Saturday, July 12, 2014

Cape Ann on a Calm Day

After Cape Ann kicked my butt back in April, I knew I had to return and see what it was like to circle the peninsula on a calmer day. On that April trip, I learned a great respect for the area’s potential to develop nasty conditions, but while I focused on staying upright, I missed some of the near-shore subtleties. This time I spent a couple of days paddling shorter routes, getting a closer look at the nooks and crannies of the Annisquam, Gloucester Harbor and Castle Neck, and I set my sights on Thursday, which looked like the calmest day of the week. I started the morning by driving out along the southeast shore to scout the conditions; while waves beat against the shore rocks, the seas were generally calm. The pair of lighthouses on Thacher Island beckoned.

I launched on the Annisquam River at high tide and the current quickly increased as I made my way toward Gloucester Harbor. On my last trip around the peninsula, I’d paddled clockwise, and thought I’d like to try it counter-clockwise this time. One advantage of this was that I’d be paddling the waters I’d just scouted only a couple of hours after I’d seen them, and I’d get that southeast shore out of the way early. I exited the Blynman canal less than an hour after high tide and already a small wave train had begun to develop where the current shot into Gloucester Harbor. 

The current gave me a nice push; even after a quick break on Ten Pound Island (no bathrooms at Long Wharf Landing) and dodging a regatta of youngsters in sailing prams, I made it out to the end of Dog Bar jetty- about five nautical miles from the start- in a little over an hour.

Fishermen perched at intervals along the jetty, casting into the sheltered side, while others strolled, enjoying the sunshine and the mild breeze off the ocean. To the southwest, the skyscrapers of Boston poked above the horizon in the growing haze. A mild swell carried me up and down as I followed the breakwater toward the lighthouse and I couldn’t help but compare this to my last trip around Cape Ann, when I’d arrived here going the opposite direction. Then, I’d been focusing on reaching the breakwater for the last two and a half hours as I’d struggled through rough and confused seas all the way from Thacher Island. I’d paddled a dozen or so miles before I’d left Thacher, and my weariness, along with the splash of forty-degree water and gusting winds turned a fun paddle into an ordeal frought with uncertainty, tossed by the constant mogul-field wobble of waves pushing from different directions, and occasionally, a fat wave rising before me that just grew and grew.

But that was back in April, and those seas bore little resemblance to this calmer, sunnier version of Cape Ann. Brightly-colored specks of sunbathers dotted the sand on Good Harbor Beach, where a light salty mist hung in the air amid the din of children playing in the surf. I paused behind Salt Island and set my sights on the two towers of Thacher Island. It’s convenient that instead of building one granite lighthouse tower rising 166 feet above sea level, they built two; even the least confident navigators should know which way to point. But the twin towers were deemed necessary back in 1771 when they were first built, due to rough seas and nearby ledges that were the cause of numerous shipwrecks.

A father-daughter team of caretakers greeted me. They maintain the grounds and the north tower, which is now a private navigation aid, maintained by the Town of Rockport and the Thacher Island Association. At that moment, I was the only visitor and we chatted for a bit while they rigged lobster traps. I gave a quick lesson on tying the bowline, glad to have something to offer, and they told me that some days, especially in August, there’s so many kayakers visiting that they run out of places to stack the boats.

I took a quick walk around, checking-out the camping area, following the railway that carried fuel between the houses, and made my way to the north light, which was guarded by numerous seagulls and their young. I climbed the iron spiral staircase up to the top, and very carefully stepped out onto the catwalk. Nice view up there. I forgot to look for Boston, but the horizon had turned a bit hazy by then.

