Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Mouth of the Connecticut River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Bold Coast: Cutler to Haycock Harbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are plenty of rocks along the Bold Coast.

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

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

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

Maine: the way paddling should be.

Thursday, August 7, 2014


8/3/14, West Island, Fairhaven, MA
It used to be that when I traveled, I'd imagine what it would be like to live in the places I visited or passed through, sometimes perusing real estate ads or the jobs in the classifieds. It added a whole other layer to travel; there was the day-to-day quest that most travelers are on: the need for food and shelter and a few interesting things to see and take up your time. But there was a bigger quest as well that arced over the entire endeavor. You're always asking "is this a place I'd like to live?" "How might it work?" That's how we've ended-up in Stonington for the last eleven years. We had the specific goal of finding a gallery space, but really, we were just rambling, looking for the next thing after moving-on from our last existence. Here in Stonington, we see plenty of people walking down the street carrying fliers from the real estate offices, so we're not alone in this, although I imagine that many real estate tourists are looking more for bargains on additional homes, rather than figuring-out where to live.

I'll admit that in my recent travels around New England, I have had very few thoughts about living in the places I visit. To me, most of the New England coast appears crowded and over-developed, and I'm relieved to get back to Maine, and even more so as I wind-down those last curving miles of roads toward Stonington. On the other hand, it's pretty tough to paddle past a handsome houseboat or a classic live-aboard and not think about more watery accommodations. The floating homes in the photo below are in Mystic, Connecticut. That self-portrait above it is in Watch Hill Harbor, Rhode Island- an amazingly beautiful boat called APHRODITE.

If you drive around Watch Hill, you'll probably pass a turn in the road where one particular driveway is guarded by a security team- mostly teenage boys in matching polo shirts, but a few armed guards as well. If you're not a big follower of pop culture, you might just pass on by, none the wiser, but the security team alerts you that maybe you ought to slow down and gawk at the driveway of a young pop star.

Providing security for the privileged appears to be one of the coveted summer jobs along the southern New England coast. Everywhere you go you'll come across these clean-cut youth in color-coded polo shirt uniforms and expensive sunglasses, at the ready to keep-out the riff-raff. At the wheel of a car, and probably more so if that car is smart and economical with a kayak on its roof and Maine plates, you'll often be reminded about where you don't belong. Move along, don't even think of stopping here. Parking? Oh that will be twenty or thirty dollars. At one beach I just pulled-out my notebook and began asking the young gentlemen questions, which they seemed happy enough to answer. They're probably just counting the hours until they can trade those polo shirts for other, differently color-coded polo shirts.

But on the water we're entitled to our own little kayak-shaped piece of floating real estate. Kurt Vonnegut once asked "what good is Planet Earth if you own no land?" But as long as you have a place to launch your kayak you've got access to some of the best parts of the planet, with just as much right to enjoy it as the mega-millionaire yachts beside you, and with better ability to enjoy the near-shore waters.

The Fishers Island Sound area of southeast Connecticut has ample enough features to keep a paddler exploring for some time. Aside from charming towns like Watch Hill, Stonington and Mystic, with harbors packed with some of the prettiest boats you'll ever see, there's salt marshes reaching inland surrounded by enough conservation land that you can truly get away from it all not for from the launch... until the Amtrak train hums past. But the train is part of the fun too.

The other day I launched in Mystic and after admiring some of the historic boats docked at Mystic Seaport, I paddled beneath the drawbridge just in time to see the hourly raising of the bridge and subsequent parade of boats passing through. Shortly thereafter and just a little ways downstream, the swing bridge turned and re-connected the railroad, just in time for a couple of trains to speed past.

I paddled past marina after marina packed with recreational sail and power boats, out past the village of Noank and on to the lighthouse at Morgan Point, which is now a private residence. I had no particular desire to cross over to Fishers Island, which lies a couple of miles south and makes a constant distant backdrop to coastal paddling here, but it's difficult to paddle in this area and not entertain thoughts of getting out there. Perhaps it's akin to the lure of Isle au Haut when you're in Stonington- this place that is nearby, a backdrop that defines the geography and conditions, but is just far enough to be a different world. It is, after all, in New York, a different state. But unlike Stonington, Maine, the stretch of ocean south of Stonington, Connecticut has only a few smaller intermediate islands to visit, and the currents can be strong and sometimes hazardous.

