Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Stonington Archipelago


When we launch from Stonington with a full day of paddling ahead of us, the difficulty lies not in finding a good place to paddle, but in narrowing the choices down to the narrow path we will actually take, knowing that no matter where we go, we’ll be forsaking some other perfectly awesome destinations. It’s a good problem to have.

M, new to the Maine coast, wanted me to show her around the Stonington archipelago. She’s a very fit paddler with a good forward stroke* so we could have gone just about anywhere, getting out to far-off targets like, for instance, the Spoons, but we opted instead for the approach I outline in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in NewEngland… a route plan that I first wrote about in an article in Sea Kayaker Magazine in 2009 called “The Archipelago Arc.” The idea is that you can paddle out 2 or 3 miles to whatever island you would like, and then arc around the edge of the archipelago, maintaining the 2-3-mile radius so that you always have approximately the same distance for the return trip.  There’s the “inner” arc and then the “outer” arc that crosses Merchant Row and winds through some of the islands on the Isle au Haut side.

Or you could mix it up a bit for a hybrid inner/outer route, which is what we ultimately did. With a little wind from the southeast, we decided to go counterclockwise, heading first toward Penobscot Bay, with a vague plan of meandering through the islands back toward Jericho Bay, and getting a push back to Webb Cove at the end of the day from the southeast wind. We set-off toward Indian Point like so many of our trips begin, but with a whole day ahead of us.

In a way, such a trip – a full day off Stonington with one paddler – is my dream trip, and I felt very lucky to have it, especially after a busy week in which I’d guided or taught in Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Sullivan Falls as well as multiple trips from Stonington. Most days had involved some rescues (instructing and otherwise) and plenty of uncertainties about the weather and the capabilities of my groups. I felt tired and a bit beat-up, and I’d started imagining the calendar ahead and how, as much as we love the summer, the slower pace of autumn would be welcome. But the prospect of a full day paddle among some of my favorite spots helped me summon some energy for yet another long day. 

We took our first break on Green Island, largely because it seemed I would be remiss to not show M the quarry pond that many of our half-day trip clients are keen on swimming in. I enjoy swimming in it as well, especially after a long paddle, but for many of our visitors it is all they see of the archipelago, since a swimming stop there, especially with a bunch of kids, takes up all the time that would be spent paddling among other, perhaps more interesting islands. Green also tends to represent the western limit of our half-day trips, so it felt good to paddle onward from there, out between Crotch and Sand Islands into the eastern edge of Penobscot Bay, where we meandered among islands thick with gulls, terns and seals. To the south, the horizon loomed large, with Brimstone Island bumping above it just south of Vinalhaven. It seems that everywhere I paddle I’m reminded of all the places I haven’t been to in awhile. 

We’d stretched the western end of the arc out to Sparrow Island, five nautical miles from Old Quarry, and now began a meandering path back, which brought us to Ram, Hardwood and Merchant Islands before we took a lunch break on Nathan, sitting on a sunny granite slab, warm in the lee of the island. I made instant coffee. We chatted. We fueled-up for more paddling: Pell>Bills>Gooseberry (another break among  glacial erratics spilled over the shore like marbles). McGlathery>Spruce>Millet> and another break on Phoebe.

The “arc” part of our journey had taken us about eight nautical miles. Now we had a little over three to get back to Old Quarry, passing the campsite on Saddleback where I waved to the group I’d advised about campsites the previous evening (it looked crowded there – at least two groups with multiple tents). One camper, who sat on a rock a short distance from the campsite played “Yankee Doodle” on a penny whistle, a tune that maddeningly stayed with me as we paddled toward the lowering sun, re-entering the usual territory of half-day trips, Bold and Grog Islands and that last stretch along Buckmaster Neck toward the busy-ness of Old Quarry. The office at Old Quarry had been trying to reach me, perhaps to remind me that “full day” trips are only 6 hours, rather than nine or ten, but my radio had accidentally skipped down a channel and I’d been blissfully off in my own world, where a full day is whatever I can squeeze out of it.

It's worth mentioning that, though in some ways the Stonington area gets a bit busy with paddlers in mid-summer, we saw only one other kayak on the water all day, far in the distance. It helps to get away from town.

In my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England, The Stonington Archipelago is Route #14. This is a good example of how you can take that basic route concept and expand it to suit your desires and the day’s conditions. If you would like to join me on a more involved learning journey to some truly outlandish places, there's still room for another paddler or two on the Downeast Journey I'll be guiding from September 6-10.

