Thursday, October 30, 2014

Damariscove Island

We launched from Ocean Point just south of East Boothbay -- Rebecca, Barb, Julie and I -- and headed south, pointed toward the Ram Island lighthouse across a half-mile channel that, in the summertime would have been cluttered with fancy picnic boats but now lay steely and calm, hardly another boat around. October had been fairly warm, and now, nearly at its end, the season seemed unlikely to yield many more such days, and we were here to make the most of it with a trip around Damariscove Island. We passed the lighthouse and followed the shore of Fisherman Island.

It felt good to follow the contours of the shore, in and out of the rocks, making tighter and tighter turns. Seguin Island rose over the horizon, eight miles down the coast, across a calm sea. We joked about changing our plans and heading there-- it was the sort of day you could go just about anywhere-- but I was already thinking about eating lunch. And this trip has an obvious lunch destination- the long, south-facing cove on Damariscove Island. You know you're almost there when the tower of the former lifesaving station rises over the treeless, rolling hills.

Damariscove Island has a long history of human habitation. The natives came out in canoes to hunt for birds and eggs until the 1500s, when European fishermen began using it as a base. The Pilgrims stopped at the fishing station there on their way to Cape Cod Bay, and returned when they ran out of food in the winter of 1622. Damariscove fishermen sent a boat-load of cod, which probably saved the colony. Now the lifesaving station is a private residence, but most of the island is owned by the Boothbay Region Land Trust.

We ate our lunch at a picnic table beside the museum- a tiny building with a collection of artifacts from the island- and then took a walk up to the tower, from where you can see a long stretch of the Maine coast, from Cape Small to Monhegan and Metinic.

While we were up there, we observed that the tide had begun to ebb against the mild south wind, turning the water surface choppy. We headed out of the harbor and followed the the southeast shore, occasionally pausing to play in the lively bits.

Rebecca was paddling a Delphin and had some particularly graceful moments. Here she's pivoting into the incoming surf, swinging her stern around toward shore. A moment later, she caught the same wave and surfed it away from the rocks. Small waves, big fun.

We headed over to Outer Heron Island and the White Islands, both part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. They're both closed for bird nesting earlier in the year, making this a good time to check them out.

Tall, whitish cliffs drop steeply into the sea around the southern end of White Island. At the top, an old chimney still stands like a monument.

We landed at a pocket beach on the north side and followed rocky ledges up to the top. The sun was sinking toward the western horizon, dropping out of the clouds and giving us a brief burst of color, before the clouds moved-in again, wispy lace and mackerel scales with a distinct wintery look.

I had hoped I might get a photo or two for the guidebook- maybe one that really conveyed the feeling of Damariscove Island. We headed back across the channel, aiming for the tiny splotch of red where we'd parked the car. I felt I had a few photos and some new details as well. I've been editing the guidebook, compressing it and weeding-out extra words. It feels like a process that will never end, even after the book comes out, and in a way, I don't think it will. We were off the water just before sunset.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Tour de' Northern Frenchman Bay

We met Saturday morning at the College of the Atlantic pier: five student leaders-in-training, ready for a weekend trip around Frenchman Bay. The weather forecast wasn't promising: strong winds, 100 percent chance of rain, fog, the potential for big seas, but there was never any discussion of cancelling the trip. The students' stoke level was high. They'd been working hard all week on academics, but had spent Wednesday out with Nate, getting  a good look at the watery part of their neighborhood.

Nate and I have led several COA trips in the past, but this year Nate has made it one of Pinniped's goals to establish a training program for student leaders, so that students at the college will be better able to safely get into sea kayaking, led by their peers. After all, the college has an amazing location on the site of the former Turrets estate, overlooking Bar Island. The students are a great group, all alumni of a college in Victoria, BC, where they've had opportunities to get out paddling and hiking and hone their camping skills.

We headed into the fog and followed the Porcupine Islands. Along the way, we took turns leading the group and navigating, getting a sense of what it feels like to lead and be led, and the different ways to go about it. But we found ample opportunity to play along the way.

We ate lunch at Rum Cay and headed around Long Porcupine. 

The seas were fairly small- a good day to learn one's way around the rocks and ledges. But of course, one of the number one lessons to be learned is that no matter how small the seas appear, there's always a bigger wave out there, and you need to keep an eye out for it.

I'm always trying to see things through students' eyes, to try to understand how this looks to them- if I'm pushing them too hard or not enough. One of the best forms of feedback is a great big smile.

We could have kept playing, but we wanted to get to our campsite on Stave Island while the getting was good. The wind began to increase, and we were expecting steadier rain.

