Friday, August 10, 2018

Escape From Old Quarry: Wheat Island

A few days ago, I had the sudden gift of a day off – just like I did last week: an entire day with no work or commitments. I could do whatever I wanted with it. So I got my gear together. I could do something epic. Maybe paddle around Isle au Haut. At first I thought I didn’t have to work until later on the next day, so I packed camping gear. Then I learned I’d be guiding a morning trip the next day. But I already had the gear and food together. Whatever. I could figure it out as I went along. It was a gorgeous day, and the only thing that made sense was to just get on the water. It was mid-morning by the time I launched.

It felt good to be paddling away, alone, heading across Webb Cove without first getting my group lined-up to make an efficient crossing, no pre-trip briefing or endless foot peg adjustments. And of course, as always, it was liberating to let my paddle strokes fall into their own rhythm: not necessarily fast, just my own, without looking around wondering what I could do to help everyone move more naturally in their boats. As I followed the shore of Indian Point and headed out for Russ Island, I realized I felt weary, and a bit lazy, and maybe I wasn’t in the mood for an epic paddle after all. I had my hammock with me, and I began thinking about setting it up and just swinging in it for awhile, enjoying the day on some island.

As I passed Blasters Rock on Little McGlathery Island, it occurred to me that it was a Maine Island Trail island and I hadn’t yet visited it for the 30 In 30 Challenge. MITA is celebrating its 30th year by challenging members to visit 30 MITA islands and documenting their visits. I’vebeen posting photos on Instagram with the #mita30in30 hashtag, and it’s been afun challenge. At first I figured I wouldn’t need to go out of my way, that I’d naturally land on the islands during the course of my trips. But inevitably I’ve begun to veer toward islands with the goal of adding them to my list, as I did at McGlathery (#15). I’ve taken many pictures of this rock, but why not another?

It’s been fun to follow how other people have risen to this challenge as well. MITA posted an account of someone who took a motorboat around Casco Bay and bagged the 30 islands within 24 hours. I’ve been seeing some nice photos from these island visits on Instagram. And last week, Rebecca ran into a group of women who call themselves ‘Ladies Who Launch’ who took an epic trip around the archipelago to set foot on 18 MITA islands in one day. That sounded like fun, but I wasn’t going to take such extreme measures. Still, I felt the collecting impulse rising in me as I paddled across Merchant Row, plotting how to add a few more islands to my list. 

I pitched my tent on Wheat Island (#16) and after lunch headed next door to Burnt (#17). As popular as Wheat Island is, Burnt Island, less than a quarter-mile away, seems to get far less use. I’ve stopped before to try to locate something that looks like a campsite, and not found anything obvious. This is how it is at some private islands that don’t get a lot of use. There’s also brackish, standing water above the shore, which may be partially responsible for the island’s reputation for mosquitoes. Such a rumor certainly helps weed-out visitors, but even in the mid-day heat I slapped a few bugs, so it’s easy to imagine they might get a bit more intense toward dusk.

From there I went on to Isle au Haut and crossed over to Doliver Island (#18) where I ate my second sandwich. I hadn’t stopped on Doliver in years (perhaps this post from 2007 was my last visit?) having more or less decided that I preferred campsites that are less exposed – both to the environment and to homes on the shore of Isle au Haut. But it struck me differently this time and I instead saw the exposure to Jericho Bay as an asset, that not only was it a pretty place to eat lunch, but would be a special campsite as well. We should never make up our minds about a place after one visit. Maybe the grass was a little greener this time, or the lone spruce tree a little taller than before. Or I was simply in the right frame of mind.

I continued around York Island, enjoying the gentle swell along the rocks on the eastern shore, and then headed back to Wheat Island. 

I hung the hammock, took a swim and dried off in the sun. I realized I’d been looking forward to this down time about as much as I looked forward to the paddling. And it’s funny, how my incentive to paddle has changed over the years. We came to Maine not long after living on a Greek Island, where, when I got off work I would rush off on the scooter to a remote beach and just relax, usually with a bottle of retsina and a book. In my first years of running our gallery in downtown Stonington, I mostly just wanted an escape, a way to get to some remote beach like I did in Greece – a place where I could just chill. The kayak seemed the perfect way to get there, so I saw it more as vehicle: a way to get from point A to point B.