*You might notice that I very seldom have praise for anyone’s forward stroke. Rebecca recently remarked that the best forward stroke she’d seen lately was done by the nine-year-old girl she’d just taught (it seems nearly impossible to get anyone who has already been paddling to improve much, the first step in the process being acceptance of one’s need for improvement and the will to do the work). This is a diatribe I will save for another day, but this aside is merely intended to point out the rarity of guiding or teaching someone with a decent enough stroke. Which is not to say that this stroke couldn’t use work – we are all constantly trying to improve or at least maintain the efficacy of this commonly misunderstood skill.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Around Swans Island in Four Days

We floated just off Devils Head, a granite bluff on Hog Island, at the edge of Eggemoggin Reach, a dense white wall of fog between us and our destination. R held the radio up to his face and made the call: Sécurité Sécurité Sécurité,: attention boaters in the east end of Eggemoggin Reach. We’re a group of 5 kayaks crossing from Hog Island to White Island, estimated crossing time, twenty minutes, standing by on one-six.

We paused, we listened: nothing. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.” Or I might have said “let’s boogie,” which I often seem to say in such situations. So we did. We boogied, but at that moderate pace that enabled us all to stay close together as we made the crossing. We were all following our compasses, but D paddled just ahead of the pack, the chief navigator who made it easier for us to follow the bearing without bumping into each other.

This was the fourth and last day of our around-Swans Island journey, a trip organized through Pinniped Kayak, and though I hadn’t exactly planned for this fog, it was, in a way, a good thing. I wouldn’t have been heartbroken had it lifted, but it enabled us to work on navigation and communication in a way that gave us immediate and obvious feedback… or consequences. 

The four paddlers in the group had come on this trip not just to have a guide, but hopefully to go home with some improved skills as well. They’d all had some previous instruction and experience, and at times I found myself wondering what they most needed me to teach, which were usually subjects provided more by the environment than any agenda. A four-day journey doesn’t lend itself as well to nit-picky strokes and maneuvers development as well as it does to overall journeying skills.

At every juncture I tried to put the route planning and decision making into the hands of the group. We had an overall plan: try to get around Swans Island, camping along the way on three probable islands. On the first day we left Old Quarry and took our first break on Saddleback Island, hoping to get across Jericho Bay to our first campsite on Marshall Island. But the winds blew in the mid teens, gusting into the low twenties – blowing with the flooding mid-tide current, but still likely to create some lively conditions for a 3-plus-mile crossing. Like the fog though, this was an opportunity for decision-making and for paddling in rough water that one might not venture into without the safety net of an instructor.

We could have taken the easier downwind ride northward. I would have been fine with that, but the overall consensus pointed us toward Marshall Island, so off we went, and soon found ourselves amid some considerable ups and downs. I’m sure we each have our own mental picture of what it felt like in those waves. At first, the skills learned in calmer water might be difficult to muster – the edging and efficient sweep strokes to keep from turning too much into the wind, the degree of skeg needed to avoid weathercocking. A couple of schooners blew toward us from Isle au Haut, sailing wing on wing, straight downwind, passing behind our sterns. We tried to stay close together without colliding, keeping a heading toward the northern end of Marshall Island, where, after an hour, we landed.

So we got the bumpy crossing out of the way, and that evening I think everyone felt some sense of relief and accomplishment as we ate our dinner and watched the sunset. Each evening we were treated to a display of shooting stars, as the Perseids meteor shower drew near, lying back and watching the night sky until we could no longer keep our eyes open. 

On Tuesday we wound through the islands south of Swans and made our way to Frenchboro Long Island, where we ate our lunch before heading to our campsite on West Sister Island. On Wednesday we followed the east shore of Swans up to Casco Passage and through the Black/Opechee group of islands before heading across the north end of Jericho Bay, to our campsite for the last night. 

As always, I often felt challenged to get people to focus more on the moment than the destination, which is more difficult when you have some miles to cover to get to your campsite. But that last evening after we’d made camp, I offered to go for an additional paddle around the island we were camping on, and half the group joined me, while the other half, a bit cold and tired, took a well-deserved break.

