Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sea Camp, Cumberland Island

We sat in the sand at the top of the beach, staring out toward the sea, where crests of breaking waves formed white horizontal bands blending into the fog above. Behind us, dunes heaped inland, while to the north and south, the beach stretched for a hundred yards or so before disappearing into the fog. We each had our books, but sometimes just looked up and stared, not expecting anything really, but savoring the isolation.

We’d watched a group hike past, carrying backpacks, and a few beachcombers following the wrack line, heads bowed, but it felt like we were on our own island of sand and that just about anything might emerge from the fog. And then a dark shape appeared down at the water’s edge, finally morphing into three horses. As they neared, we could see that one was smaller: a foal on tall, spindly legs, accompanied by a pair of larger horses. They paused near us, gazing for what seemed a long moment, and continued walking down the beach.

We were at Sea Camp Beach on Cumberland Island, near the campground where we’d camped the previous night. As the crow flies, we were only about five miles from our home in St Marys, but it took a lot to get here.

We were fortunate to have a campground reservation, and managed to get away from work for a couple of days- which seemed in doubt when a large group expressed interest in a trip and then finally changed their mind.

We’d launched in St Marys and caught the outgoing current for the first three miles, arriving at Sea Camp dock in a little over two hours. We unpacked our boats and stashed them behind the ranger station before carting our gear the half-mile to our site.

The campsites at Sea Camp are cleared from an understory of palmettoes beneath a canopy of massive live oak branches, twisting circuitous routes toward the sunlight. Ours was backed against the dunes, beyond which rose the constant white roar of the sea- probably another quarter-mile distant. 

With a limit of 60 campers there at any time, and frequent groups, some campsites remain empty, and the dense palmettoes separate the sites enough that you’re in your own world. The feeling is quiet, subdued like the light that filters down through the canopy.

You get some picnic tables, a food storage cage atop a raccoon-resistant post, and not far away are bathrooms with cold showers, electricity and a compost bin. It isn’t easy kayak camping, with the long haul from the water, but once there, the campsite feels like a deluxe suite.

If it weren’t for the tide, I probably would have opted to head back earlier, taking the questionable stress-abatement approach of trying to get to more work done. Instead, we were on the tide’s schedule and it made more sense to spend a few hours sitting on the beach in the fog.

After the horses disappeared, we kept watching, as though waiting for the next surprise, but nothing came. Finally, we picked-up the shells we’d found, packed-up our books and snacks, and walked back across the island to our kayaks.

thanks to Rebecca Daugherty for most of these photos

Monday, February 23, 2015

Little Talbot Island

We got off the Interstate north of Jacksonville and meandered - along with the flow of shipping containers riding the backs of semi trucks - toward the sea, the nearby skyline dominated by a pair of massive, narrow-waisted concrete cylinders- cooling towers for a coal plant that supplies power to the city just across the river. Other than the dense cumulus overflowing from the stacks, the sky was mostly clear and blue, a perfect Saturday morning. Rebecca and I were on our way to a Meetup.

The road followed the St. Johns River, finally turning north just near the end, and here we turned-off at Huguenot Park, a large city park occupying the north shore of the river’s inlet. Here, a jetty extends far into the sea, providing a straight, deep channel for all manner of ships, including the Navy fleet just across the river. We knew we were in the right place when we saw a kayak atop a car, and a moment later, someone waving to us.

We got our boats and gear together on a beach beside a large tidal lagoon, and after meeting everyone, headed upstream on the rising tide. There were four others, all guys, probably my age or older, and they all seemed to know each other pretty well. This would be the first (and shortest) of 8 “day” trips ranging from 13 to 77 miles, and in addition to acquiring some local knowledge, we hoped to meet a few other paddlers.

As we followed the turns of Myrtle Creek, we talked about favorite places to paddle and learned a bit about our companions. One had paddled the east coast of Australia. Another was training for the upcoming Everglades Challenge, a 300 or so mile endurance race. He shot out ahead of the group and stayed there for the rest of the trip.

The creek narrowed, and after a bridge, began to oxbow into tight twists and turns through a salt marsh. On our right was Little Talbot Island. The plan, if conditions permitted, was to paddle around Little Talbot, and it looked like that’s what we would do. Andy, the trip’s planner, had gauged the tide well, and we were soon propelled northward by outgoing current in the widening creek. At the creek mouth, we took a break on a sand spit. Rebecca and I had been here on a couple of previous explorations; it was beginning to feel like we were getting the lay of the land.