But as I learned how to maneuver my boat, I grew to love the getting there at least as much as any destination. It was all about the journey, not where I ended up. And I think that was reinforced by the kayaking education I’ve had, the emphasis on learning to maneuver well, the joy to be had in overcoming challenges, of riding a wave or slipping deftly through a rocky chasm, propelled by the sea. And since I then learned to teach these skills to other paddlers, the learning and teaching process sometimes overshadows our surroundings.

But last summer when Rebecca and I spent two months paddling the Maine coast, usually in heavily-laden boats, we began thinking more about the destination. Our life was easier if we didn’t dilly-dally too much along the way and we arrived at camp early enough to enjoy the place. We grew to love our zero days when we stayed in camp, usually avoiding some bad weather. My hammock became my living room and office, no matter where I hung it. And everywhere we paddled, we were struck by the beauty of the place. It’s the Maine coast in summer, after all: about as idyllic as it gets.

So lately it feels like my kayaking aims have come full-circle. I love both the journey and the destination, and I’ve been finding more time to enjoy those places. When I’m done with work early enough I’ve been getting out for a couple hours to just ‘hang-out’ somewhere. And my evening on Wheat Island was like that as well. I made dinner, watched the sun get absorbed by the clouds over the Camden Hills and made myself a cup of tea as the stars began appearing. In the morning I paddled back early, in time for a little breakfast before my morning trip.

The areas in this trip are featured in trips #14 and #15 in my guidebook, AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Lunch on Marshall Island, Dinner on Swans

Hutch and I both had the day off and, deciding to make the most of it, planned on a full-day paddle. Since it was a mid-day high tide and heading south against the current didn’t make much sense, we decided to head east, to Marshall Island. And just before we launched we discovered Old Quarry had a boat going over to Swans Island that evening to take passengers to a music festival at the Oddfellows Hall. Did we want to meet the boat over there, go to the concert and catch a ride back? Amazingly, we hesitated for about three minutes, since it hadn’t been our plan, but…well, duh. Of course we wanted to take a one-way paddle with a shuttle back.

We chatted as we paddled over to Marshall, which made the longer stretches go by quickly. In addition to a few parallel interests, we had some similarities in our lifestyle choices. Hutch and his spouse Shari have been here at Old Quarry for the summer, where they live in their 1957 ‘canned ham’-style trailer. The trailer is pretty small – only 15 feet long… and they’ve been living in it for 6 years! 

We curved around Saddleback Island and crossed Jericho Bay via Southern Mark Island and Saddleback Ledge. It was warm and sunny, clear, with fairly calm seas and not much wind: the sort of day you could go just about anywhere out there. As we neared the southwest end of Marshall Island, we heard a distinctive exhalation of air and saw a minke whale surface not far off, its long back curving above the surface, glistening in the sunlight until the dark triangle of the dorsal fin appeared for a moment before the whale dove again. Since minkes can remain submerged for some twenty minutes, it wouldn’t have surprised us if the first glimpse had been all we’d see, but the whale continued to surface, multiple times. We drifted and watched, all thoughts of getting anywhere temporarily forgotten.

I think that’s when a paddle gets good: when you stop thinking about the destination and you’re just focused on the present, wherever you are, and it’s a bit of a gift, when those moments occur unexpectedly. We landed in Boxam Cove and ate lunch, admiring the pink granite shoreline, banded with dark intrusive dikes – a distinct formation found at a number of headlands jutting southward into the sea along this stretch of coast. Of course we also had to stop at the sandy beach at the head of Sand Cove, if only for a short stroll on the beach and a visit to the tent platforms. We had it to ourselves.

We still had most of the afternoon to meander six or so miles along the islands and ledges leading to Swans Island. It’s a good thing we brought helmets, since the small swell made for some perfect rock play conditions. Again, we lost track of time, trying to catch little waves through the rocks or bumping over pour-overs. We could have almost forgotten our destination. 

This relaxed quality to our afternoon would have been difficult if we’d needed to paddle the ten or so miles to get directly back. Instead, we found ourselves at the end of the day, paddling into Burnt Coat Harbor where we waited for the Nigh Duck, floating just offshore. In the late-day light, the harbor, full of lobster boats as well as visiting cruising boats, felt hushed. We ransacked our supplies for any remaining food and ate afloat, watching schooner passengers getting ferried in to the dock.