The distance around the island wasn’t much more than two miles, but we took our time, following each contour of the shore: around rocks, beneath bluffs and boulders, picking our way in empty boats through the mist and fog. Despite the miles we covered in the overall trip, and despite the challenges we’d overcome to get places, these moments were certainly the most peaceful, and perhaps most representative of why I paddle in the first place: the joy in maneuvering a boat well, the quiet connection to a place, those moments where your head empties of all the choices and chit-chat, narrowing-down to the path you’ll paddle among a winding, rocky passage.

As often happens on the last day though, the focus on getting there becomes heightened. We made a couple of foggy crossings and after the fog cleared, took one last break on the Lazyguts before heading back to Old Quarry for lunch.

Swans Island is Trip #13 in my guidebook, AMC’s Best SeaKayaking in New England. This version of the route is suggested as one of the alternatives, launching at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures in Stonington, rather than Naskeag Point, and focusing more on the surrounding islands than on Swans. We camped on Maine Coast Heritage Trust Islands (Marshall, West Sister and Hog). 

I have one more journey on the Pinniped calendar this year: The Downeast Journey, September 6 through 10. There may be space for one more person.

Here's a photo of me, courtesy of Rob Sidlow. Yep, that's a toilet and a tarp lashed to my stern deck.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Cranberry Islands Figure-8

Occasionally someone asks me if sea kayak guiding is fun, and I shrug and say “most of the time.” Like any job, some days are better than others. But some days are even better, more like going for a paddle with a friend or two. It helps sometimes if I get to paddle someplace where I don’t get to go every day. It also helps if I like hanging-out with the people I’m guiding or teaching.

On a previous trip, J had been out to the Porcupine Islands and this time wanted to do something around the southern end of Mount Desert Island. The weather was warm and perfect, so for this trip through Acadia Park Kayak Tours, we met at the launch in Northeast Harbor and headed out of the harbor, where I felt pleasantly distracted by the sensual curves and gleaming varnish of the well-kept boats drifting on their moorings. Some of those boats are called, I think, ‘picnic boats’, and it says a lot about the idyllic lifestyle that goes with them – to have such a beautiful (and pricey) vessel meant only to take you out on picnics. But we had our own picnic boats, and a whole day out among the islands ahead of us.

We paused below the lighthouse on Bear Island and crossed over to the giant osprey nest near the west end of Sutton Island. We had talked about following the shore of Sutton and taking the shortest crossing over to Little Cranberry, but J was paddling well and the day felt calm and warm, with only a handful of powerboats out to worry us on our crossings. So we headed straight across to Great Cranberry and followed the western shore, which feels mostly undeveloped despite a few homes tucked into the trees. At the south end, the open ocean lay before us with the Duck Islands appearing closer than they really were, nearly four miles south. Swell rolled-in toward the rocky shore, lifting us before it broke into white waves over the ledges, and I watched J to make sure she was comfortable; she wore a huge smile and said she loved it.

We took a break and checked out the MITA island and the view of the MDI mountains rising over the Cranberries. It’s one of those views that is a bit stunning at first and you keep taking pictures and staring, just trying to take it in. I thought about the last time I’d camped there – it’s been a couple of years – and promised myself to get back and camp there again before long, since you almost need to sit there for a long, quiet period to take-in such a magnificent landscape.

We switched boats – J wanted to learn to maneuver better, so I took the Tsunami and she took my Cetus. Again, her smile was almost immediate, as if she’d been let in on a big kayaking secret (yes, those boats and paddles are worth every penny). I’ll admit that I often take good kayak design a bit for granted, since I generally paddle nice P&H kayaks (I mostly paddle a Scorpio at Old Quarry). And when I hear paddlers blaming the boat for their own inability, I tend to take it with a grain of salt – the boat is usually a small part of the equation, especially when we’re comparing kayaks with similar designs that were meant to be paddled without a rudder. But if I’d started with a big plastic ruddered boat with a pronounced keel, I think I would have either needed to switch to something more maneuverable, or I wouldn’t have progressed as a paddler. And perhaps this is why a lot of paddlers find it hard to get out of the “point A to point B” mode and discover the pure joy of tooling along a shore, maneuvering the boat as if we’d morphed into more aquatic creatures.

We headed north through The Gut and pulled-in at the beach beside the town landing. We’d hoped to eat lunch at the Islesford DockRestaurant, but sadly it’s closed Mondays and Tuesdays, so we had more usual fare (pb&j) on the beach. The restaurant is in its last season, and I’ve never eaten there… it seems that everywhere I go I come up with reasons to return – soon.