--> After lunch we headed out around the north end of Little Talbot, propelled by outgoing current. At the mouth, the current hits the incoming swell, creating a an area where waves steepen. We’d taken Cody here to get a taste of surf, but now we moved through it and soon enough the rough water gave way to calm seas. The group was a bit spread-out by now, and the ones in front seemed to be making a beeline for the south end, far offshore. Seeming to read my mind, Andy suggested that the scenery was nice closer to shore and we began moving that way.

We mostly paddled just outside of the surf zone, and since no protocol about catching an occasional wave had been established… well, I caught a wave and rode it in. The wave crumbled and I turned and bongo-slid sideways in the foam pile most of the way to the beach- a fun ride. As I turned back toward the open ocean, I saw an upside-down kayak, and a rescue in progress. I bounced through a few waves on my way out and when I got there, clipped-in and towed the rescue to deeper water, out of the surf zone.

We stayed in deeper water for the remaining miles, until we found our way back in through Fort George Inlet. We paddled against the outgoing current for a short distance and saw someone familiar on the bridge- the racer-in-training who had disappeared ahead of us while the rescue was in progress. Soon we made it back to the beach where we had launched- still early afternoon, and Rebecca and I explored a bit more in the car before meandering home.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Wild Horses

Note: the saga of Sea Kayak Stonington continues... now in Saint Marys, Georgia - see previous post for details.

It was quiet at Knuckleheads, and by the looks of town, it would remain that way for awhile. I wanted to get out for a paddle, so I erased the day’s trips from the white board and penned-in some for the following day, updating the weather while I was at it. It looked like it would get windy for the rest of the week; we’d be lucky to get out paddling, let alone get any customers- all the more reason to get out for a paddle before the thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon arrived.
     I was almost out the door, but got pulled into business conversations: the upcoming fishing tournament, and even sooner- the Mardi Gras celebration, which would channel hundreds of people toward Knuckleheads and our trailer of kayaks beside the boat ramp. Finally I pulled away. I needed to go paddling, not only for my own pleasure and peace of mind, but because I would soon be guiding people on this route, and needed to understand it better. Rationalization? Maybe a little, but true.
     Back at home there were company emails and website to-dos, and even some gallery hassles with the credit card processor- the gallery was still costing me money and taking my time. We finally got on the road, but I was gritting my teeth.

An hour later, at the boat ramp in Fernandina Beach, the morning had turned to afternoon, and those scattered thunderstorms looked like they might be scattered on top of us. It began to rain as we prepared our kayaks on the beach, and we sat in the car, checking our iPhones to gauge the threat, wondering if the brighter patches on the radar might be heavy rain or thunderheads. We decided to get on the water and take it from there.
      A couple of tugboats juggled some barges with a crane and other machinery around the mouth of the Amelia River, and behind us, back in Fernandina Beach, the paper mill let-off a blast of steam, and we paused to make sure it wasn’t thunder. You have to give the town credit for turning itself into an upscale tourist destination when these massive paper mills line a long stretch of the river. Maybe some industry around is just part of the charm, even when you’re downwind. Stonington has the stink of bait, and some claim to like it.
     We let the current help us out of the Amelia and into Cumberland Island Sound, where the Saint Marys River joins the others and they all meet the ocean. The ebbing current was increasing, so we lined-up some markers and followed a range across, increasing our ferry angle toward the middle, finally letting the current take us a bit as we pointed into a sandy, muddy cove on Cumberland Island and found our way into a small creek. A couple hours after high tide, the creek was quickly draining, with sharp oyster beds blocking part of the entrance, but we wound our way through it, against the current until we paused in the shallow water in a vast, muddy flat.

Ahead, horses grazed in the grassy mudflats where the creek tapered. We approached cautiously- the horses are wild, but we weren’t sure how they might tolerate our presence. One looked up, gazed at us for a long moment, its wet flanks glistening in the rain, and returned to grazing. The spartina- grasses that grow in these tidal flats- was mostly munched-down to mud level, but the horses kept their noses down, constantly munching. We moved a little closer and the creek turned increasingly shallow. The horses tracked our movement, but didn’t seem too concerned.

You hear varying theories on the origins of the horses, but some are probably descended from the herd belonging to British who occupied the island in the early 1700s. When the Spanish attacked Fort Andrews in 1742, they found a corral of horses and reported to have shot them all, but it is surmised that some escaped. Island inhabitants have since released other horses on the island, to improve the breeding stock.