I continued north, around Straitsmouth Island and across Sandy Bay toward Halibut Point. By then I’d gone more than half-way and had started thinking of the long drive home. The seas had turned from mildly bouncy to almost flat-calm and the last few miles went past quickly as the tide turned and began flooding back into the Annisquam, giving me a mild push. On the west side, swimmers and sunbathers crowded Wingaersheek Beach, strolling far out upon a sandbar that made them appear to be walking along the water surface. Further west rose the dunes near Crane Beach, where I’d paddled the previous day, and it felt satisfying, the way the pieces of the puzzle come together. I made my way back to the launch, loaded-up and drove home.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

No Place Like Home

I was at a potluck (we have a lot of those around here) and someone asked me if I was still paddling every day- either before work in the morning or in the evening. I answered “no” pretty quickly, and said all the paddling I was doing was basically work- mostly research for the guidebook. At the time, I was rushing to finish a deadline (I’m working on AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England for Appalachian Mountain Club Books). The potluck came after a long day of writing and gallery work (missing another nice day of paddling) which came after a research trip, where I’d paddled every day, all day, sometimes multiple trips a day with a drive in-between.

Yes, paddling is fun and writing is usually sort-of fun, but it can certainly get to be work, especially when you do a lot of it. But as soon as I answered, a bit grumbly, that no, I hadn’t been taking those short one to two-hour before or after-work excursions, it made me remember those wonderful little trips into my own backyard, the Stonington archipelago, and I realized I’d been a fool to miss-out on the beautiful early summer mornings, or those evenings when the twilight lingers well after the sunset reddens the clouds over the Camden Hills.

As Rebecca and I drove home, I mentioned the conversation and she suggested we go for a paddle first thing in the morning. “But my deadline,” I said. It was only a day or two away, and as soon as it was done I’d be leaving again. Somehow we rationalized it, and in the morning launched at a decent enough hour. We headed straight out, and soon enough were approaching Steves Island.  

Over the past couple of months I’ve been paddling along Cape Cod, off Martha’s Vineyard and along the rocky southern edge of Narragansett Bay. I’ve paddled within sight of the Manhattan skyline and beneath the skyscrapers in Boston as well as along the North Shore, and every time I return home, I’m reminded why we live here. If I’m driving in daylight, I get that first brief glimpse just outside of Belfast where Route 3 crests a hilltop and Penobscot Bay appears spread out into the distance. Then at Caterpillar Hill you can pull-off and really have a look: the bridge arches over to Little Deer Isle and beyond rises the hilly shape of Isle au Haut, while the Great Spruce Head archipelago stretches out toward the Fox Islands and the three blinking red lights atop the wind generators on Vinalhaven (since by now it will undoubtedly be dark enough). There’s so many islands it’s hard to tell where the ocean begins.

But approaching Steves Island completes the picture. The treetops slope downward to the west, pruned by the prevailing winds, and the granite ledges reach out like welcoming arms, guiding you in to a sandy pocket beach between them. We walked the perimeter of the island, picking up the few odds and ends that had accumulated since the MITA clean-up a week earlier, and marveled at the solid feel of granite beneath our feet and the crisp, spruce-scented air.

It felt good to be home.

Here are a few snapshots from some of the places I've paddled lately:

 Gay Head Cliffs, Martha's Vineyard.

 Washburn Island, Waquoit Bay, Massachusetts.

 North Monomoy Island, south of Cape Cod.


Nauset Marsh.


 South Monomoy Island.

 Sandy Neck, Barnstable.

Wreck Island clean-up.

Thimble Islands, Connecticut.

Falkner Island, Connecticut.

Norwalk Islands, Connecticut.

Fishers Island Sound, Connecticut, New York & Rhode Island.  A RICKA club excursion.

Boston Outer Islands.

And then last week, I returned home to re-hang the gallery, and instead Rebecca and I joined our friends over at Sullivan Falls- a smaller day there, but the current and waves were perfect for plenty of easy surfing. We paid for it by re-hanging the gallery in the wee hours that night and into the next day- but it was well worth it.

It's been a great experience so far- some of it a bit lonely (there's too many shots of my lone kayak on beaches) some of it among new friends and a few old friends. The days have been long, stretching into the evenings as I work on notes in the campsite and ponder my next day's route by headlamp as I struggle to stay awake. And today, as I sat here in the gallery, a group of boisterous paddlers from Massachusetts came in and reminded me of how much paddling there is out there to discover. I can only get to a fraction of it, but I'm trying to make it the best fraction I can.