Having gone around Great Cranberry, it seemed a good idea to now head around Little Cranberry, which we did, paddling along the northern shore where some fine old “camps” have stunning views of MDI. It’s tough not to think that jeez, maybe when we sell the foreign rights and the film rights to the guidebook, maybe I can buy one of these places… and a picnic boat or two with matching colors. But I didn’t ponder my color choices for long, since I’d been watching for thunderstorms, and now some very major, dark clouds began gathering over Mount Desert Island.

We kept an eye on the clouds as we proceeded around the island, cataloguing the places where we might get out to seek shelter. The clouds stayed north until we were headed to the lighthouse on Baker Island and the storm clouds began pushing-out through the mouth of Frenchman Bay, rolling toward us. We turned back and settled for a Figure-8 around the two big Cranberries.

We were getting tired by then anyway. Or at least I was. I kept watching J for signs of fatigue that never seemed to materialize. By the time we landed back in Northeast Harbor we’d paddled nearly sixteen nautical miles – farther than most of my guided day trips. We’d had the tidal current with us most of the time, and a couple of miles might have been augmented by our fear of thunderstorms, but still, not bad.

If I had the time (or if anyone did, for that matter) it would be fun to systematically go through my guidebook and paddle all fifty routes. I am working on paddling them all again, but my approach is a bit more haphazard, mostly dependent on where I get to guide and teach people (perhaps in a month or two when things slow down I’ll get to choose paddling excursions a little more selfishly). But this was yet another approach to Route #10 in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Bois Bubert, Jordan's Delight


One tactic for beginning a narrative about a trip is to choose a highlight, perhaps something from the middle of the trip, or maybe the event that felt like the climax, and start there. Paint it in vivid detail and then explain briefly how you got there and maybe a nod toward how the trip will proceed. And you could even return to that special moment to end your narrative. It makes it less likely that you’ll get bogged-down in tedious details, and hopefully gets you quickly to the good stuff. But this quick trip to Bois Bubert Island was mostly good stuff.

My first thought was to begin when three of us sat watching the moon rise over the sea, lighting the granite shoreline, outlining the nearby islands where we would paddle the next day. The red lights atop the array of antennae at Cutler twinkled in the distance, and a few very bright lights shone from Great Wass Island, some eleven miles across the mouth of Pleasant Bay and Western Bay. It seemed a minor miracle that Barb and I had been able to get away at a moment's notice to join Nate and Melodi on this learning journey, and even more so just to be sitting there together, gazing at the moon over the sea, feeling the warmth still emanating from the granite beneath us.

I could just as easily choose the moments the next morning when I returned to the same spot to do my stretches, warm in the lee of the island with the early sun on me and I wanted to point my camera at pretty much everything because it all just seemed so perfectly gorgeous (but knowing that my photos would not convey it). 

Or I could start with the last stretch of ocean before we arrived at Jordans Delight, a craggy island with sheer cliffs dropping straight down into the sea from bright green hilltops, splotchy with purple wildflowers. We’d slipped out of the lee of Bois Bubert and cruised downwind, arriving quickly at the island where we spent the next hour and a half exploring the near-shore rocks, finding a few splashy challenges for ourselves in the process. Since this was a class for Melodi, she and Nate worked on developing skills, while Barb and I ... worked on developing skills with a slightly less structured approach.

If I wanted to hit a different note, I might instead focus on the lobster boat that apparently motored out of its way to check us out (it was pretty windy and a little wavy) passing first one way behind us and then returning the other. Nate and I guessed that all the hub-bub since the accident, two months ago now, had reinforced some fishermen’s views about kayaks not belonging on the ocean (an article had inevitably quoted a fisherman saying just that). Of course we were fine; we were more than fine.

Barb Todd photo

Or I could even just revel in the feeling, after I'd first launched, of paddling alone again in a less familiar environment and how great it felt, both the aloneness as I pointed toward the vertical exclamation of the Petit Manan lighthouse, which tends to look somehow ominous from a distance, and the knowledge that friends awaited in camp. 

Or maybe that moment before falling asleep in my tent, the night so clear I’d left the fly off, waking every now and then to track the moon’s arc across the sky. 