But seas were calm and I felt good, and just had to paddle somewhere, so off I went, first toward the tightly-packed cottages on Groton Long Point, and across the sound toward the lighthouse on North Dumpling. I encountered amazingly little boat traffic, but as I neared Fishers Island I noticed a wall of fog hanging beyond East Point. Unsure if the fog might be coming in with the tide, I ate my sandwich quickly on the gravelly shore of Flat Hammock and moved-on.

Since the incoming tide flowed westward up the sound, I followed the shore of Fishers east for a bit, admiring the homes, taking advantage of whatever eddies I could find until I reached Brooks Point and headed back across. Despite the usual logic that currents increase the most mid-channel, I encountered the strongest currents near the edges, in shallower water, and especially as I approached Ram Island where the water turned bumpy over Ram Island Reefs.

A pair of chimneys stood on the island where a home had burned-down just this spring, and horses grazed nearby. Once known as Mystic Island, Ram had been the site of a grand Victorian hotel with direct steamship service until the 1920s. And like other such places in southern New England, the 1938 hurricane wiped the slate clean. Around the corner, a couple of boats were anchored in a placid cove, and an islet just off the north end had attracted a few powerboaters who anchored off a sandbar, enjoying the beach. I stopped here for sandwich #2.

By then I began to think of the seven-hour drive to get home, and meandered a bit more pointedly through the islands and back into the Mystic River, where the incoming tide brought me quickly back upriver to the launch.

Friday, July 25, 2014


While I've been getting better acquainted with far-flung New England paddling locales, I haven't made it out into the Stonington archipelago nearly as much as I would like. July and August are so busy for us that it's tough to rationalize getting out, even in the evenings, since I tend to keep the gallery open- and I've been traveling as well. But on some days I count the minutes to five o'clock- or more likely, wait until those last gallery visitors leave, well after five, and shut the door quickly before gathering my gear. One evening I headed out alone and paddled at a somewhat frantic pace out to Steves Island, trying to leave the day's frustrations behind.

At Steves, intent on doing my duty as a MITA island adopter I found one group taking up the whole island, each tent in its own campsite, including one that was in a place that hadn't been a campsite the last time I checked. I walked around the island quickly, picking up trash, and said hello to some of the campers, although they didn't seem to want to say hello to me, so I kept going, resolving to cover-over the new tent site next time. I never really left my land-bound worries behind and even picked-up a few more en route. The closest I came to losing the heaviness that seemed to follow me was along the south shore of McGlathery Island, where I found a few swells to bounce among. I needed a longer trip.

We have managed to take time off a few times lately to get over to Sullivan Falls. On Monday evenings a band performs in the park, so we play in the falls until the music starts, and go ashore for a picnic with live music. Nate has been spending even more time at Sullivan, since it seems to be his most popular class lately. 

But last night, after getting very very tired of talking with people, we got out for a paddle. The air felt clear, still and almost cool. In the harbor, boat reflections saturated the water surface with color, and Rebecca lingered, taking it in, thinking about paintings. She took a few photos, and even though I felt anxious to get moving, it felt good to be unhurried. It reminded me of our first years here, why we came to live in Stonington and why we've stayed. Town had seemed full of talk and hub-bub, and I felt enormously weary of it. But out here it was a different story.

We followed the shore of Crotch Island, practicing a bit along the way, challenging ourselves to turn the boat different ways around tight obstacles, sometimes following the contours of the shore backward, until we went around Sand Island. I landed among some rockweed below some steep ledges- merely because I had never landed there before, and when I saw the view from atop a smooth granite boulder, I felt amazed that I hadn't really noticed such a beautiful spot.

It reminded me of our early days paddling, how it seemed that every time we went out it felt new, even if we were paddling in the same places. And lately, as I've traveled around New England, looking for the best places to paddle, I've become perhaps a bit jaded.  I'm a bit rushed, a bit desperate to cover territory that I know I'll never completely connect with the way I do our own backyard. Sometimes it helps to paddle with someone who is showing you one of their favorite spots to see it through their eyes. They're more likely to get out there at the end of the day for a few hours after work, not to crank-out miles or accomplish anything, but merely to enjoy the feeling of the place- to float on the water and take it in.

We followed the contours around the west side of Crotch, watching the sunset turn the shore rocks orange, and meandered, very slowly back through the harbor as lights came on in town.

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.