Saturday, October 28, 2017

Gros Morne Mountain, Newfoundland



Gros Morne Mountain lies just north of Bonne Bay, a fiord reaching fifteen miles into Newfoundland’s rugged western coast. At 806 meters (2644 feet) it is the second-highest mountain in the province, and for anyone with hiking aspirations in the valleys around it, the peak is the elephant in the room, constantly beckoning. And while it doesn’t rise that much higher than some of the high spots atop the plateaus around it, the other peaks don’t have marked trails ascending to their summits; one could certainly get up them, but it would be a great deal more work. While mountains of this height may not sound so big, remember that the hike itself starts at an elevation of just 10 meters, so the elevation gain is akin to some of the bigger hikes in Maine or New Hampshire.


I’ve wanted to get up the mountain on previous visits to Newfoundland, but since those visits have been during colder months, I never had conditions to do so. This visit was beginning to look the same until we got a break in the weather a few days ago: no rain, not much wind, and air temps in the sixties. Judging from the five or six cars in the lot, I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the nice day. The first 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles – I’m doing the conversions as much for myself, since I still think in miles) is a gradual ascent through mossy forest and bog. It’s well-trodden, and well-maintained, with plenty of boardwalks and steps. It isn’t that steep, but I still found myself huffing at some point, something that seems to happen on a lot of hikes. It’s like I wanted to get up here so much that I forgot that it’s work. But then I slow down and it gets easier.


At an elevation of 1100 feet, the trail reaches a saddle below Gros Morne Mountain, where Ferry Brook flows down a valley and forms a series of small, shallow ponds. It is an astoundingly gorgeous spot. The mountains rise steeply above, and stretch below to the towns along the edge of Bonne Bay. I sat and ate a snack, watching a moose do the same down below in a pond. I could also see the tiny specks of hikers beginning the ascent of The Gulley, which looks more like the site of a landslide than a trail.


Getting to these ponds would be a worthwhile hike in itself, and the park signs suggest as much, encouraging those who are less-prepared to call it good and linger here awhile before heading back down. The sign says, in effect “So you think that was a hike, do ya?” The signage also counsels that if the top of the mountain is obscured by clouds, don’t proceed any farther, that the trails are not that well-marked. But when I crossed the bridge over the brook and started-up The Gulley, the sky above was blue and cloudless.


At the bottom of The Gulley, it seems inevitable that you pause and consider the climb ahead. It rises some fourteen to fifteen-hundred feet in under a mile – a steep ascent over a loose jumble of boulders. After such a well-marked trail below, it’s a bit of a surprise to find this stretch almost completely unmarked, almost non-existent in places. Unlike the trails in New England, these have no painted blazes anywhere. There are maybe three stone cairns, each one supporting a post with an arrow that essentially points up. Of course, you couldn’t get lost in the Gulley, but it takes a little more effort to put your feet onto rocks that don’t shift sideways, so you’re always looking for the easiest path.


But you get a lot of bang for your buck very quickly. I kept pausing to look out at the view and down at the ponds where I could still make-out the moose, knee deep, munching away like a cow in a pasture. These pauses helped me slow-down and catch my breath.


At the top of The Gulley, the edge of the plateau is fairly distinct: arctic tundra on top, thousand-foot drops below. The landscape levels-out somewhat, gradually climbing toward the summit over the next half-mile, following cairns supporting fluorescent yellow trail markers. The markers are not that far-spaced, but it's easy to imagine being here in dense clouds, unable to see the next one. It would be very easy, compass or not, to lose the trail and venture closer than you want to some very precipitous drops.


The wind picked-up as I ascended the last gradual stretch. At the summit, a couple sat in the lee of a stone wall and I found another where I ate my lunch. Someone had tied a Canadian flag, inscribed with many signatures, to the summit sign, which had a generic, Department of Transportation look, in both French and English. But it let you know you were in the highest spot, which is good since the rise from the rolling tundra around it is so gradual. After awhile, I noticed a few rock ptarmigans nearby, a grouse-like bird with white arctic coloring that blended-in extraordinarily well.


The couple headed onward and I watched them until they became specks, giving the massive landscape around us some scale, as did, half mile away, a herd of caribou moving slowly across the plain.


The trail continues as a loop, gradually descending the summit along the edge of a huge drop down to Ten-Mile Pond. This stretch of trail takes over three miles to get down to the junction with The Gulley section, so it is a good deal more gradual than the ascent. But the views are over the top the whole way; I often stopped to just take it in. Back at the ponds, the moose (I assume it was the same one, a female) hadn’t moved much from where she’d earlier grazed, and now the light on the mountains began to take-on that late-afternoon glow as I hiked the last few miles back to the car.

