipwreck

I may get to a point when I’ll stop remarking upon how amazing it is to keep discovering new places around Deer Isle, landing upon islands I’ve never landed on before, and finding surprises where I expected only an excursion into mostly familiar territory. But so far, that is not the case. 

Green Ledge lies off Stinson Neck, just under a half-mile south of Crow Island, or under a mile east of the Lazygut Islands. These other nearby islands tend to get our attention, and from a short distance away, the ledge doesn’t look like much: a pile of sparsely-vegetated gravel. It would be more accurate to call it an island, despite its lack of growth above waist-height. Low tide uncovers surrounding acres of rockweed-draped boulders stretching gradually away.

A few afternoons ago, with no other pressing destinations in mind, I found my bow pointed toward a sandy-gravelly beach on the north side of Green Ledge. The wrack line seemed inordinately littered, and as I made my way up the beach, saw that the biggest detritus were pieces from a wrecked boat: heavy welded and bolted steel in a state of almost artful decomposition, and a small section of heavily-built wooden hull.

On foot, I followed the wrack line around the island, which like some others in the area, is more gravel pile than ledge, and is in a state of constant erosion. It takes some careful stepping to get atop it without furthering the erosion process (and despite my example, should probably be avoided). I saw no signs of nesting birds, although it is still early in the season (the island is off limits from April through August, to accommodate nesting birds). Atop the island grows a thick tangle of thorny bushes. From here, Swans Island looks close - less than three miles distant across a volatile stretch of Jericho Bay.

But the real surprise lay well below the high tide line on the east side, where I came upon the wooden ribs of a wrecked boat, her gutted innards all encrusted with barnacles and rockweed: a massive engine block and a long drive shaft, as well as a plethora of rusty odds and ends that would inspire a found objects artist. I’ve asked around about the wreck, but discovered little, other than the fact that it has been there a long time, at least 30 years or so.

The island, like most that are too small or too exposed to accommodate a house (it is listed by the state at .8 of an acre) is state-owned. Unfortunately for paddlers, from tomorrow through August, it is the domain of the birds. 

As usual, I'm posting this blog from the library (borrowing access to the Interwebs) and, hey, look there on the shelf! I have to admit, it feels good.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Warm Fingers and Toes


One reason that many of our cooler weather excursions are limited to a few hours, is the chill that often sets-in to the extremities: cold fingertips and toes. While our core stays toasty, thanks to multiple thin, warm layers and our exertion which seems to fire-up that inner furnace, that warm blood doesn’t always keep our extremities warm. This is one of those ongoing subjects to which you hear plenty of solutions and opinions, but aside from avoiding cold weather, there’s no “one size fits all solution,” which is especially important to remember if you’re guiding people. You could be wearing the same gear as your paddling companions, but having an entirely different experience.  Age and gender figure heavily into blood circulation, but there are enough other variables that it’s pretty tough to guess what someone else is feeling.

One way to deal with the cold is with gear. As the air and water turned cooler this winter, I noticed that my feet were getting chilled every time. (It doesn’t escape me that, since we paddled in warmer climes last winter, it had been almost two years since I’d paddled in freezing water, and, well, I – and my blood circulation system – have grown older during that time). The first thing I did was put a foam pad beneath my feet, something to insulate them from that 30-odd-degree water on the other side of a thin fiberglass shell. That helped. But then I ordered the thickest wetsuit boots I could find.

Most kayak-specific gear is not quite thick enough for ice water and clomping around in the snow, so I thought I’d try-out some diving-oriented gear that I ordered from a company in Maryland that specializes in all things wetsuit-related, called Wetsuit Wearhouse.

These XCEL Thermoflex Dive Boots are made with 6.5 mm neoprene with a poly fleece lining that really keeps the heat in. The zipped sides help when it comes to getting drysuit booties over heavy wool socks into the boot (although I’m guessing these boots would keep your feet toasty even without the extra layers). I usually wear a 10 to a 10.5 shoe, and even with the drysuit and socks, the 10 worked just fine, but if you sometimes opt for a larger size and you’re wearing those extra layers, you might want to ensure that your feet are not cramped (which decreases circulation) and order-up a size. Since I started wearing the XCELs, my feet haven’t been even vaguely cold, and they’re even comfortable for walking and cling well to wet rocks. They go for about $64 at Wetsuit Wearhouse.

Hands are another matter. I’ve gone back and forth between gloves or mitts of varying thickness and pogies or a combination of the two. Hands tend to get wetter and are more prone to wind; even a mild breeze will cool your hands if they are encased in damp neoprene. Obviously, the thicker the neoprene, the warmer it will be, but you need to balance that warmth potential with your need to actually use your hands. Mitts make a lot of sense, since the fingers stay warmer when they’re all together. But it’s tough to go through life with claws instead of fingers. Taking pictures is out of the question. You might be able to get a sprayskirt on. I’ve usually gone with a combination of mid-weight gloves and pogies. With the gloves alone, especially once they’re wet, my hands would be cold. But encase them in that extra layer and they tend to be toasty.

