Monday, April 14, 2014

Ironbound Island & The Porcupines

Once again, on Saturday morning we find ourselves, at a reasonably early hour, down at the end of Bridge Street where a sign warns motorists "Flood Area: Do Not Park On The Tidal Bar" before crumbling asphalt gives way to beach gravel and, since we'd arrived at high tide-- the ocean. We'd been coming to pool sessions in Bar Harbor for much of the winter, and it had been good to practice skills in warm water, but on some of the nicer days we got out for a paddle in the morning, and now, with four or five hours before our pool session, we head out into the Porcupine Islands.

(Above: the view from atop Cadillac Mountain: Sheep, Burnt, Long & Bald Porcupine Islands)
The Porcupines-- so-named (I imagine) for their spruce-spined over-the shoulder humps rising from the ocean on the islands' high, cliffy southern ends, extend east from Bar Harbor, steep stepping-stones leading across half of Frenchman Bay before a gap to Ironbound Island. Often when we paddle out into the Porcupines, we do so with a vague float plan, dependent on the seas and our ability to get close to the rocks and and chasms below the cliffs. The first two islands, Bar and Sheep Porcupine make up the northern perimeter of Bar Harbor, and tend to get a bit less impact from open ocean swells as the further-out islands. It's a good shoreline to follow and warm-up- see how well you're maneuvering before venturing into the surf zone along Burnt Porcupine, where swells on a calm day can end in dramatic explosions of whitewater upon the rocks.

By the time we get to Burnt Porcupine, I've lost enough gelcoat to reinforce the conservative approach Rebecca and I tend to take in the colder months. This generally means we stay behind breaking waves instead of in front of them. On a day with 1-2-foot seas, most wave sets have a couple of larger swells. When they trip over a submerged ledge they can rise into steep and formidable waves. Most of Burnt Porcupine's southern shore is fairly vertical, pocked with narrow chasms and steep rock faces and broken-away boulders and ledges. It doesn't take much of a sea to turn the shoreline into frothing clapotis, waves colliding with reflecting waves, pounding and thundering, the air hazy with salt. That big attraction over on Ocean Drive- Thunder Hole? There are a lot of thunder holes out there, and as sea kayakers we have the privilege of getting to know them well.

As we paddle, some places are still linked in my mind to lessons learned, sometimes in classes, sometimes not. Now that I'm an instructor, I have to give credit to one of my first teachers- Mark Schoon- for giving me a long leash and testing my skills in fairly big conditions. We backed into "The Keyhole," a big, rocky slot, and watched the swells roll in and funnel toward the chasm: as much an exercise in keeping calm and trusting yourself as anything. Today we pause at the Keyhole's entrance and watch a series of swells washing through the opening, breaking as the chasm narrows- not so bad. But then a pair of much larger swells wash in, and the narrow strip of water erupts into chaos- not a place I'd want to be.

Or the "Swellevator," a rocky corner where you can ride the swells up and down. And somewhere along these cliffs I performed my first really desperate low brace as a wave pushed me against the wall. And the gap beside Rum Key produces some excellent surfing waves, and occasionally a very tall steep one like the wave that endo-ed me onto a ledge (did more harm to the boat than me). And of course not so long ago that spot off Sheep Porcupine (did more harm to me than the boat). Both of those waves had my name on them, and I think there's always a personally-monogrammed wave out there somewhere.

We continue to Ironbound Island, and at the southern tip, pause to admire the booming surf as it rises over a ledge, plunges into the undercut bluffs and explodes, a deep bass that resonates as much in one's chest as in the surrounding air. Sitting close enough to such a release of energy, it might feel like we've absorbed some of that spent potential. It can be an intimidating place to hang-out, but we seem to be somehow energized by the waves and the salt in the air. When I was still fairly new to paddling, I was in a class with Mark Schoon when we paused off of this point. The seas were smaller that day, but I was unaccustomed to spending my time in such spots, so it felt plenty intimidating to me. Mark asked what my go-to self rescue was, and I answered, a bit too sure of myself, "cowboy."

"Okay," Mark said. "Let's see it."

Of course he was going to say that. Let's just say my opinion of my go-to rescue was much higher than it should have been, a lesson I learned very well.