Notes:
We've been sea kayaking a couple of times and I'll write about that in another post soon.

Off Center Harbor, a subscription boating website made an eight-minute video about out summer paddling trip along the Maine coast. For now at least, they're sharing it for free (click here) so that Pygmy Boats can share it with their subscribers. I'll admit it's a little weird to see myself on video, especially as I rhapsodize about the differences between skegs and rudders (not really a favorite topic, but it was of interest to the filmmakers).

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Two Hikes in the Southern Presidentials

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After hiking up Mount Washington, I wanted to get-out to some of those ridges and peaks that surround it. It seemed a good idea to follow the hike with something a little less challenging to let my legs recuperate, and Mounts Webster (3910’) and Jackson (4052’), at the southern end of the Presidentials seemed like a good plan. The two peaks can be hiked as a loop on the Webster-Jackson trail, with about 2400’ of elevation gain. The day felt unseasonably warm and sunny, and it felt great just driving to the trailhead, listening to music, drinking coffee.  The fall colors in the morning were not as brilliant as they would be for the return drive.

It had rained the night before and the air still felt moist, the rocks in the trail still damp and slippery, the ground dotted with bright red berries that had blown down from the treetops. I took a side trail to take-in the view at Bugle Cliff, and it occurred to me that I’d been here before, probably multiple times, and probably not all that long ago. I suppose I must gravitate toward easy loop hikes with a view. I was happy to hike it again, but perhaps wondering why I can look at a chart of the coast and pretty much imagine - in detail- every place I’ve been, while mountains seem to blend together in my memory. Maybe I just need to hike more often.


Not far below lay the AMC Highland Lodge beyond a stretch of still mostly green treetops with a few reds and yellows sprinkled-in. Farther off, the red roof of the Mount Washington Hotel looked like another splotch of fall color. There’d been a woman ahead of me on the trail, and I’d taken the cliff detour as much to give her some space as for the view… giving myself some space really. I wanted to be in my own world for awhile, and I was: no other hikers. It’s worth mentioning that this was mid-week.


I paused at a pool below a waterfall on Silver Cascade Brook, and the trail climbed gradually up to the white-blazed Webster Cliff Trail, and took a short detour to the summit of Webster. I found a spot out of the wind and ate a snack. There’s a great view of Crawford Notch and the mountains off to the west, but stunted trees obscure the view to the east. But this is also the beginning of the ridge that, with a few significant ups and downs, leads toward Mt Washington. For me, some of the thrill of hiking to these places is akin to exploring in a sea kayak: just taking-in the lay of the land, seeing the contours you’ve studied- now in 3-D. It is weirdly satisfying.


Atop the ridge, the path over to Mount Jackson feels pretty relaxed: a meander over bog and damp, mossy forest spanned by timber boardwalks. Like Webster, the top of Jackson is mostly forested, but a rocky outcrop affords expansive views of the ridge leading up to Washington, around which blew turbulent, swirling grey clouds. I sat and ate a sandwich with my map on my lap, identifying the bumps on the ridge: Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe.


I hadn’t planned on continuing to Mt Pierce (4312’) but I felt good, the day was still young, and it just seemed a waste not to. It only added 2 or 3 miles and a bit of ascending. Plus, there’s something about walking on the AT that urges you onward, following those white blazes and the footsteps of so many before you. There are some pretty spots along this walk, damp, grassy bog-meadows that open-up in the trees, with the mountainous backdrop behind.


Pierce is partially forested like the previous summits, but just a little higher-up and a bit more open. As I began descending the Crawford Path I started running into a few hikers, including a loud-talking group that fell-in behind me, encouraging me to increase my pace, skipping down the trail with the help of my trekking poles, until I could no longer hear them. And I kept going.


On Saturday, I had a family dinner to get to in the early afternoon, so again I wanted a hike I might be able to finish quickly enough. Having been up Monroe and Washington and then the southern Presidentials, I felt drawn to the one peak right between them: Mount Eisenhower. And the Edmands Path, a 3.3-mile trail that ascends 2750 feet seemed a good choice. At 8 am, mine was probably the fifth or sixth car in the lot, and I passed only one pair of hikers - backpackers - en route to the top.