But I thought, along with the thick boots, I’d give thick diving gloves a try. The 5/4 mm XCEL Thermoflex Dive Gloves are by far the warmest neoprene gloves I’ve worn. Not only that, but they work pretty well at keeping your hands dry. The neoprene is lined on the inside with XCEL's exclusive Thermo Dry Celliant inner lining, which according to the website “recycles your body heat and converts it to usable infrared energy for greater warmth, increased endurance and drying time, faster recovery, and overall enhanced performance.” So far, the sealed seams have kept all the water out, aided by a hefty Velcro strap around the wrist. They’re thick enough that a little break-in time makes them a bit more pliant. The longer I’ve worn these gloves, the more I like them, especially on those sub-freezing days. These go for about $45 at Wetsuit Wearhouse.

There’s an old adage that says if your feet are cold, put on a hat. It’s easy logic- much of your heat goes out through the top. In past years in New England, as my bones get a little creakier and my circulation poorer, I’ve taken to wearing some sort of hat for warmth for more than half the year, and it does go a long way toward keeping my hands and feet warm. I usually have two or three warm hats in my day hatch, just in case (and they are often enough leant to guests, even in mid-summer). On the water though, the knit hat has always felt like a bit of a weakness, since I’d really rather not get it wet, even if it is wool or synthetic. Yes, there are the neoprene skullcaps, complete with chinstraps, but I don’t wear these casually, especially since I can’t hear once my ears are completely covered. Besides, when I started wearing one of those years ago, my overly fashion-conscious buddy Todd nicknamed me “Cannonball.” Oh, to have been called “Cannonball.”

The Stormr Typhoon Watch fishing beanie fits just like an ordinary wool beanie, but it’s made of 3mm neoprene with a thin, fleecy lining to wick-away moisture. When I wear it on the water, I can feel the heat building-up in my torso like a stoked woodstove. If I need to hear better, it’s easy to fold the edges up. It works well when wet, and stays on in the stiffest breeze. And unlike the hoods and scullcaps that might make you feel like a superhero or earn you a cool nickname, you can wear the beanie into the convenience store on the drive home and not get stared at, except by other covetous paddlers. I may need to get a thinner version for warmer weather paddling. These go for about $25 at Wetsuit Wearhouse.

Of course all of these items work best if you rinse out the salt water after each use and let them dry. You’re much more likely to stay warm if you start your excursion with dry gear. I like to have extras, especially if I’m guiding or paddling with friends, so there’s always an option or two. Wetsuit Wearhouse has far more options than I knew existed, and if these options allow me more time on the water and more confidence that I’ll be able to return home without numb appendages, they’re worthwhile investments.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Down A Small River In A Very Small Boat


Souadabscook Stream – or simply The Soo, as it is known by some – flows down out of the hills and ponds west of Bangor and empties into the Penobscot River in Hampden, less than twenty miles from where the river widens into Penobscot Bay. In spring, snowmelt swells The Soo with enough water to make it navigable in a small boat, and enough current to turn it into a quick, bumpy ride that descends rapidly over a series of drops as the water rushes toward the Penobscot. I had wanted to try this sort of paddling for a long time, so when my friends invited me to join them on a run down the stream, I instructed my secretary to clear my schedule for the day.

The invitation had included a sunrise foray into Sullivan Falls, which is where Nate had met-up with Chris and Justin, but I figured my first whitewater run would be enough for one day, so I met them at the Irving Station in Hampden, where they were fueling-up on a convenience store breakfast. They said that Sullivan had been particularly big, and cold.

We caravanned up to the take-out, where we scouted Great Falls – the final and biggest drop on the run - from the road. It looked and sounded pretty big to me, what Chris said passes (in the Midcoast area) as a Class 4 drop… not that this information meant anything to me. We left two vehicles there and crammed into Nate’s truck to get to the put-in. 

Fortunately, there’s a lot about padding a whitewater boat that crosses-over with sea kayaking. We wear a lot of the same gear, and the boat handling skills are similar. Chris leant me one of his fleet of Jackson boats, as well as a short, wide-bladed paddle with a 45-degree feather. The sprayskirt was so tight I couldn’t get it on by myself, so my first impressions were of much less control and confidence than I normally have in a kayak (not a bad thing to experience, since I’m usually guiding and teaching others with a similar feeling). But I got onto the water and played around a small wave, getting a feel for it, planting the blade close to the boat to avoid bobbing back and forth too much, experimenting with basic maneuvers. And we headed downstream.