The Nigh Duck arrived and while the first passengers were shuttled to the dock, Hutch and I climbed aboard and hoisted our kayaks to the cabin roof. We got into some dry clothes and caught the last trip to the dock. Despite having lived essentially next door to Swans Island for the last fifteen years, I haven’t explored much beyond the shoreline, so it was a treat merely to walk along the road to get to the Oddfellows Hall. It was quiet, hardly any cars about, and I admired a few century-old homes along the winding asphalt.

The Oddfellows Hall is massive, a tall wooden antique of a building with the auditorium, holding well over 200 people, on the second floor. The performance was already in progress, but we were expected and a staffer ushered us backstage and into the front row before a packed hall. The Sweet Chariot Music Festival has been going on every summer for over twenty years, a three-night event that attracts performers, usually with a folksy bent, from all over. Since Swans doesn’t have much in the way of accommodations and the last ferry leaves for Bass Harbor too early, the audience is mostly island residents and visiting boaters. Before the evening performance, musicians pile into boats and visit the schooners in the harbor, singing sea shanties. According to some, some of the real musical highlights occur during the after-parties.

But we had to leave before the show was over so we could motor back across Jericho Bay, itself a dreamy experience. The stars were bright, and the moon, just past full, rose over the ocean. Occasionally, headlights flashed atop Cadillac Mountain and our re-entry into our neighborhood was made obvious by the bright lights of the Haystack school angling up the hillside on Stinson Neck.

Hutch and Shari have a website called Freedom In A Can, where they share their blog posts, photos and helpful hints for those interested in their mobile lifestyle. They also write blog posts for The Dyrt.

The Sweet Chariot Music Festival happens around this time every summer. What a cool event: check it out!

Each act in the festival gets about fifteen minutes on stage. One group I particularly liked was a college-age trio from Camden called The Push Farther Project. They play a variety of instruments, including cello and other strings, and create unusual harmonies to sing what they call “documentary” songs that incorporate stories gleaned from other people’s experiences.

Trip #13 in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England covers Swans Island. Buy this book. Buy this book. Buy this book. Repeat after me… I will buy this book…

Friday, July 27, 2018

Greetings From Tumbledown Dick Head!

I’ve wanted to use that title for some time now. Tumbledown Dick Head is a steep section of shoreline on Pleasant Bay, in Addison Maine that until a few days ago I’d only experienced as that – a feature on the chart that just naturally seemed to invite exploration. Nate and I have been fond of using it during tabletop navigation exercises, and last year, when Rebecca and I camped nearby during our Upwest and Downeast trip, I kept looking forlornly up the bay, wanting to check it out. We finally managed to get there. 

We had a day off and drove to the Addison Point launch, where we caught the outgoing tidal current on the Pleasant River that helped us along. The wind from the south made it a bumpy ride, and by the time the river turned to Pleasant Bay, fingers of dense fog began drifting in. We navigated buoy to buoy, a quick ride to Mink Island, a tiny MITA island, where we stopped for lunch and the fog thickened. We found ourselves, as we often do, off in our own little world for a bit.

We were already feeling good just to be away from work, off the island (Deer Isle) for a day, to be off doing our own thing for a change. I hadn’t driven to many new places to launch for a while, and it all felt familiar and good… stopping to pick up a submarine sandwich to take along for lunch, chatting with a local guy who’d just returned to the launch after tending his recreational lobster traps, watching the current heading out to sea, knowing we’d planned well and we’d get a considerable push from it. And then finally, landing in a place we hadn’t been before, checking out the campsite, taking it all in.

Since this is the Maine Island Trail’s 30th year, they’re doing a challenge called “MITA 30 in 30” that encourages people to visit at least thirty MITA islands this summer by offering a cap for those who manage 30 islands. I’ve been posting photos on Instagram as I’ve visited the islands, which has been a fun challenge and an easy way to document it.

If the fog had been less dense, we would have continued to Sheep Island, which we enjoyed so much last summer that we stayed there twice, and even spent a zero day hanging out there. But the fog was about as dense as it gets, so instead we paddled through the Birch Islands and followed a bearing over to the Addison shore, where we visited Marsh Harbor Island, another MITA island, and then followed the shore north to Tumbledown Dick Head.