The Edmands Path is handy, and a relatively quick way up to the ridge over a not-too-bumpy trail, as well as a nice walk in the woods, but most of it is just that- a walk in the woods. As you ascend, occasional openings in the trees afford views over to the Cog Railway base and the flanks of Mt Monroe, but on Saturday even those views were soon obscured by clouds. At the ridge, I donned a couple more layers and headed-up the Eisenhower Loop, encountering very strong winds as I made my way up.


Approaching the summit, I remembered a photograph from my first hike here, which was in ninth grade- maybe 1978. The photograph was in the local newspaper, and accompanied my first ever trip report, which I co-wrote with my friend Noel, a Filipino exchange student whose vocabulary was much broader than my own, and included a few fancy words that I’d still have a hard time using in a casual sentence. Like, for instance, ‘scintillating.’ This was probably my first trip with a school program called ‘Project Exploration,’ and our victorious pose upon this mountaintop expressed what a big deal this was for us. Our shapes were jaunty, near-silhouettes against the cloudy backdrop, and I stood off to the side of the group, hefting a stout hickory walking stick, and a brimmed hat upon my head- gifts from my parents they must have hoped might encourage these outdoorsy pursuits I was lately into.


A single cairn marked the high spot, obvious as the summit only because the earth sloped away –off into the clouds- in all directions. A man hunched behind the cairn, and before he left, remarked that it was probably blowing forty. I stayed for a few minutes, watching as the clouds blew past, occasionally catching a brief tease of mountains beyond the clouds.


On my way down, I encountered other hikers- and soon even more other hikers. I stepped aside to let them pass (whatever the etiquette, they were working harder than I was, and I didn’t mind a brief breather to let them pass). Many asked how far it was and what the conditions were like, and after witnessing enough disappointment, I changed ‘windy and cloudy’ to ‘dramatic.’ It was a bit stunning really, how many people were coming up the path, and when I returned to the trailhead at about noon, the parking lot was overflowing, with cars parked on the roadside far in each direction. Even more stunning was the volume of parked cars and traffic in Franconia Notch. The colors were pretty, yes, but I think I’d look for a quieter spot if I encountered such congestion. I was glad I’d made an early enough start.

That’s it for New England for a bit. We’re now en route to Newfoundland, where I expect we’ll do some walking and paddling as well. It’s not as simple as it might sound, this uprooted lifestyle. We’ve just spent an evening and a day at Rebecca’s rented studio space (and our storage space) in Stonington, Maine, unpacking and repacking the car, trying to figure out what we might need for a journey of indefinite length – the art stuff, the kayaking and hiking stuff… and the cold weather stuff, should our stay extend beyond the fall. All this dealing with stuff just makes me appreciate even more those unburdened days that somehow feel stolen, in which I can get out and stretch my legs, and get to a place that makes it all feel worthwhile.

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Tale of Two Summits: Mount Washington and Katahdin

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A couple of days ago I walked up Mount Washington, New England’s highest peak. I’ve been trying to go somewhat easy on myself, looking for the longer, more gradual trails than the shorter, steeper ones, so I opted for the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, which follows the headwaters of the Ammonoosuc River as it cascades down from the saddle between Mount Monroe and Washington, where the Lakes of the Clouds Hut sits close enough to a couple of alpine ponds to appear to have the twin benefits of mountain access and waterfront property. 


It’s an awfully nice hike. Perhaps the frequent stops to admire waterfalls and pools made the hiking easier, keeping my pace moderate and my eyes open. In addition, we seemed to have been experiencing, by my count, our third Indian summer, and the air felt warm, and the sun shone as if it were a summer day.


As the ridge to the north became visible, I caught a glimpse of a bright, aqua-green rail car being pushed by a white engine on the Cog Railway, slowly ascending. It reminded me of my first (and probably last) hike up Mt Washington. I was in 7th or 8th grade in Massachusetts and a kindly teacher drove “The Outing Club”- probably 4 or 5 of us in all – in his VW microbus to hike up the Jewell Trail. We left when the train began its ascent, and arrived at the summit – I remember it was cool, clouded-in and blustery – just as the train arrived there. I doubt the summit that day was anything like the circus it can be, but it was enough of a glimpse that in the last 40 years or so, I’ve tended towards mountains that don’t have an auto road and a cog railway taking people to a mountaintop where they can eat in the cafeteria, shop for souvenirs and visit a museum and historical sites. For some reason today, those things didn’t hold me back.


I took a side trip up to Mt Monroe’s summit where I ate my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then continued back down to the hut (closed) and the lakes, where a group had hiked down from Washington’s summit and were posing for all manner of photos with the pond and hut behind them.