We watched a group of eight horses for awhile as the water beneath us ebbed away. The white one came the closest, but also seemed the most leery of our actions, looking up each time we raised a paddle to push ourselves off the mud. Surprisingly, they were not so graceful in the mud, sinking deeply, but not seeming to mind if it brought them closer to the chomped-down grasses. Finally, we turned and floated out of the creek. 

We went a little further up the shore, pausing at a beach for a break, and on up to the entrance of Beach Creek, where we turned around and caught a strong current back across the sound.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Saint Marys, Georgia

It's been more than two weeks now since we tied our kayaks to the roof of our car in Stonington with sub-zero temps numbing our fingertips. Afterward we joined a couple of other subdued diners at the Harbor Cafe for our last dinner in Stonington. We'd been trying to get on the road for a week, but since it was so cold, we decided to spend one last night sleeping on the fold-out futon in our now-empty, now-former apartment. The car was packed: two Delphins and the Cetus on the roof, paddling and camping gear making a solid wall of duffels in the back, with the middle seat crammed with whatever clothing, household odds and ends and art supplies we could fit. Just before dawn, with sea smoke drifting over the harbor, Rebecca positioned herself in the passenger seat with one last garbage bag full of clothing donations to drop-off in Blue Hill... and we were launched on our new journey.

There were stops along the way: coffee at the Blue Hill Coop, and breakfast at Nate's, sitting beside the woodstove with sea smoke still lingering over the Union River, just down the hill. Then it was all-out "lets get south" driving until late that night, when we stopped in Virginia, where our friend Ron was house-sitting. It wasn't enough south; in the morning, the trees were coated with ice, lit with brilliant sunshine.

After another twelve hours of driving, we made it to Georgia on a cool, rainy night. When you get off the highway in Kingsland, Route 40 is a gauntlet of big box stores and strip malls stretching most of the way to Saint Marys, but then the road narrows and takes a turn into the older part of town. First we drove down to the harbor and took a look out over the dark river flowing past. About half a mile inland, we found the house that the company had rented and would become our new home- a humble place to be sure, but the porch light was on for us, and the plastic Adirondack chair on the porch felt welcoming. We unloaded the car, spread our camping pads and sleeping bags on the floor and slept, hardly waking when Ryan and Sarah arrived from Chicago hours later.

In the morning we made introductions- it was our first meeting with Sarah, but we'd met Ryan at some paddling events. We'd had a lot of emails and conference calls with them, getting on the same page, planning how we would do this. Although they were starting the business and are the principal partners, they would be here for only a few days, leaving a pile of gear and a trailer of kayaks. A van rumbled up and we met Cody, our intern, finishing his degree at Western Illinois University. Later that day, after a lot of errands and running around, we launched our kayaks (our first paddle as Sea Surf & SUP) near Fort Clinch on Amelia Island, but we didn't get far before a procession of military boats and ships came down the river, escorting a submarine. A Coast Guard Patrol boat arrived and ordered us off the water, so we watched the sub pass from shore- we didn't mind; this was something new, to be sure.

Over the next couple of days we kept busy checking-out places to paddle, meeting people and just generally finding our way around.

Ryan and Sarah went back to Chicago.

We had a day-off to catch our breath. It felt like we'd had few such days since last summer. Our time over the previous months had been focused on my finishing my guidebook and guiding the gallery toward its final days as we looked toward our next step. Our life in Stonington was fairly public, and every day people asked us what was next and seemed to not believe us when we answered that we didn't know.

We had certainly considered Stonington our home, but we waited to see what opportunities arose as we prepared for the possibility that we would need to move out of the apartment and go someplace new. Over nearly a dozen years in our apartment, we'd become dug-in. The gallery had been our public, thousand square-foot living room... sort-of a fantasy of how we might like to live, surrounded by art with a view to the harbor. But upstairs our small, poorly-arranged apartment was packed to the gills, a third of it dedicated to Rebecca's work space for painting, and at its core, a couple of well-worn couches with a coffee table and television where we retreated at the end of the day. We had a series of yard sales and I sold books on ebay. We gave a lot away, carloads of books to the library, carloads of clothing and other stuff to the donation places. In a way, I mused, getting out on the water in a kayak was an escape from all this stuff. You just take what you need and your mind focuses on your natural surroundings. We watched a lot of good kayaking days go by, just dealing with stuff.