When you watch people in whitewater boats bobbing down a series of drops, going with the flow, it can be difficult to tell how much of it is their maneuvering the boat, and how much they are just drifting along, getting pulled by the current. My guess is that some paddlers – the best ones – do plenty of maneuvering, while others could almost be passively riding in an inner tube. Most paddlers are probably somewhere in between, but they could all be going down the same river with the same end result – getting from the put-in to the take-out, hopefully in one piece.

We descended a series of drops – small waterfalls – and I got a feel for the boat, sometimes going back to surf on a wave and just to get comfortable, going back and forth in the current. The skill might come into play above the drop, getting yourself into position so that you’ll hit it at the right angle and get pulled into the desired flow. Beyond that, for me anyway, it was then more a matter of hanging-on, getting ready to brace, and continuing to propel myself forward to avoid getting pulled back into the holes that reside beneath some of these drops. It felt good to hit it right, to get buoyed along and feel the boat drop beneath you and the slap of cold fresh water on the face, and then to turn sharply into the eddy where the others were waiting and cheering me on, often looking at me curiously, wondering how it felt to me, if I was hooked. Yes, I was hooked.

We came, finally, to Great Falls, which we’d scouted from the road. Great Falls is more of a proper waterfall, not quite vertical, but steep, descending down a stair-like series of drops, only the middle stair is maybe 6 or 8 feet tall with a curving rooster tail of a wave at the bottom. The roar of the falling water gives you a sense of its power, and you know that if you screw-up here, you might get stuck down there in that hole. The other guys talked about what line to take, but I knew right away that mine was to stand to the side and take pictures while they did it. I’d felt good about everything so far, but I knew I didn’t have the moves to do this properly. One could certainly float right over it and get lucky- in the way a novice skier might get to the bottom of a steep run, but I’d like to have a little confidence in my abilities rather than in my luck.

The others made it look easy. They approached, found the right spot with the right angle and bounced right down it. I dragged my boat through the woods and joined them at the bottom. The take out lay just around the next bend.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


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In a few days, thanks to Daylight Savings, we could enjoy twilight until almost seven pm, and it just keeps getting later, all the way to June 21st. It’s good to keep this in mind, reminding ourselves to take advantage of the daylight, since on June 22 – only three and a half months from now - we again begin the slow march toward short days and long, dark nights. The good news is that means we have about seven months with at least as much daylight as we have now.

Long dark nights have their merits though. Aside from giving us a chance for binge-watching television shows or getting our socks sorted, winter nights can launch inspired planning sessions that will help us make the most of that short period later in the year, when the days are long and warm. And while I like to celebrate living in the moment, inspired planning can be its own reward as well, whether it's a flight of fancy, imagining all those places we might go, or detailed planning. We gather our tools around us: the charts and maps, Gazetteers and guidebooks. We imagine trips, parsing-out the distances with a length of string, checking the current tables, imagining the lunch stops and play spots, the places to camp. I fill notebook pages with potential trips. Sometimes they turn into real trips.

 Of course, the first thing we need to know, if we’re car-topping our kayaks, is where we’ll launch. Aside from public access, we need to know how difficult it is to get our boats to the water and where we’ll park the car. We’d like to know if the high tide might reach our parking spot, or if we return at low tide we’ll face a long slog through the mud? When I was choosing routes for AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England, I omitted some nice places to paddle simply because parking is a hassle or getting there is a challenge at low tide.

Unfortunately, lack of convenience… and just plain lack of public knowledge ensures that some paddling destinations are busy and launches become overcrowded, when in fact, there are a lot more places to access the ocean than we might at first think. So for most trips I tried to include multiple launches, alternate routes and resources to make planning easier.

One of these resources is the Maine Coastal Public Access Guide. Published in 2013, the guide was put together by the Maine Coastal Program at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The guide comes in three volumes, covering tidal areas in the Southern, Midcoast and Downeast regions. That’s a lot of shoreline- about 5,300 miles, according to the introduction, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it covers over 700 public access areas. Not all of these are places where you can launch a boat – it isn’t a kayaking guide – but if you’re like me, knowing about these public access points is akin to knowing that you have 700 backyards.

The guide works well either from an armchair-dreaming perspective, or as a counterpart to the Gazetteer, that you keep in your car to consult when you’re out and about. At home, I find myself going back and forth between the full-color maps in the guide and my charts, just trying to get a broader sense of the possibilities. I’ve encountered discrepancies between this guide and the Gazetteer, and since I’ve gone to launches listed in the Gazetteer only to discover that they were actually on private land, I would tend to believe that this state-issued guide is correct. And, unlike some listings of boat launches that favor powerboaters, this guide lists places that aren’t launches at all, but kayakers who don’t mind a little carry could read between the lines. The guide also lists hiking trails, which is useful, both as a back-up plan, and to add further dimension to your experience of a place.