But today, with forty-degree water, our goal is to stay in the boats, and we do, all along the eastern shore of Ironbound Island, which is just stunning. It seems I've paddled Ironbound's shore more in the late afternoon or evening, and I've come to think of it as a dark, somewhat forboding stretch of cliffy shoreline, but in the morning sunlight the cliffs are sunny and gorgeous, no less awe-inspiring, but maybe more John Singer Sargent or Childe Hassam (both who spent time on the island) than Winslow Homer. Our lunch on a cobble beach, soaking-in the sunshine was more akin to those impressionists as well, a feeling we carried with us all the way home.

Here's a story about the artists who once frequented Ironbound Island.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Porcupines

As usual, March weather didn't often inspire us to get out paddling. We did manage to get to the pool in Bar Harbor most Saturdays, and gradually improved our skills, which has been satisfying. Every Saturday we watched to see if we'd have good weather for a pre-pool paddle, but it was usually more conducive to a hike... perhaps even a hike through a department store (these off-island trips serve as our shopping expeditions as well). Yesterday looked good though, with temps well into the 40s and predicted winds that hardly materialized. We met Dick at the Bar in Bar Harbor, and set-out for the Porcupines.

I like to start a trip into the Porcupines by paddling along the shore of Bar Island, where mellower seas make it easy to acclimatize and start exploring coastal rocks with little concern for big waves or their consequences. We were there around high tide, which enabled us to paddle through and around rock stacks with a little tidal movement to keep things lively.

Rebecca was trying out the Delphin for the first time on the ocean-- it handles much differently from her Coho.

Sheep Porcupine Island presented us with similar conditions, but ahead at Burnt Porcupine Island we could see the swells were a bit larger. We scaled back our ambitions a bit, content to paddle a little further from shore.

After lunch on The Hop, we continued around Long Porcupine. By then, we focused more on getting back to the launch so we could get to the pool- questionable logic, since pool time is meant to give us better, safer time on the ocean, and I hated to hurry on such a day. But we enjoy the pool experience as well. It really was a gorgeous, warm day. Rebecca and Dick even opted to paddle without gloves, reminded every once in awhile when they dipped their fingers, how cold the water was (35-36 degrees on the nearest weather buoys).

The water temps didn't stop other paddlers from getting out though. As we loaded our boats and dealt with our piles of wet gear, a couple arrived and quickly launched in their kayaks wearing jeans, flannel shirts and no sprayskirts. As I've written my introductory chapters to the guidebook, I've sometimes felt like I'm hitting the safety note a bit too hard and too repetitious (how many times can you mention cold water?). But every once in awhile I'm reminded that there are plenty of people out there who need reminding. This is a dangerous time of the year, when warmer air lures people out who may not be prepared for the chilly water.

The good news though, is that the pool sessions have been hopping- over 10 boats in the pool yesterday, and not just those of us refining our backwards double-monty nailgun rolls with only half a paddle (one of my favorite rolls). There have also been several newer paddlers learning rescues, rolls and other fun stuff. Pool sessions will probably continue for a month or two, so if you want to brush-up or learn skills from an instructor, there's still time. Contact the MDI YMCA or Pinniped Kayak for more info.

On their blog, The Maine Island Trail Association included a short video of our October trip to Steves Island with Nate's family- the trip that inspired my article in AMC Outdoors Magazine.

Here's a video from this excursion.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Beaver Neck, Rhode Island

Nate is busy getting his new teaching & guiding company, Pinniped Kayak together. I joined him last week, picking-up some new boats in Rhode Island and Boston, and we managed to get some paddling in as well. Fortunately, our trip to The Kayak Centre, in Wickford, Rhode Island fell on a gorgeous, relatively warm and calm day, and the guys in the shop gave us some good advice about paddling locales. 

We headed down to Beaver Neck on Conanicut Island, where we launched from Mackerel Cove Beach. In summer, the beach is off-limits to kayakers due to swimmers (and lifeguards) but the other day we had it to ourselves. Gently-spilling waves rolled in slowly- the perfect opportunity to try out the Valley Gemini SPs. At under fifteen feet, these boats are well-suited to play, but are designed like scaled-down touring kayaks. They turn easily, track well, and are extremely lightweight.

After warming-up for awhile in the surf, we followed the shore out of the cove and the seas progressively grew. I think the forecast was for 1-2' seas, and they were perhaps a foot bigger -- just enough to turn into some much larger waves that broke onto the shore rocks. At the southern end of the neck, Beavertail Point has a reputation for rough seas. Here, the open ocean divides around the point, rising-up as it climbs the shallows.