Monday, May 26, 2014

May Snapshots Volume II

Horseneck Beach, Massachusetts. I camped here for a couple of nights while I took trips in both branches of the Westport River and explored Newport. You can park and camp just above the beach at the State Park campground.

Newport, again. This time I launched from Third Beach, on the Sakonnet River side and paddled to Lands End, connecting the dots from previous trips. Played in some surf as I made my way along Second Beach. Backed into Purgatory Chasm, a deep cleft in the rocky shore (video here) and made my way around Easton Point and Easton Beach to the Cliff Walk. There are lots of large houses in Newport.

On my way home I stopped in Salem and camped at Winter Island, where the fog came in in the evening and hung over Salem Sound the next morning. I followed the Beverly shore out to Manchester where I saw plenty more big houses. Not as big as the ones in Newport, but it looks as if people actually live in these, at least some of the time. The Greek temple above appears to be someone's beach cabana.

From Manchester Harbor I made my way out to Great Misery Island for lunch. I was hoping the fog might lift so I could follow the mid-sound islands back to Marblehead and Salem, but it remained as dense as ever until I was about half-way back along the shore route.

Back home with Pinniped's Leadership and Guide class, we went out for a couple days in the archipelago, camping in a favorite spot. It was good to be home.

May Snapshots, Volume I

In the three weeks since the last paddling excursion I wrote about here, I've managed to get-in plenty of paddling, mostly in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. I've been too busy paddling (and driving) to spend much time writing much more than copious notes and plans for the next trip. And yet I really love those days I get to spend writing about it as well.  I've also been helping Nate teach Pinniped's Leadership & Guide Training class at Old Quarry, and today I'm feeling a bit worn-out, beat-up and waterlogged.

Several excursions could have easily warranted a blog post, but for now I'll have to settle for a few snapshots of highlights.

Hingham Harbor. On our way down to Osprey Sea Kayak in Westport, MA, where Rebecca would be taking an Instructor Development Workshop, we stopped just south of Boston for a paddle in Hingham Harbor. We paddled to the public islands, checked-out the sights and campsites, and returned to the beach to witness a bunch of high school girls doing "polar plunges"- dips in the ocean usually lasting about half a second. The plunges were well-documented on phones, and afterward the girls warmed-up in cars, each attentive to the little screens on their hand-held devices.

Newport. For four days while Rebecca took her class, I went off on my own to explore. In Newport I launched at Fort Adams, following the shore south past Ocean Drive to Land's End and back. Then I went out to check out the Rose Island Lighthouse (above- I always seem to get those "flag fully extended" winds) and back around Goat Island in Newport Harbor. At the Goat Island Bridge, fishermen lined the railings almost shoulder to shoulder, casting lines and continuously hauling-in squid. The fishermen were strangely quiet, with only the sound of reels and squid expelling water as they were hoisted up. 

Jamestown Island, Rhode Island. When I see a big island on the chart, my mind inevitably veers into planning circumnavigations. I went all the way around Jamestown (AKA Conanicut Island) to discover that the southern end is a good deal more exciting and lively than the northern end. Fun paddle, but tiring. Here's a few moments of that trip on video.

Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island. Swells rolling into the mouth of the Sakonnet River squeeze through a sieve of rocky domes and ledges, creating fun play spots. Paddling solo, I maneuvered cautiously among the islands which were thick with nesting seabirds. The islands and Sakonnet Point Lighthouse are easily recognizable from far-off, with three stone columns on West Island marking the site of the The West Island Club. The club was a haven for wealthy sportfishermen in the late 1800s and was finally washed away in the hurricane of 1938.