As far as I can tell, the odd name of the place probably comes either from Richard Cromwell, a 17th century English head of state whose ineffectiveness earned him a short time in power and the nickname, or from a pub named after him. Either way, it made me want to go to this place, which is worth visiting – a steep cliff rising from the bay – but perhaps less singular than its name.

Of course, by this time, low tide had come and gone, and we had a nice push from the current to help us the 6 or 7 nautical miles back to the launch.

You can see my Instagram photos here. I've more or less stopped using Facebook except to post this blog - for several reasons, but I enjoy the photo sharing more than the sharing of just about everything else that you find on Facebook. I know - you probably followed the link here from Facebook... probably the only reason I still use it at all.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

After Work on Millet, Around Isle au Haut

On Friday, I spent my first day in Old Quarry’s new downtown shop, or as we call it, ‘The Outpost.’ It was a quiet day there, with occasional people trickling in throughout the day, buying t-shirts and browsing the odds and ends we have for sale there.

But Rebecca had a morning trip, and since her boat was already packed and she had no other work for the rest of the day, she headed out on her own and texted me that she’d ended up on Millet Island, suggesting I join her after work. I hurriedly closed the shop and back at Old Quarry, got my gear together. It was almost six by the time I was on the water, but I aimed toward Millet and focused on keeping a brisk pace that reminded me of the post-work paddles I took during our first years of having the gallery in downtown Stonington. I’d shoot out into the islands with a breathless cadence, exorcising my storekeeping frustrations, and by the time I felt myself buoyed by a mild swell, my mind felt cleansed, my anxieties momentarily set aside. As I approached Millet Island, I saw Rebecca standing with her sketchpad near the water, and I paddled up to her casually and said “hi.”

We didn’t have a lot of time before it would start getting dark, but even an hour out there is a gift. I took a swim. The sun still felt warm enough to lie on a slab of granite to dry. We sat with cold beverages and ate chips and watched the sun lower over the Hells Half Acre neighborhood. We reminded ourselves that this was always out there waiting; we merely needed the time and the motivation to get out there. As we paddled back to Webb Cove, fog drifted back in, lit brilliantly red by the sunset. I left my boat packed, since I had a full day trip the next morning. All I knew was that I had a couple who wanted to go to Isle au Haut.

It turned out that they not only wanted to get to Isle au Haut, but to the southern end of it – not a small trip by any means, but they assured me they’d been taking paddles at home, working up to it, and in a tandem they were at least powered by two paddlers. We arrived at Steves Island 30 or 40 minutes after launching – a brisk pace – and we explored for a few minutes to let some fog drift past before heading across Merchants Row.

The pace continued and I sensed that we might actually get to the southern end, which we did finally. The tides were in our favor, with low tide at around one. The weather was calm, the fog had cleared, and the seas were small, so it seemed crazy to not take advantage of it. Of course, by the time you get to Western Head, you may as well continue with a circumnavigation. We’d gone a little under twelve nautical miles, and it would take just over twelve to get back via circumnavigating.

Of course by that time my clients were pretty worn-out, but there wasn’t much choice but to dig in and get ourselves back… which we did. I had to radio the office to expect us late, promising to punch out at my usual time instead of my actual guiding time, nearly four hours beyond what I could get paid for on a full-day trip. Perhaps this isn’t sustainable as a business model, but at least I got to paddle around Isle au Haut, which is better than sitting in a shop all day.
More information about these trips may be found in Trips #14 and #15 in my guidebook AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England.

Care to join me on a more epic full-day paddle like this one? Call Old Quarry (207/367-8977) and tell them Michael sent you.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Time-Out on Western Head

Sometimes, during the first five minutes of a paddle it feels like hard work, and I wonder: how am I going to go x miles today? And then, hopefully, we become a little less aware of the effort, focusing on executing a clean and efficient forward stroke, making a few turns around the rocks along shore, and maybe we start chatting. The miles go past, we get where we’re going, a little more worn-out than maybe we’d like, but we’re paddling again.