As with most clients, I tried to leave as much of the route-planning as possible to the students, floating an idea here and there and seeing what seemed to catch their interest. When we were looking over the chart on the beach, I mentioned the possibility of going around Crabtree Neck the next day. The marine forecast for the greater area called for 3 to 5-foot seas and 25-knot gusts, and the thought of more sheltered waters was appealing. The Crabtree Neck route would take us up Sullivan Harbor, past the Reversing Falls and into Taunton Bay, where we could wind through Carrying Place Creek to the Skillings River, back out to Frenchman Bay.

That caught their interest. The only problem though, was that it was far- close to 20 nautical miles, and we'd need to start early to catch the tides right. They surprised me and all quickly agreed that we would get an early start and go for it.

The students set-up our dining fly in an old cellar hole, where we ate lentil curry, comfortably sheltered as the wind bent the trees overhead. I have to admit that I like guiding people who cook for me- and we ate well. After dinner, instead of ghost stories around a campfire, we listened to kayaking tales of woe from "Sea Kayaker Magazine's Deep Trouble." Later, in my tent, I listened to the wind whip the fabric and the waves washing onto shore. 

We were all up in the dark, eating oatmeal as the rain pattered on the tarp, and launched at a decent hour. We followed the islands that circle the northern stretch of Frenchman Bay: Stave, Calf, Preble, and onward past the shore of Sorrento to the mouth of Sullivan Harbor.

Not a bad way to start the day at all, but it took a little longer than we'd hoped, so as we made our way up Sullivan Harbor, we began paddling against the current.

Our desire to catch the tides kept us in our boats longer than usual, and just short of Sullivan Falls it had already been awhile since breakfast. I had to ask myself if I was maybe pushing them too hard- if my desire to get around Crabtree Neck was overshadowing the needs of the group. But Sullivan Falls was just around the corner- a good place for a break since everyone wanted to see the falls and have a snack. Plus there was water and a bathroom. It was a big day at the falls. Only an hour after slack, the waves were big and meaty with sharp fangs- not something we wanted to get into right then. After a break, with energy levels revived, we carried past the biggest waves and made our way along the edge, below the Route One bridge and into Taunton Bay. Somewhere in there the rain and dark clouds went away and the day turned sunny. We found the entrance to Carrying Place and headed downstream.

It was good that we hadn't dilly-dallied; the creek was draining and in a few spots we bumped along over a rock or two, finally emerging in a stretch of mudflats around a ledge where we ate lunch.

By the time we made it back to Frenchman Bay the day had turned brilliant, fairly warm- still a bit of wind, but we tucked into the shore along MDI as we made our way back to Bar Harbor.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Mouth of the Connecticut River

A common question, as I paddle in southern New England is "Are you fishing, or just sightseeing?" People often seem to be a little baffled about paddling without a fishing rod. I've talked to a few fishermen and they can be a dedicated bunch, just with a different focus from us sightseers. Sunday morning, as I readied my boat at a ramp in Old Lyme, Connecticut, a man told me about being taken for a "Montauk sleighride," probably by a bluefish that eventually bit through the leader and released him.

I didn't really know where to focus on this trip; there are a lot of places one might paddle around the mouth of the Connecticut. I'd thought I'd paddle upstream, but the tide was still going out for the next three hours. There's the mouth itself, where the longest river in New England flows past Old Saybrook lighthouse, merging with the waters of Long Island sound. Salt marshes line the southern two miles of the eastern shore with smaller rivers reaching a couple of miles inland.

I went a short distance downstream, then turned up the Black Hall River, which began as a shallow watery path through the marsh. I paddled beneath a road bridge, past an outfitter and a few modest houses before the inevitable railroad bridge that crosses every body of water reaching in from Long Island Sound. There, I met a couple of paddlers in rec boats I'd met at the ramp, just as an Amtrak train appeared with a whoosh and clatter before disappearing just as quickly.

The houses thinned as I paddled upstream, giving way to tall marsh reeds. Fiddler crabs skittered up the mud as I approached, hordes of them, waving their single over-sized claws before disappearing into reedy forests. Here, the wind that blew-in off the sound gave way to stillness. Worried about getting stranded by the outgoing tide, I kept telling myself I'd turn back after this next bend in the river, but I was always curious about what lay around the bend after that. Finally, I turned back and paddled out to the mouth of the Connecticut where the southwest wind whipped up short waves over the sandbar and shallow flats.

Most of Great Island has muddy, marshy edges, but at the south end there's a stretch of sandy and muddy beaches with tangles of great driftwood logs buried and piled along the high tide line. I took a break here, just to savor the spot. Across the river, near the Old Saybrook lighthouse were the homes of a few notable celebrities (the fisherman at the launch had filled me-in on this: Katherine Hepburn, Rahm Emmanuel) and a few large powerboats motored in through the jetties toward the marina nearby.