Fort Wetherill, Jamestown. I joined a group of paddlers on a Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association (RICKA) trip that met on Saturday morning. This trip ventured into lively and sometimes large conditions for a bit of rock play among the cliffy stretches of Jamestown.  I often found myself paddling near the appointed leader, hanging-back from much of the group, which seemed almost indifferent to the probability of larger swells turning the impact zone into chaos. A few mishaps ensued, but were followed by efficient rescues. After paddling alone so much, I was grateful to be included, and had a great time paddling with this group. They assured me that their trips didn't usually result in so much carnage. Check-out the video here.

Marion, Massachusetts. As we meandered home, we launched in Marion for a paddle in Buzzard's Bay. The shoreline is mostly residential and Bird Island- the only public access destination- is off-limits much of the time due to bird nesting, but we had a nice lunch on a ledge in Aucoot Cove.

Then as we drove home, feeling a bit worn-out and sleepy, it seemed that a bit of surfing at Popham Beach might be a good eye-opener. It was near the end of the day, so we hurried down to the beach and got in a bunch of good rides in less than an hour. Plenty of adrenaline to get us the rest of the way home.

But it was good to get home. A few days later we taught a pool session in Bar Harbor and took a spin out around the Porcupines- about the calmest day we've had there for awhile, which made for some enjoyable near-shore paddling (or like the photo above - "in" shore paddling).

Monday, May 5, 2014

Boston Harbor

Last year I joined a sea kayaking Meetup group, but I wasn't able to get to any of their trips, most of which take place a good bit south of here. Last week I got a message that one member was organizing a trip in Boston Harbor. I was planning on being in the area, so, along with a few other tentative paddlers, I pressed the "accept invitation" button. By the time I met Matt, the organizer, at City Point in Boston, we were down to two paddlers.

Two paddlers is probably my favorite group size anyway (my other favorites are one and three). I guess it depends on who that paddler is, but Matt and I quickly found some common ground and we  established what we had for safety gear and how to manage our "group." Matt is originally from Boston, and he'd recently moved back east from San Francisco where he'd developed his paddling skills, and was now busy re-discovering his former backyard. It was an excellent chance for me to get shown around by someone with a lot of knowledge of the area.

I'd arrived a bit early and took a walk around Pleasure Bay, among countless others out for their Saturday morning exercise. Being in Boston is a bit overwhelming for me: a different sort of sensory overload than I experience in less-developed places. Jets from Logan rumbled into the sky every few minutes, and everywhere the air just hums with the coalesced background drumming of the city. I started my walk feeling obviously out of place, and finished, almost an hour later, feeling like I'd found a new favorite place. That feeling continued after we launched and made our way out among the islands.

We passed the green slopes of Spectacle Island, which was used as the dumping ground for fill from the Big Dig, and is now a park and the highest point in the harbor. To the north, the wastewater treatment plant on Deer Island looked about as industrial as it gets, with its huge weird orbs and wind turbines. A tanker lay at anchor just off of the plant. We kept a sharp eye out for boat traffic, especially the high-speed ferries, but there wasn't much- one advantage of being here early in the season.

We stopped for lunch on Great Brewster Island, where we made our way to the top of an eroding bluff for a spectacular view of the harbor and the city beyond. The other paddlers who'd opted not to join us had joined a different group that left from Hull (a shorter trip to the same area) and we kept an eye out for them. After we ate, we spotted their kayaks on nearby Calf Island, and we went to say hello. I'd met a couple of the other paddlers before, and we chatted for a few moments as the others paddled away.

We made our way out to The Graves, a group of ledges where a tall lighthouse guards the entrance to Boston Harbor, and began our trek back.

There's so much to see in Boston Harbor: lighthouses, the ruins of old fortifications and places with layers upon layers of history. We made a big loop that gave us a bit of everything- the perfect introduction to Boston Harbor, but I can imagine shorter trips with more time to investigate on shore.

We rounded Little Brewster Island, where Boston Harbor Lighthouse marks the entrance to Nantasket Roads. We waved to the lightkeeper, who stood in the doorway of the house; I think that's the first manned lighthouse I've paddled past, and I felt a little regret that we didn't have time to stop. By now though, the day was waning and whatever current that ran against us was taking its toll. Over on Deer Island, brilliant end of the day light lit the wastewater treatment plant vividly. The last miles went slowly, and it felt good to get back to the car.

