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.