Mount Washington is obvious for miles around, not only for its height and massiveness (the mountain seems to encompass the surrounding high peaks) but also due to the various antennae and structures sprouting from its summit. Aside from taking away from the wildness of the place, the structures lend a utilitarian quality. I don’t know what all those apparatus accomplish, but they certainly look like they must be doing something important- weather instruments, whatever the observations made by the Mount Washington Observatory are. I began seeing a few people up there too, although from the trail it still felt fairly quiet until just short of the top, where, oddly, I encountered a younger couple hiking toward me, and my first thought was that all these Millenials are really starting to look the same. But then I saw that the guy recognized me as well, and remembered me as the guy who had rented kayaks to him and his buddies last week in Maine.


The wind had picked-up enough that I held my cap in my hands as I entered the summit area and encountered hordes and hordes of people. Okay- Tourists with a capital “T.” It doesn’t get much more touristy than this. Most had obviously either driven-up or taken the train, and now wandered around, mostly looking for places to take pictures of themselves, hunched against the 35-mph winds. The summit sign had a long line leading to it. Thoreau wrote something to the effect that so many climb the mountain, only to look away from it, but now they get a ride to the summit and take pictures of themselves there.

Beside the summit building a long line of people, including a bunch of Amish, the men in flat-brimmed straw hats, waited for the trains to arrive. I joined others taking photos of the engines pushing the brightly-colored cars up the last incline. Nearby, a man in a cap with big NRA letters on front (this was two days after the Las Vegas shooting, and I had to wonder if he always made this statement) stood chatting with a man in a veterans hat, loudly talking about World War II  (no, they weren’t old enough to remember it so fondly). It took some effort to push my way through the waiting line so I could get into the summit building, and I found myself really disliking people in general, remembering why I prefer most of my mountain hikes to culminate at an undeveloped summit.


I went into the summit building, bought a coffee at the cafeteria and sat down for my second PB&J. It felt a bit like a food court at an Interstate rest area, or like a ski lodge where everyone has come-in out of the elements to show-off designer ski clothing, except that when you glance out the windows you look out at clouds just barely higher. It felt dark and noisy and stuffy, but the coffee was good and I was out of the wind. I sat and wrote a few notes and then finished my coffee quickly so I could leave.

I continued north on the AT, turning-off to descend the mountain via the Jewell Trail.


A week earlier, I’d hiked up Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It was a wonderful hike, worthy of more words than I’m giving it here, but the contrasts between the two mountains are worth noting. It was my first time up Katahdin, and I’d grown a little weary of admitting that no, I hadn’t hiked up it- summers and fall had been work-time for me since I’d lived in Maine. But now that we took summers off, essentially taking a vow of poverty and more free time, here I was. It also helped that our friend Susan made the parking reservations and put us up in a hostel in Millinocket the night before.


Katahdin is in Baxter State Park, which according to the wishes of Percival Baxter, the Maine governor who created the park with his own funds and wherewithal, has a few bureaucratic hoops for us to jump through to ensure the park retains its wild nature. It would be easy to whine about having to make parking reservations, or arriving before 7 am to either claim your spot or lose it. And thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail need to secure permits to hike up Katahdin – and the park limits the number of permits it will issue.


Susan and I hiked up the Hunt Trail, the final 5.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and met a few thru-hikers as we walked, which leant a particular feeling to our hike, sharing in a momentous event for people who had imagined this day for months. 


Arrival at the summit is akin to reaching the destination of a pilgrimage. Some arrive at the iconic sign in tears. Some kiss the sign or place their forehead to it for a moment of silent meditation. Some can’t contain themselves and cry-out in joy. Everyone poses for a photo with the sign, often in configurations that have been considered for months. Everyone who arrives at this peak has put some effort into it, and there’s a feeling of camaraderie… of sharing this amazing holy place with a variety of other hikers, who may be diverse, but at least share something- they’ve all taken the trouble to get here under their own steam. People were generally quiet and respectful of each other, quick to share the experience somehow – by handing-off a camera for a snapshot, or saying ‘congratulations,’ or just quietly smiling at one another. 


Both summits are something other than just the top of a mountain. They each have cultural implications- which is to say that you get to observe some human aspect of the place. Each is interesting in its own way, and worth experiencing. And its not lost on me that there’s something good in the fact that people who might never otherwise experience a mountaintop can get out of a car or a train at the top of Mount Washington. It has been a tourist icon for maybe a century and a half, and that in itself is interesting. It is what it is. But I am so grateful that Katahdin is undeveloped. Somehow, that experience from Katahdin stays with me a little more than the one atop Mount Washington; in fact it makes it easier for me to shrug-off whatever negative feelings I might have about tourist hordes atop a place that will never again feel so special and say ‘it is what it is,’ just knowing that places like Katahdin still exist.