We got out of our gear and packed up, and some people asked us about our trip (no one seemed shy) but the comings and goings at City Point continued. A woman parked her BMW and put on her Rollerblades, and a guy whined past on a stripped-down moped. A group of corporate co-workers on a team-building exercise were marched past in formation, carrying logs and grunting. A couple former Special Forces guys handed-out business cards to anyone who seemed interested or curious, explaining, "we basically beat the crap out of 'em" before asking Matt if he knew the water temperature (41) since they were soon marched into the chilly water of Pleasure Bay. Saturday night in Boston was well underway

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Cape Ann

Cape Ann, Massachusetts is one of those places that no New England paddling guidebook could ignore. A peninsula jutting well into the Atlantic from the North Shore, paddlers are drawn to its bold shoreline, as well as its harbors and islands. But the fact that the Annisquam River and the Blynman Canal essentially turn the Cape into an island raises the challenge of a circumnavigation. That's how my mind works anyway. When I plan routes, a "there and back" route looks okay, but when the thought of a circumnavigation lodges itself in my imagination, I start obsessing over the possibilities.

In addition, Cape Ann is the site of the Blackburn Challenge, an annual paddle and oar-powered race around the Cape, commemorating Howard Blackburn, a Gloucester dory fisherman who, in 1883, became separated from his schooner in a squall and rowed for five days to save himself. His dorymate died, but Blackburn persisted, despite freezing his hands to the oars, losing most of his fingers. Blackburn went on to set transatlantic sailing records and became known as "The Fingerless Navigator." Appropriately, the race, spanning 17 to more than 20 nautical miles, depending on your route choices, is known for difficult conditions, resulting in numerous capsizes.

Emboldened by my previous day's circumnavigation of Plum Island, I headed for Gloucester and launched in the Annisquam River for a trip around Cape Ann. The tidal circumstances were close to those of the race, with a mid-morning max ebb moving north through the Annisquam. I launched a bit after max ebb, winding the first 3.5 nautical miles through the tidal river, arriving at the Annisquam Harbor Lighthouse in under an hour- still a good bit behind the pace of racers... but I was here to do some sightseeing.

Plum Island dunes on the previous day

The northwest side of the Cape gave me calm water and sunny skies. I could see the dunes of Plum Island stretching northward, and I felt a satisfying sense of connecting the dots. I knew Isles of Shoals were out there somewhere-- I'd gazed out at the flashing lighthouse from Salisbury State Reservation, where I'd camped the past couple of nights, and last fall I'd gazed southward from the islands at the wind generators rising above Cape Ann, but from kayak height I saw only featureless ocean. On shore, big, pricey homes stood shoulder to shoulder. At the north end, people clustered among the rocks at Halibut State Reservation, and though it looked nice there, as usual, I felt glad to be the one on the water.

Just after Halibut Point, I gradually became more exposed to the south/southwest wind. I rounded Andrews Point and could see Sandy Bay stretched out ahead, with the breakwater and Straitsmouth Island marking the other side, and beyond, the two lighthouses on Thacher Island, where I hoped to stop for lunch. I'd had no specific plans about going to the head of Sandy Bay to check-out Rockport, but since the bay was corrugated with small, closely-spaced waves, I chose the path of least resistance and headed for Rockport. Still, it was a slog, paddling against the wind, which should have been a clue about what I faced on the southeast side of Cape Ann.