I continued upriver, pausing at the drawbridge to watch it lower and allow a couple of trains to pass. I skirted the edge of fishing-line-tossing distance at a nearby platform, and passed glum-looking powerboaters at the marina, watching the readout on the gas pumps as they filled-up. By far the biggest, most impressive bit of architecture here is the I-95 bridge, held aloft by massive concrete columns.

But the river felt busy and chaotic, churned by one powerboat after another, so I gladly turned into a side channel behind Calves Island, where numerous boats were anchored and moored. It was much quieter here, so I continued behind the next island as well, which has been kept wild by the gun club that has posted numerous "no trespassing" signs along its marshy shores. I had no particular plan, but I had it in mind to get to Hamburg Cove. Rebecca had lived in this area for part of her childhood, when her parents owned the Bee and Thistle Inn. After they sold the inn, they moved onto a sailboat, and she had fond memories of some of these places.

Hamburg Cove was dense with anchored boats, but I made my way up it, past the yacht club and marina (really no public places for paddlers, that I noticed) until I found myself in a placid basin, thick with lilies beneath steep, forested hillsides. Tall wildflowers grew on boggy islands and their aroma wafted with the smell of mint. The Hamburg Fair was in progress on a hillside, with the rumble of rides and children screaming. I felt pretty beat; I'd paddled out of Woods Hole and in Narragansett Bay the previous days, putting-in quite a few miles, and now I had about eight miles to get back to the launch, as well as a detour I hoped to make for a mile or two up the Lieutenant River.

I ate a sandwich or two, and began the paddle downstream. Still not feeling appeased, I ate a bit more, and even downed a caffeinated energy goop product. I'd risen at a campground at 5:30 to launch at around 8, and now the light turned golden as I made my way back to the ocean. I managed to get a ways up the Lieutenant River, and by the time I pulled into the launch it was after six. Economically, it made sense for me to get the most out of my day, and I don't take it for granted that I'll be back soon, or that the weather will cooperate next time. 

But the light over the marshes of Great Island was gorgeous, and I lingered there for awhile with others, marveling at it: paddlers who'd loaded their rec boats, a woman taking photos of birds, a couple on a motorcycle. Finally I broke away from a conversation: "my wife will call the Coast Guard if I don't call her soon," which was true. I loaded the kayak, put an audiobook on the stereo and pointed north.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Bold Coast: Cutler to Haycock Harbor

On Monday morning Rebecca and I got up early and drove up the coast to Cutler. The forecast called for calm seas, so we decided to exercise our "closed Mondays" option to celebrate Rebecca passing her L3 Instructor assessment with a paddle along the Bold Coast. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, a bit cool even, and we felt lucky to be out. We launched on a rising tide, hoping to catch the current east, but as we left Cutler Harbor and headed out, the current in the eddy was against us and stayed that way until we were well offshore, passing a few puffins along the way until we had gone at least a mile closer to the distant cliffs of Grand Manan. It was obvious enough that we'd found the dominant current as we passed an eddyline and entered the bumpier water where the current and eastern breeze met.

But paddling well offshore gets a bit monotonous, especially when the wind and current both increase against each other. The current moved us along quickly, but the wind and waves gave us plenty of resistance. We pounded-along for some time, up and down, keeping an eye on shore, trying to keep track of our location. But from that distance, the shore appears almost wall-like and you get little sense of the details. Finally I conceded that it felt a bit tedious, and suggested that we head-in toward what I hoped was Moose Cove.

Fortunately, it was indeed Moose Cove. We took a break on the stony beach beside Little Moose Island, and it might have been a quick break if Rebecca hadn't become distracted by the polished stones.

We continued further east, around the tall cliffs of Eastern Head, and since the tide was high, into the long narrow strip of Haycock Harbor. This is one of the few settled enclaves along the Bold Coast. Of the roughly 16 nautical miles of shoreline between Cutler and West Quoddy Head (not counting all the indentations like Haycock Harbor) 12 of those miles of shoreline are public, part of the Cutler Reserve, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust preserves or Quoddy Head State Park. Of course, most of that shoreline is also steep and formidable, with few landing areas, even on a calm day.

Since I'm always curious about possible launches, we followed the narrowing channel of Haycock Harbor to the end, past forested banks until, at the end, we encountered a patch of lawn near the road, where a man rode in circles on a riding lawnmower.

We might not have progressed as far as we did, to the edge of Bailey's Mistake, had we not been having so much fun playing among the rocks.

There are plenty of rocks along the Bold Coast.

As we followed the shore back toward Cutler, we got to know a lot of these rocks much more intimately...

 ... some a bit more intimately than we planned.

Despite having caught the "Bold Coast Express" offshore to get to Moose Cove quickly in the morning, the rest of the day was leisurely and slow, and we found ourselves returning to Cutler Harbor not long before sunset- an eleven-hour paddling day.

Maine: the way paddling should be.