Notes: 
You may have noticed that this blog post does not involve sea kayaking or Stonington. Yup.

These routes occur nowhere in my guidebook AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sunday Paddle to Fog Island


On Sunday, we had an unusual convergence of friends with a free day and nice weather, so six of us gathered at Old Quarry and, hoping to find a few watery bumps on an otherwise calm day, headed-out along the east side of the Stonington archipelago. It was great just to see friends, and as we paddled-out, often found ourselves in pairs, chatting about how our summers had gone and what our next plans were. As we rounded the corner of Spruce Island and the broader expanse of Jericho Bay came into view, we found a very mild swell washing-in along the glacial erratic boulders, and instinctively, we gravitated toward the places where the waves rose and fell among the rocks. It was a nice warm-up exercise, since as we proceeded southward, the swell - and the challenges among the rocks - gradually increased.


This kind of progression, from flat calm onward,  feels pretty nice. We start the day not knowing what we'll find out there, but we bring along helmets, just in case there's a chance for some play. When you first encounter these waves hitting the rocks it might feel a bit mystifying... 'what am I supposed to do with this?' you might wonder. But you figure-out a safe way to get in there- bow seaward so you can see what's coming and get-out if need be, and get your stern up close and see what happens.

We lingered along the outer shore of No Mans Island. Nothing was too big or imposing, so it was a good spot to refine some skills. A lot of paddlers might never get a chance to try-out a brace if they didn't get into a bumpier spot like this. It's good to see what works well and what doesn't- an effective reality check.


We pointed out to Southern Mark Island and then onward to Fog Island where we ate lunch. By the end of lunch, our group of six was down to only three, since other priorities beckoned for some. For the remaining three, Popplestone Ledges had been beckoning the whole time we ate lunch. Exposed to open ocean and subject to the current squeezing in and out of Jericho Bay, this can be a lively spot. We found some small pour-overs, but mostly just found waves hitting rocks in spots where we really didn't want to end-up. Around the last ledge though, the swell wrapped around it and the waves reared-up nicely, and we all got a few nice rides.


We took our time getting back, stopping at Gooseberry Island, enjoying the warm air, the nice light- all seen through a somewhat nostalgic lens with the feeling that this would probably be our last time paddling together for awhile. Rebecca and I will continue onward soon - to New Hampshire and then Newfoundland, and we don't have particular long-term plans. Gooseberry is a favorite spot: the erratic boulders sprinkled like giant marbles, the backdrop of Isle au Haut and just enough swell to keep things lively. We savored it for awhile and headed back-in.

Notes:
This area is covered in Trip #14 in my guidebook AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England. If you don't have this book yet, you really ought to get it. Since I've been at Old Quarry, I'm often astonished at the lack of research done by many of the paddlers heading-out here. They may hope to get 'local knowledge' from whomever happens to be at the front desk in the office, but that's a pretty hit-or-miss proposition. When I'm advising people, I often find that one tiny piece of information could make a crucial difference in their trip planning- in their enjoyment of the trip and their safety. Why not educate yourself as well as you can before leaving it all to chance?

The trips in this book are more than just lines drawn-over a map, and often they're more overall background information than just a route. In addition, the introduction to the book contains very condensed background information that would be useful to most paddlers, regardless of how experienced they perceive themselves to be. I'm usually a bit hesitant to suggest my book in such a way, or to make public observations about paddlers, but you don't have to watch people launch from a place like Old Quarry for very long to understand that most paddlers could have a better, safer paddling experience with a wee bit of guidance.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Bold Coast: Boot Head


I had a lesson to teach on Cobscook Bay, so Rebecca and I used the opportunity to get away for a couple of days and get in a little paddling and hiking of our own. We’ve been at Old Quarry in Stonington, doing a bit of everything, and it felt good to be going down the road, off in our own world again.

Meeting the locals at Cobscook Bay
We camped at Cobscook Bay State Park, and after my lesson on Monday we went in to Eastport to poke around in a way that we really couldn’t when we were camping out of our kayaks. The town seemed quiet, recovering from the weekend festivities – a Pirate festival, and there wasn’t much going on. We strolled the empty sidewalks, peering in windows: antique shops, galleries, a marijuana dispensary, a pet store… We looked at the statues and the waterfront and pondered the menu at a restaurant before deciding to return to the campground to make dinner. 