While heading in to Rockport added some distance, I had a chance to see a little of the town, and it gave me a chance to paddle in the lee as I made my way to Straitsmouth Island- a needed break. I ate a Clif Bar and tried to mentally prepare myself for the next stretch, which I expected might be a bit rougher. I passed through Straitsmouth Gap and focused on Thacher Island, about a mile and a half distant. The island is unmistakeable, due to the pair of tall lighthouses. By Straitsmouth Gap, I'd been in my boat about three hours and had paddled about 10 nautical miles. All that way I'd imagined myself having lunch on this neat island with the two lighthouses, and though I could tell that the this side of the Cape would be far more exposed to the wind and swell, I hadn't envisioned any backup plans. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone back and had lunch on the beach in Rockport and retraced my route back around the northwest shore.

Instead, I kept the bow stubbornly pointed to those twin lighthouses as the wind increased and the swells grew taller. At first I attributed the rough conditions to increased current at Straitsmouth Gap, but it should have been quickly obvious that this was part of a bigger pattern, and would only get worse. So, though I was paddling alone in what were still essentially winter conditions, I let destination fever get the better of me, and I was no longer protected by my usual risk management standards. 

Still, it was easy enough to ride over the waves, grit my teeth into the wind, and eventually I made it to Thacher Island. Again, this was an opportunity to make the safer choice and head back the way I came. I considered the conditions as I ate lunch, looking out at the backs of waves, which didn't look so bad. To the southwest, the shores of Cape Ann were ringed in white seas, but somehow I was able to rationalize it and make the wrong choice. Call it destination fever, circumnavigation syndrome, or just plain stupidity- I allowed myself to ignore the facts in front of me and continued with my plan. I would regret it almost constantly for the next two and a half hours.

Here's a video of the trip. Of course, when I returned home and looked at the video clips, I was uncertain as to whether the waves had grown in my mind or if the wide angle lens just has a way of flattening things out... or perhaps the angle of the boat conforming to that of the wave. And I didn't manage to turn the camera on for the roughest spots (of course- excuses, excuses). Either way, it felt bigger and more hazardous than it appears, and I think some of that may be due to my epiphany, not long into this stretch, that I was in a place I didn't want to be. Though I felt good about the rolls and rescues I'd practiced weekly in the pool over the winter, I'd paddled far and I already felt exhausted. The water was 41 degrees. My hands were stiff from gripping the paddle too tightly, and I began to doubt my ability to roll or self-rescue. And I felt very aware that the consequences of a missed roll here could be dire. I squinted at my chart, trying to be aware of the nearest features, should I need to call the Coast Guard. 

There's a lot to be said for keeping your cool. The situation is the same, whether you let that little glimmer of panic get to you or not. And yet, part of my risk management is to always be considering what might go wrong, what you can do to minimize the risk, and what you would do if things go south. Those questions became increasingly hard to answer. The shore was mostly inhospitable and steep, rocky or beaches with big, dumpy waves, so landing was not much of an option. And at every spot where I considered it, I told myself to just go a bit further.

To sum up the southwest shore, it was two and a half hours of disorganized, chaotic waves that kept me constantly on my toes, and it wore me down. I had a brief respite in the lee of Salt Island, where I considered landing on Good Harbor Beach, but the logistics of getting back to my car made it preferable to just stick it out and paddle back. Finally, as I came around Eastern Point, the lighthouse was lit-up by diagonal "god rays" shooting down from the clouds, as if announcing my arrival in the promised land. I let the following seas coast me past the breakwater into amazingly calm water. I was a few minutes late for my check-in, so I immediately got out the phone and called Rebecca: "Don't call the Coast Guard," I said.

To the southwest, the skyscrapers of Boston appeared atop the horizon as a collection of dark rectangles, and though I was exhausted, it made me think of the paddling yet to do. If anything, the previous stretch of paddling had given me some very valuable insight into this route, and as I paddled I thought about how I wouldn't want to lure unprepared paddlers into such a potentially chaotic spot. And yet it's a place that paddlers will certainly go, so it underscores the importance of providing that information.

I still had a couple of miles back to the launch, and now, without the aid of adrenaline, I felt each stroke. But I made it back, pausing for a moment below The Gloucester Fisherman statue, dedicated to “They That Go Down To The Sea in Ships,” and paddled into the canal, against the current, back to the launch.