It was a difficult time. We had our last show in the gallery and closed by mid-December. By then we knew we were headed to Georgia. We focused on moving out of the apartment, carefully filling a nearby storage space. By Christmas we had terrible colds, and then a strain of flu that had been going around. We each spent our requisite high-fever days on the couch, staring at the piles of stuff around us that needed to go somewhere. Rebecca still managed a couple of Saturday afternoons at the Bar Harbor pool. Facebook friends posted photos from wintery excursions, but the thought of getting out for a paddle seemed a distant luxury. And all the while we looked around at Stonington, savoring our exchanges with friends, already nostalgic for the life we had there, because it was over. In those last days, friends really came through, taking away stuff that we didn't know what to do with, bringing us food, even lending us a home on the water where we stayed after the apartment was in total disarray.

Finally came that evening with the apartment emptied, car packed, and we tied the boats to the roof of our car. Only a few days later, we were here in our new home in Saint Marys, Georgia.

We have much to learn here, much to do. By Georgia standards, it isn't terribly warm yet, so our real season is yet to begin. This gives us time to explore, a process much like researching a guidebook, except that I'm seldom alone. In addition to instruction, we'll have a handful of trips to offer, so we've been trying them out in different conditions with different tides. We've been trying alternate trips- Plan B trips for windy days or trips for kids. We've been discovering the great variety of paddling we have within an hour's drive: marshy creeks, swampy brackish creeks, and sandy, surf-pounded beaches.

Cumberland Island is the big attraction. About five or six miles down-river from Saint Marys, this 18-mile-long barrier island is home to Cumberland Island National Seashore, as well as several private enclaves. There's sandy beaches on the outside, marsh and creeks on the sheltered side, and in the middle, plenty of history, feral horses and gorgeous walking trails overhung with live oak and spanish moss.

Or you could just paddle out there to hang-out beneath a palm tree.

The tides are a huge factor here, and they dictate what you can or can't do.

I've loved discovering some of the smaller creeks through the marshes. One day, as we prepared to enter an inauspicious opening in the marsh, right beside a public park in Saint Marys, a local woman we'd already met shouted to us that it didn't go anywhere. Of course I'd already checked-out the satellite maps (you can't rely on charts). We told her we just wanted to explore, and of course we found our way through (at high tide) to another creek, that brought us- well, to another creek. Last night I paddled solo through the same creek in the moonlight. That was after I mistakenly went down a couple of other passages that didn't, as the woman said, go anywhere.

In addition to the paddling, there's been much to learn, business-wise. Cody arrives each day and we delve into the mysteries of spreadsheets and marketing. I'm still resisting Twitter, but my resistance is fading. Rebecca and I have taken the plunge and joined most of humanity with new iPhones - these didn't make much sense in Stonington, but now they're indispensable- even as a navigation tool.

So... it's a new chapter. In December, I chatted with a reader of this blog (an extremely accomplished, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist by whom I feel humbled and am amazed that he's interested in my words about kayaking) who pondered whether this was the end of Sea Kayak Stonington. I replied that it wouldn't be, at least at first, since I could still easily end up paddling as much in Maine as I have in the past- just not constantly. We'll see. For now I'm overwhelmed with all there is to see and learn here, and I'll share it when I can.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Otter Point

Nate Hanson photo
Life had been a little stressful lately. In addition to getting our final show together in the gallery, we were preparing to move. Our apartment was a minefield of piles: keep this, yard-sale that, maybe, don't know, etc. We were ready to get out, and Nate, having just returned from several weeks in Washington DC, essentially homeschooling the kids at museums, was ready for a break as well. Monday, the first day of December had a warm-ish forecast, up to 50 degrees, but with a bit of wind and rather big seas. It seemed like a good idea to get out and play before the water turned too cold.

Nate Hanson photo
We briefly considered the six-hour round trip to Popham Beach, but settled instead on the south end of Mount Desert Island, launching at Otter Cove where we found waves breaking over a ledge- plenty of gentle three to four-footers- and rode them again and again. We could hardly believe our luck- these were great waves, and some of them took us for long rides where we could think about what we were doing and try to improve technique.

After lunch though, we tore ourselves away and paddled over to Otter Point, where big swells came rolling in. At first it looked a bit imposing, like we might not find anywhere close to shore where we could play. Then Nate suggested we try out the water behind a big rock. The swells would come in and smash against the rock, expending most of their energy before seeping into the cauldron behind it. All we had to do was watch for the big ones and hang-on.