But Tuesday we had all day to explore and the weather was fairly calm and warm- almost hard to believe how nice it felt. Like summer. We launched at Baileys Mistake, at a launch mostly used for the 8 or 10 lobster boats that moor nearby. There’s not much parking there along the roadside- barely enough for the fishermen’s trucks and trailers, so at this point it’s not really a dependable launch for kayakers, but I heard it was being acquired by a land trust. Hopefully this is true and they will develop the parking enough to accommodate both fishermen and recreational boaters. The launch adds considerable possibilities to Bold Coast paddling – easier access to (or a bailout from) the stretch between Moose Cove and Quoddy Head (Route #2 in my guidebook) which includes Boot and Eastern Heads, cliffy sections of coast with plenty of nooks to explore if the seas aren’t too big.


We paddled out of the harbor and soon exchanged our caps for helmets so we could get into some tighter spots among the rocks. The mild swell felt perfect for some gentle play, and we made our way along the shore slowly, looking for small challenges. We hadn’t done much paddling like this for awhile. The last time we’d passed here we’d been offshore in a dense fog, a thirty-four mile day that afforded us little time or energy for anything beyond getting to our destination. Today, with no destination, we paddled our barely loaded, nimble Delphins – the opposite of the sort of paddling we’d done most of the summer, and we felt playful, cut loose, remembering how it feels to make a tight turn through a slot or let the surf take you over a ledge, simply because you can.


Currents get to be fairly consequential in this area, but for the first stretch we noticed very little current close to shore- not even eddies. We rounded Boot Head near mid tide though, and with the increased mid-tide current and the concentrated flow off the headland, the conditions were getting livelier. As we took a break on the beach at Boot Head Cove, we watched the surface turn into acres of whitecaps- true to form for the Bold Coast. I’ve heard plenty of sweeping statements about the place, but the most accurate and useful one is that things can change here pretty quickly, and often, dramatically.


The paddling was really no more difficult though. For us it mostly meant that our long-period small swells had been replaced with short-period bouncy chop- not really conducive to much play along the shore. That was okay- we’d had our fun and now it was a short paddle back to the launch. We were still hoping to get-in a hike. 


Last month as we paddled past the Cutler Peninsula – another stretch of awesome cliffy shoreline, we saw some hikers atop the bluffs and wondered how they’d managed to get there. Chatting with some local walkers on another trail, we heard about a trail that goes out to Western Head in Cutler, down near the end of Destiny Bay Road, and we thought we’d give it a try. We weren’t too surprised to find a 247-acre preserve owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, preserved since 1988.  It has a small parking area- maybe room for 5 or 6 cars, and maybe it’s good that it’s a well-kept secret, since it is an absolute gem. A 3.5-mile trail follows the Little River out to the head where it loops along the bluff-tops with views out to Grand Manan and southwest toward Cross Island. The trails are well-maintained, and you get some nice glimpses of Cutler Harbor as well.

Notes:
Route #2 in AMC’s BestSea Kayaking in New England covers the area between Carrying Place Cove in Lubec and Moose Cove. The launch in Baileys Mistake is not included, but if it really is being acquired by a land trust and the parking situation improves, it will make it into the next edition. Conditions during today’s paddle were mild, but the guidebook has much sterner warnings as well as strategies for paddling this area. One of the most volatile and remote areas of the New England coast, it is not a place for inexperienced or unprepared paddlers.


Here’s a link to some more info on MCHT’s Western Head Preserve. And here’s a link to the MCHT website, which does have information on their other nearby preserves, but not this one.  


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Frenchman Bay to Stonington: The Last Stretch

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If you're just tuning-in, this post covers the last couple of days of a two-month meander along the Maine Coast.

After the last blog post, we paddled the last forty nautical miles, from Frenchman Bay to Stonington, to finish the trip in two more days. We still needed to stop in Bar Harbor for some groceries and one last water fill-up, so we followed the Porcupine Islands in, stopping first for a quick break on The Hop. The fog had just cleared and the sun shone through- a good day to see the mountains of Mount Desert Island rising before us, welcoming us back to our neighborhood.




The seas were still pretty lively though, and we paddled into a strong west wind. A big cruise ship lay at anchor in the near harbor, while an odd private ship dominated the water southeast of Bar Island. It carried a full-size sailing yacht on one side, ready to be lowered to the water. 