One spot in particular, several hundred feet from shore, had caught our attention earlier when we scouted from the road. The three-foot seas rose abruptly, forming a monstrous wave at least three times higher (probably around ten feet) and then dumped as abruptly as it formed. You don't want to find yourself beneath this wave when it breaks. We watched it and determined that we could squeeze between it and where the waves began to break just off the point. We slipped through, but the rumble just behind us as the wave crested felt a bit spooky.

We moved in closer to the shore, observing areas that looked inviting until that one set of larger waves rolled in, illustrating the wisdom of watching before charging into something. It's a thrill just watching from the side; you can feel the expended energy as the waves pound into the rocks... and be glad that you're here rather than there.

We coasted into a tiny cove for lunch. Sometimes it feels like we go to a lot of trouble just to have lunch in such an idyllic spot.

The real fun came after lunch: smaller waves breaking just off the shore amid a playground of rocky passages and idyllic coves. Nate took his new boat into some tight spots and loved how it performed.

We wound our way around the north end of the neck and back to the launch (a carry-over to the beach). I'd hoped for another paddle the next day, after we picked up some P&H boats in Boston, but the weather was wet, miserable and foggy. Fortunately I'd stopped for an excursion in Plum Island Sound on the way down. Here's a glimpse from that day: (check it out here on Vimeo).

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Bartlett Island

On Saturday afternoons we’ve been going to the pool in Bar Harbor for practice. The tough part, often enough, is loading and unloading boats in the wind and cold and worrying about icy roads; we’re not usually tempted to go for a paddle outside. This time though, with temps in the thirties and not much wind, we decided to do both: ocean in the morning, pool in the afternoon. We launched at Bartlett Landing, on the northwest side of Mount Desert Island, and set-off around Bartlett Island at high tide.

I’d brought along the little point-of-view video camera, and we experimented with different set-ups as we made our way toward the south end of Bartlett Island. Ice coated much of the steep, shore-side granite, and at high tide we could cruise alongside, our progress a bit slowed by the desire for video.

I don’t bring the little video camera on every trip. The great thing about such a camera is that you can turn it on and it does the work while you continue paddling. Of course, after you’ve downloaded copious amounts of footage-- which takes time as well as storage space on the computer, you reign-in the shotgun approach and try to get footage that counts.

One of the reasons I paddle is that it puts me in the moment. Any kind of multi-tasking is a challenge to appreciating the moment: even thinking too much can be a form of multi-tasking, like wondering about how I might write about this, if I should blog about it. It takes you away, spreads your attention thin.  

Does shooting video make it more challenging to be present and attentive to the moment? You are essentially looking for little pieces of experience to save for later, an artifact to bring home, as if that is the object of your quest, rather than the quest being the reward in itself. But using the camera could actually make you focus more completely on the moment. Certainly, taking photos and video does slow me down sometimes when I might be apt to just go cruising-on. I slow down to consider how something looks and end up looking far more closely, thinking about it, appreciating it.

I’m not sure that doing something without cameras makes it a more pure endeavor, and I probably won’t find out any time soon, since I’m fairly addicted to image-making. The trend of posting on Facebook adds a whole other level to the question that I think I’d better stay away from for the moment, since we’ve got an island to get around here.

The real highlight of the trip was the ice: the tall icicles in Dogfish Cove, the long expanses of thin skim ice we plowed through along much of the western side. In the distance, seals climbed aboard an ice floe. Paddling through the ice was hard-going and a bit surreal: the constant crunching sound against our hulls, the paddles penetrating just enough to move forward, leaving alternating holes in our wake. I worried a little about breaking a paddle, and a little less about damaging hulls, but we made it through okay, finally taking a quick break on The Hub before hurrying, with the tide, back down Bartlett Narrows to the launch.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Knowing When To Fold

We had our boats packed, ready to go, but the precipitation had most certainly turned from snow into a messy mix of rain and cold wind-driven sleet that stung our cheeks. Rebecca wondered, “you think this is a good idea?”

            “But we’ve got our boats all packed,” I said. “All we have to do is launch.” Hearing myself, I realized she was right: it wasn’t a good idea.

We’d woken to see calm water stretching out to spruce-covered islands coated with snow like confectioner’s sugar. Though we had been out for a few paddles lately, we hadn’t had one that felt like paddling in a winter wonderland in quite awhile, and this appeared to be it. And it was warm- hovering right around freezing. The weather called for increasing winds in the afternoon, and more snow. If we were going to get out, it seemed prudent to get out early. 