The sun shone brightly, lighting up the foam like snow. I was struck by how beautiful it was- the massive green waves that appeared on the horizon and exploded just beyond the ledge, reaching around and over the rocks with bouncy piles of water and foam. I managed to hang on to my camera and get a few shots as the waves knocked us around.

I posted a few shots on Facebook and they received some "not for me" comments... which is correct. This isn't a spot for everyone. It might not be very enjoyable if you don't have good bracing skills, a dependable combat roll and the ability to perform creative rescues. And of course we'd just spent the morning surfing, and were primed for some bumpy water. We took a careful look before going in, watching to see what happened when the biggest sets rolled-in.

But in reality, we mostly just hung-on and enjoyed it. Despite the big appearance, it was a relatively safe spot with low consequences and easy-enough escape routes.

We continued around the point, looking for fun spots, and the adrenaline, or perhaps lunch began to wear off. The surfing alone is enough to take it out of you, and we hadn't been paddling much lately.

As the late afternoon light  began lighting the hills we paddled past Otter Cliffs and found a few more features. The swell was smaller on the east side.

But plenty big for some fun.

We finally decided we'd had it and turned around, heading back toward the launch. The tide had changed just enough that it felt like an entirely different stretch of coast.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Waves & Currents

About a month ago, Pinniped Kayak hosted a two-day instructional event: Halloween at Sullivan Falls with the next day reserved for "rough water" or rocks and ledges, wherever that might take us. We had ten or twelve people each day, most of whom had traveled far- from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island- as well as our crew of College of the Atlantic students for the second day- and were ready to get wet, despite chilly temperatures and strong winds. Nate and I had our hands full, but with Barb and Rebecca assisting the first day and Peter Brady the second, the coach/student ratio remained entirely manageable.

Much of what we do, be it rough water or flat, comes back to the fundamentals- core principals that contribute to safe and effective paddling. It may be easier to learn those fundamentals in fairly flat water, on a day devoted to stroke refinement and rescues, but at some point we bump it up a notch, get into some spots that get our adrenaline running, and see how it all works, preferably with a knowledgeable coach nearby who can help you figure it all out- and keep you from getting thrashed too badly.

We had good conditions to put all of our skills into perspective. In fact, on the second day, when the forecast called for thirty-knot gusts and six-foot seas , we worried that the conditions might, in the words of Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins, put "too much f_ing perspective" on things. Since the wind had been out of the north, we opted for the relatively sheltered south end of Mount Desert Island, launching from Seal Harbor. We spent the morning working on boat handling in big seas until a few students developed seasickness and had to be towed-in... which was convenient, since that was on the agenda anyway. In the afternoon, we found smaller conditions where we could manage some play time around the rocks and on some beautiful waves.

It was a great finale to Pinniped's first season.

November is often not such a great paddling month for us. The weather changes, and it seems other stuff tends to come up. This November has been particularly charged with "other stuff," but sometimes that's a good time to remember particular paddling experiences as I did in my article: Zero Day: Time Out on Florida's Molasses Key, which appeared recently on the Canoe & Kayak Magazine website.

The other stuff? To make a long story short, after nearly twelve years here, we're closing the gallery and moving-out of our home here in Stonington (a small apartment above the gallery). So lately we've been consumed with going through our stuff and getting together the final show in the gallery. We've watched a few nice days go by when we would have liked to get out for a paddle, but our priorities were elsewhere.

What's next? Without the gallery, our personal priorities stand-out in sharper focus: painting, writing and paddling. We'll probably be here in Stonington until the end of December. After that we're heading down to Saint Marys, Georgia, where we will guide and teach for a new paddling outfit called Sea Surf & SUP. Our vague plan is to head back to this area in May and continue teaching for Pinniped through the summer. In the meantime, my book AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England should hit the shelves in April. According to Amazon, it's a "#1 New Release," which I think means that my sister pre-ordered it.

Someone recently suggested that maybe this spelled the end of Sea Kayak Stonington, but I think it is just a new beginning. I'm guessing that next summer I'll spend at least as much time paddling in the Stonington archipelago as I did last summer when I spent most of my paddling time in southern New England, while simultaneously running the gallery and writing a book. Closing the gallery is certainly bittersweet. It's sad as so many people stop by or write us to express sorrow that we will no longer be a presence here on Main Street. There has been much about the business that I have loved, but it also feels like a heavy weight removed from my shoulders. We're heading down the road without much security, but our step is lighter.