Later I learned that it belongs to a Russian oil guy – the word ‘oligarch’ is tossed around to describe him and his 90+ million-dollar toy, that also carries a large motor yacht on its stern deck, and a helicopter that transports a Range Rover. Apparently the ship is still there, still the talk of the town.



Despite the strong winds in our face as we made our way from one Porcupine Island to the next in the lumpy wind-against-current seas, we encountered a guided kayak trip led by one of the guides I’d trained in June. I’d already been thinking that if I were guiding, I’d be taking the more sheltered paddle along shore to Compass Harbor, but I was not surprised. They were flying along downwind, and when the guide said hello, he said they were just going to “peek around this island up here,” as if I might have some thoughts on his choices or the task he would now have of getting these people back to the launch against the wind. Of course I did, but after nearly two months of not guiding or teaching people, I just smiled, happy it wasn’t my job that day.




Tourists stood on the town beach, doing what tourists on beaches do: staring down at the wrack line, skipping stones and taking photos. One man was so engrossed in his attempts to skip a stone that his rock nearly hit me. We pulled our kayaks up and I went off to get water and groceries, plunged briefly into Bar Harbor tourist chaos. Is it possible, that among all these clean, teeming hordes in their new Bar Harbor sweatshirts congregating on the sidewalks seeming to not know where to spend their money next, that I felt a private smug satisfaction when they glanced at me wide-eyed and quickly looked away- that I secretly reveled in my three weeks with no shower grime and my sun and salt-streaked skin? It is possible. After our mostly-alone Downeast sojourn, this was a new, but not unexpected sensation; not really where I wanted to be, but a sensation just the same.




We ate our customary pint of gelato on the beach and continued on our way around the north side of MDI, eventually re-encountering that strong west wind and a current that, thanks to our taking too long in Bar Harbor, had turned against us. We ate lunch on Thomas Island and continued-on beneath the bridge, where slow-moving traffic was backed-up for some distance. That last stretch, with our campsite more or less in view, was a slow slog.




Which was why it was so great to arrive at our last campsite of the trip, a tiny state-owned island called The Hub, and get our camp set-up one last time. We arrived at low tide, and began the work of carrying our gear and boats up the steep rocky ledges. But we’d spent all this time getting better at it, and knowing this would be the last such carry of this trip, performed the task with momentous care. Yes, we wanted to get through this and finish the trip, but we also wanted to hang-on to the moment as much as we could. Though the sun had been gradually setting earlier each night, it had begun to feel like things were speeding-up, the days growing quickly shorter, and we knew that time would pass and this would soon be a vague memory. We stayed out on the ledges well after dark, watching for shooting stars and satellites, and finally, reluctantly, called it a night.




We decided to end the trip at Old Quarry and we spent that last day paddling, still mostly against the wind, down Blue Hill Bay to Naskeag Point, our route now overlapping with the previous segments of the trip as we followed Stinson Neck out to the Lazyguts and across to Sheep Island. With only a mile and a half left, we took a break on Little Sheep, an island we’ve visited many times, usually on the short guided‘family’ trips with kids. The day had begun hot – one of the hottest so far, but the sun had sunk low enough that with the wind I began to feel a hypothermic chill, and I added a layer for the final stretch.




We arrived at Old Quarry on one of their busiest days of the summer. The area above the ramp was a solid mass of uncleaned boats. Much of the staff had just left, returning to college, and the remaining crew had been multi-tasking all day. We learned that our small travel trailer, which we’d loaned for the summer, was vacant, so we carried our gear up to it. I checked my messages and found one from Vicki, who offered a ride to our car after she was done at the library. I called her and heard the background hub-bub of a post poetry reading crowd, and she told me she could pick me up as soon as the crowd left. I felt like I knew the quality of that background chatter well – the same chit-chat from a dozen years of art gallery events, with many of the same people. And I knew that a whole new challenge awaited us, that of returning to something akin to a ‘normal’ life after living this parallel fantasy out among the islands. It would not be easy, but that’s a story for another time.



Notes:

Much of the area we paddled in this stretch is covered in trips #8,9, 12, 13 & 14 in my guidebook AMC’sBest Sea Kayaking in New England.

I have a short article in the September/October issue of AMC Outdoors. It's about my first Instagram post while camping on an island, this spring, and the mixed feelings I had about it. Of course, since then, I've been posting quite a few photos on Instagram, as an easy way of letting friends know we haven't dropped off the map.


We’re now in Stonington at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures for maybe the next month or so. Stop by, say hi.