We were a bit worn-out from our previous day’s pool session in Bar Harbor, but paddling seemed the best antidote to get all those muscles stretched out and working. So we ate a quick breakfast and got ready, which takes some time—an investment of time, you might say. So that by the time we had our gear together, drove over to the ramp and got the boats ready, it felt like we were ready to make the investment pay off. But then the precipitation began in earnest, and the wind picked-up, and suddenly it seemed not such a wise investment. Hearing myself say “but we’ve got our boats all packed,” was like hearing someone else in a safety article just before they put themselves in certain peril, and I knew the answer then, even if I wouldn’t admit it.

We talked it over for a minute or two. We could put on neoprene masks, we could just go to some of the nearby islands, or even just head down to Webb Cove and back. We had to remind ourselves that we were doing it for fun, not because we needed to, or to feel rugged (or to get pretty pictures for a blog post). We had thermal flasks full of hot cocoa and suddenly my mental picture changed, from taking a break on a snowy island, to sipping cocoa, warm and dry in the front room of our apartment, looking out at the storm, knowing we’d made the right choice. 

But it was still really hard to give up on the paddle and go home. And over the next hour as the weather changed three times, we went back and forth, deciding alternately that we’d made the right and wrong choice. I’m sure if we’d gone out, I would rationalize any discomfort and say it was well worth it. But you make your choices and stick with them. Sigh.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hardwood Island

A few days ago, we had another warm, calm day for January, and though we had plenty of work to keep us ashore, decided to get out for a bit. We launched by noon, which gave us over four hours before darkness. Despite the lack of wind, the remnants of previous days’ winds continued in the form of swell coming in from the southwest, hardly noticeable in the harbor, but gradually increasing as we made our way south. 

As we often do, we headed first to Steves Island. Rebecca checked things out on shore while I circled the island. It occurred to us that during the previous night it had hardly dropped below freezing, and it would have been comfortable enough weather to camp out. Off course, the nights are still long.

We headed across Merchant Row, and followed shorelines: Harbor, Merchant, Ewe, Hardwood. I had it in mind to stop on Ram Island for a break, but the seals had claimed it and were piled high on surrounding ledges. The south end of Hardwood Island, where we sometimes like to meander among the partially submerged boulders, was turning the moderate swell into some large breaking waves. We went around to the less active side and landed on the rockweed.

The south shore of Hardwood is sprinkled with good boulders upon which to perch, sip some hot cocoa and watch the waves come in. The sky began to cloud over, and though there was hardly any ice or show on shore to indicate the season, those icy clouds casting a halo around the sun have a distinct wintery look.

We followed Merchant Island's south shore, enjoying the gentle side to side wavy motion, with an occasionally bigger wave to keep it a little lively. By the time we reached the west end, with sunset imminent, we had to stop our dilly-dallying and head back.

The sunset saturated the sky over Penobscot Bay as we made our way below the bluffs on George Head, and across to Sand and Crotch Islands where the granite crane made a black profile against the pink sky. A couple of lobster boats came motoring along behind us. It had been a nice day and most of the boats had gone out, so there would be many more as it turned dark. We hurried across the Thorofare, back to the launch.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Scraggy Island Ledge

Sunday afternoon. We get our gear together and get down to the launch. The air is in the low 30s, sunny with not much wind. This time, we head west, along the shore of Crotch Island.

And on toward Mark and then Scraggy Islands. 

A few years ago, Todd and I paddled past Scraggy Island Ledge and came upon an amazing ice formation: a wave-like icy cornice that had frozen in place. Unfortunately, my camera battery had just run out. I've gravitated toward the ledge ever since, hoping to find something like it. It's always starkly gorgeous, but I've never seen ice like that again. Not a bad excuse to keep looking.

Rebecca tries to get me to play in some waves for the camera, but I remind her that it's mid-winter, and sunset is a half-hour away. The water feels... cold.

We head back, passing between Crotch and Sand Islands as the sun goes down. The lights of Stonington twinkle on as we slip between the Two Bush Islands, where only a thin scrap of the American Flag flaps from the pole.

Later, I remark that it's good to get out, but it's not enough to keep the paddling callouses on my hands, especially with the thick gloves. I'm looking forward to some longer trips, but for now, these excursions into the archipelago will do.