Or how after we’d all landed back at the launch and loaded-up, Barb and I took a hike up Pigeon Hill to look out over the stretch of ocean we’d paddled, laid-out below us like Google Earth. Or even the drive home, listening to the radio, eating cookies, feeling good. Or the bear I saw lumbering down the roadside embankment in Sedgwick. Or the beginning of the trip when I left Old Quarry, having just guided a morning trip and hurriedly loaded my gear, and realizing the moment I’d left that I’d forgotten a few things, but deciding not to go back for them, that it wasn’t worth one more delay. 

Every trip has a story, the beginning, middle and end that we might expect – I suppose, but in a way, from the moment I started the car to my return a day and a half later, the trip was a series of moments, all of them held together by a route traced over a chart, possible in a vessel that enables us to paddle side by side with our peers- in this case Barb, Melodi and Nate, and experience the overall same trip, but a different series of moments. 

Then of course there’s the information, the ways that so many people measure their trips, be they statute or nautical miles, the speed of the wind, the height of the waves, time departed, calories burned, food consumed, etc. You can find more information about this trip and the different ways to approach it in my guidebook AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England. Trip #7. 

Our upcoming opportunities include a 4-day trip around the Swans Island archipelago, August 8-11, and a 5-day Journey up the Downeast coast, September 6-10 (in which we will very likely visit the Bois Bubert/Jordans Delight area). We have plenty of other opportunities as well, both through Pinniped Kayak and Old Quarry Ocean Adventures.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Good Morning on Webb Cove

Before we set-out, we took a Scorpio down from the rack and W, my morning student sat down in it to adjust the foot pegs. I could see almost right away, from the way he rocked the boat back and forth with his hips, but kept his upper body vertical, that he would do well. He had the basic concept of edging already figured-out… perhaps not the nuances, like which way to edge to point the boat in a particular direction, but we could work on that over the next few hours. This was his first time in a sea kayak, and before he even launched, he had a basic concept down that eludes far more experienced paddlers.

It was a good day for a lesson: strong gusty winds and fog that made the inner reaches of Webb Cove at high tide into a calm, sheltered classroom- with mud-warmed, shallow water significantly warmer than the water just a half-mile out. Not only that, but the fog has a way of slowing one down. W had some difficulties at first – everyone does, but slowing down, contour paddling along the curving granite shoreline, sorted them out. After a few hours of strokes and exercises to try them out, he was maneuvering his boat amazingly well. We finished with a rescue session, and to be honest, I was enjoying it so much myself that I hardly wanted to stop. And W’s enthusiasm was infectious; it helped carry me through the rest of the day.

After the first week of July, I’m feeling a bit beat-up, having taught or guided multiple trips almost every day for awhile now. Unless the sun comes out today, I will probably have the rest of the day off… a valuable chance to do a few home improvements on the travel trailer. I’m tired, but overall things have been good. I had one day that, at the end of it I said that if every day were like that I wouldn’t be doing this work, but then I had several days of decent enough weather (not too much wind) and easy-going people who I enjoyed being with and were able to paddle well enough to manage.

We’ve tried to avoid working in the office this year, opting to clean the bathhouse instead (we all have to do our part around here). And while it might seem to be dirty work (and it sometimes is) I prefer it to the headache of dealing with whatever comes at you in the office. In particular, I really hate renting kayaks. I could write a whole diatribe on it, but I’d rather keep my blood pressure down. At the heart of it is that very few people who want to rent kayaks are even remotely prepared. On some level it’s our job to try to screen them, but most people are indignant if you suggest that they might not fare well in 55-degree water if they can’t get back into their boats. Especially if it looks calm out. They might suspect that we just want to sell them on guided trips… but if the people seem difficult, that is far from the truth. We just don’t want them to have a bad day, and we worry about them until they return. Like the day that started-out calm a couple of weeks ago- the day two people (one a guide, the other a client) died not far from here, an accident that I’m choosing to avoid writing about, because it is still so similar to almost all kayaking mishaps that should have been avoided. I’m just not going there, at least today.

Instead, I’ve decided to tell you about W’s first hours in a kayak, how in four hours he went from no kayaking skills at all to experiencing a certain joy in maneuvering his boat, and the ability to rescue himself or others. He will get so much more out of kayaking and be safer than the larger percentage of paddlers out there. And that makes me happy.

In other news, it looks like the Swans Island Journey may be moved a few days later, perhaps to the next week, probably with one or two more openings for students. And the Downeast Journey has one or two openings as well. My daily schedule here at Old Quarry has been busy, but I've been able to accommodate anyone who wants a lesson. Contact Old Quarry Ocean Adventures at 207/367-8977.

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.