As we go through photographs from the trip, we'll be adding more to previous posts.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Upwest and Downeast: Almost Done



I nearly titled this 'almost home,' but knew that it wouldn't be quite correct. We'll be back to Deer Isle by Thursday or Friday, and it is about as close to home as we have, other than this feeling we carry with us as we paddle up and down the coast, a sense of being where you should be. We get our mail in Stonington still. We have friends there, and a rented storage space where our stuff is stored and where Rebecca keeps her studio, but no house or apartment or place to live (we've mostly house-sat the last couple of years). We rent a few spots in a kayak storage space by the town boat ramp,  and until summer kicked-in, were regulars at pickleball, twice a week at the Community Center. 

This was our fifteenth summer living in Maine, but it's the first in which I've tasted the sense of joy and freedom that I hoped I'd find when we came here. Much of that comes down to economics. We haven't worked since June. And yet we've spent very little money on this trip. Probably less than we usually do on food,  two nights at a commercial campground... a tank of gas at the beginning of the summer. And of course the usual overhead: health insurance, phone bill... a tank of gas in a car that's been parked all summer.  The storage and studio... subscriptions to unwatched Amazon and Netflix.

We haven't lived in a way that most people would find comfortable. It's been weeks since the last real shower, and pooping into a plastic bag has become surprisingly normal. We've eaten well, including a shared pint of ice-cream in most ports. We're a bit damp much of the time, with a layer of salt that seems to permeate the skin. I do look forward to a long soak in a tub of hot water. Obviously this existence- even as a temporary foray- isn't for everybody. Which is good. We've had little competition for campsites and have encountered amazingly few kayakers, especially those who seemed to be going somewhere or camping.

It's premature to recap the trip, but knowing that we're almost done brings-on a wistful sense of melancholy. All those summers we worked so much, and they went by so fast. Well, this one went by fast as well. Many people tell us this is the trip of a lifetime, and they're right, but all we can think is that we want lots of trips like this in our lifetime, or even that we want our life to be more like this.

Right now I'm sitting on a comfortable slab of rock on the south end of Stave Island, in Frenchman Bay. Rebecca is nearby, painting. I don't know what she's painting- the fog has come in pretty thick, obscuring most everything out there, but a little while ago you could see it rising over the Porcupine Islands with Cadillac Mountain in the background. There's a storm forecast for tonight and we decided yesterday that this might be a more comfortable spot than the ones ahead. I think we also just liked the idea of one more time-out on an island, without rushing back to Deer Isle.

Since my last post, we left Dickenson's Reach, up at the sheltered head of Little Kennebec Bay in Machiasport, and made our way down to Jonesport, where we once again bought a few supplies and refilled water at the Moosabec Variety (you can still rent VHS tapes there too). We continued on to Sheep Island off of Cape Split and spent 2 nights there to wait-out predicted rough seas (don't  think they got too rough, but we were glad to stay there). We identified the nearby home of modernist watercolorist John Marin (the weird-sounding seabird that turned-out to be an alarm system helps give it away) but never got over to see, up-close the bluffs of Tumble-Down Dick Head. It's good to save things for future trips.

On Sunday morning we paddled into Milbridge for groceries and headed out to Bois Bubert Island. From there, yesterday morning, we went around Petit Manan Point, on to Corea and then around Schoodic Point during the eclipse. Quite a crowd there;  it felt as if we were sauntering along the outskirts of a party, where everyone was waiting for the band to start, but had kind of forgotten what they were doing there and hey, the light is kind of funny now, isn't it? And we'll give the eclipse credit for the big eddy that took us all the way here, against the dominant current.

Just after lunch today, we spied two skiffs coming our way, and they turned out to be MITA boats, carrying the Maine Island Trail Association's Trail Committee. We're not on a MITA island, but they were checking things out, and we had a sort-of impromptu meeting right there, discussing such things as the need or feasibility for sites along the Bold Coast. They took our trash away and left us with some extra water. And provided us with more human contact than we've had in awhile, which was welcome.

Over the next couple of days, we'll meander back to Deer Isle- only two or three days and nights, and maybe a stop at Old Quarry for a shower before we pack our gear into the car an head over to a family lake home in New Hampshire, where we have a week to recover a bit while hanging-out with some of the constant people in our life. Then we're sort of transient again. Maybe a little teaching and guiding in September... a dentist's appointment... and maybe some time up in Newfoundland with Rebecca's parents. For now though, this fog has come-in thick and cool. Time for some food.