If you drive around a lot, you could think of this as a guide to places where you can stop to pee without having to buy another coffee. At eight bucks, the guide could pay for itself in just a few pee-stops.

Two weeks ago I gave my first public slideshow presentation in support of AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England. Hosted by Island Heritage Trust, it took place on a wet, blustery evening in the lower level of a church, with 15 or 20 people in the audience, most of whom I know, but not necessarily in a kayaking context. Anticipating that I will be speaking to a lot of people new to the sport or who hope to get into it, I talked a bit about my personal journey into sea kayaking. As someone who values modesty, I later found myself replaying in my head many parts of it, wondering how full of myself I might have sounded; there’s a fine line between bragging and telling your story for the benefit of others. But I didn’t notice anyone falling asleep, and they even laughed once or twice. And there have been subsequent questions about what kayak to buy, so perhaps my story has helped spark the imaginations of others.

Before my talk, the publisher was kind enough to provide me with an uncorrected proof… as if, in the literal sense, I needed to prove to the audience that the long-awaited book really did exist. And then, a few days ago, UPS showed up with the real thing:

It has been a long journey.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Some days the winter seems to drag-on slowly. Others, you realize it will be over before you know it- before you’ve had a chance to do all those winter things you’d hoped to do at the beginning, when the winter stretched-out ahead with so much promise. Maybe a bit like suddenly discovering that you’re in your fifties and you think holy crap, how did that happen? Winters, like lifetimes, go by in a flash. We plan on certain things to get us through it: sports, library visits, potluck dinners, holidays, and you imagine doing these things casually, like they’ll be bright spots in the middle of long stretches of slow-moving empty time, but instead we rush to and from them like anything else.

Aside from trips to the pool at the Bar Harbor YMCA, all my paddling lately has been short, close-to-home trips among the nearby islands, and I seem oddly content with this. Sometimes I go with company- Rebecca or –lately- Bill, who is getting in shape for a trip to Baja, but more often I’m alone, with which I am also oddly content.

There’s been enough snow that I can slide my kayak down to the high tide line like a toboggan, and carry it from there. I wade-in and plop into the cockpit. My hands are in thick gloves and pogies. My heels rest upon a piece of foam to help insulate them from the near-freezing water just below the hull. These precautions help, but after a couple hours, while my core will at times feel hot beneath two or three wool layers and a drysuit, my fingertips and toes tend to get a bit numb. Most of the time I hardly notice – one of the good things about keeping these winter trips fairly short.

Since I haven’t been writing lots of blog posts lately, I tend to have a narrative going in my head as I paddle, with observations and commentary. They could be the same, from one day to the next:

“Snow began to fall, slowly at first, hardly noticeable. Then the flakes grew dense, turning the sky a deep gray…”

“Eagles seem to be claiming Potato Island for another year…”

“Dull light today, dark and not much tonal range…”

I bring hot chocolate in a vacuum bottle as a back-up in case I (or someone) get cold and need warming. But half-way through the trip I usually just drink it. It feels like a luxury, to float on the water, sipping the chocolate. It would also be good leftover, when I get home, but as a rule, everything is better out on the water.

Inevitably, I’ve put-off paddling until the end of the day, after I’ve done enough work, and I end-up returning as it gets dark, pointing for the dark stretch of rocky beach, far below the house we’re staying in, where I’ve left-on a light.

Yesterday, since the weather looked colder and windier for the next few days, I brought my kayak inside, so I can do a few gelcoat repairs. I don’t mind a few non-paddling days, although today I realized that it would have been perfectly fine out there. Still, I have a lot of work to do, and only a few more months in this particular situation, and I know it will go quickly.

I’ve been going over what I hope will be final proofs of the guidebook. The publication date is less than two months away. I’ve also been preparing for a slideshow/talk that I’ll deliver in a couple of weeks… in a church basement in Deer Isle- part of IHT’s winter lecture series. I’ve known for awhile that I would need to do something like this to promote the book. I’m not much of a performer- probably part of the reason I like to write. So I’ve been working on text to accompany the slideshow. It’s evolving into an essay about the process of researching and writing the guidebook, but I’m exploring other threads that lead into this story- how I got into sea kayaking, my writing background, this blog. As usual, the text is growing into a monster that needs to be tamed.

If you're in Deer Isle on Wednesday, February 24th, I'll be giving my slideshow/talk at 5  at the Congregational Church.

If you can't make that, I'll be doing it at Jesup Library in Bar Harbor on June 10th.