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.

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.