It was like that the other day when Rebecca and I left Old Quarry for a two-night trip out to Duck Harbor on Isle au Haut. And we weren’t surprised to feel the paddling muscles grind so slowly into action; we’d just gone through a winter of no paddling – the longest paddle-less stretch we’d endured since we dove into the sport. In Newfoundland, we got in a few excursions into November before the wind and snow and cold made such trips less enticing.

But it felt good to be paddling in the Stonington archipelago again. We’d been here at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures for seven weeks, and we’d kept busy, helping to get the place ready for another summer. It’s amazing how much pre-season work there is to do here: downed trees, tired kayaks, a new reservation system in the office, boats to launch – projects everywhere you look. Old Quarry is even opening a new shop in town. And in early May the kayaking work began to trickle-in again, both here and with Pinniped. So I had paddled some, but only for work. The work/play paradigm quickly reminded me of what a gift last summer was: two months of living out of our kayaks along the Maine coast, just going where we wanted to go, at our own pace. 

A few days before Memorial Day weekend when the season really began, we had coveted reservations at Duck Harbor, Acadia National Park’s remotest and smallest camping area, with only five Adirondack-style shelters near Isle au Haut’s southern end. The day felt perfect: sunny, almost warm, and we took our time, stopping to take-in Harbor Island and then Nathan Island before paddling through the Isle au Haut Thorofare past the village, where hardly a soul stirred. Passing Robinson Point Lighthouse and then Trial Point, we were drawn onward by the gently-building swell and the broad horizon ahead. The southwest shore reached seaward, a craggy stretch, interspersed with cobble beaches. By then, the western sky had darkened with tall cumulonimbus clouds, and it seemed prudent to get where we were going.

It was a good choice. Thunder rumbled as we pulled our boats ashore and carried our gear in Ikea bags up to our site. We’d no sooner stashed everything inside the 3-sided Adirondack shelter when the storm hit. I hung my hammock across the entrance and watched the rain pouring from the roof only feet away. Nice.

We spent most of our time there hiking: slow dreamy hikes out to Ebens Head and around Western Head. We paused on cobble beaches for hours at a time to read, take pictures, have lunch or just nap in the sun. It was pretty quiet: few other people.

While all of Isle au Haut is relatively remote and wild, the southern end, which is mostly part of Acadia National Park is especially off in its own world.

On Friday morning we woke to the white background roar of the sea: strong southwest winds and swell, the surface of West Penobscot Bay a messy froth of breaking waves. It was a challenging start, and a bit intimidating since we were out of practice, but we fell into the familiar rhythm, occasionally pausing as we heard a beam wave rise beside us and crumbling beneath our hulls, sometimes opening a plunging trough before us. Frequent splashes over the bow or the cockpit reminded us of how cold the water was – the buoys all still reporting high forties – and increased our resolve to remain above the surface. We got through it, and past Trial Point we were able to turn north and let the seas push us toward the lighthouse where the waves diminished.

We took a break on Steves and made it back to Old Quarry in time for my afternoon trip.

Duck Harbor Campground requires reservations well in advance and is mostly filled in early April after reservations open. However, the campground has a new online system that is easier than the old mail-in process. It also makes it possible that cancellations could result in last-minute openings, so it’s worth checking, even in mid-summer.

This route is covered in Trip #15 in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England. If you haven’t already, you really ought to buy this book.

If a guided experience in this area interests you, I will be guiding a multi-day trip in the archipelago/Isle au Haut area, in early August through Pinniped Kayak.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Green Gardens Hike, Newfoundland


The northeast corner of Bonne Bay rises up to a rugged, barren ridge called The Lookout Hills, the biggest of which – Big Lookout – is 600 meters (1968 feet) above sea level. And it’s only about a mile from the sea, so it’s a pretty steep slope that more or less drops right into the ocean. From where we’re living right now, we look out across Bonne Bay at this ridge, as well as the mouth of the bay. It is spectacular. We've been here about two months now, and it is still difficult to look out the window without getting momentarily distracted – a good problem to have.

It’s good to have such a view when you’re inside working much of the time, which is how we spend the first parts of our days. Distracting as it may be, it makes you feel like you’re not totally missing-out on what’s outside. Sometime in the afternoon we usually get out for a walk on one of the shorter trails, not so far away, as much to stretch our legs and get a little exercise as to explore and take a few snapshots. There have been a few days when we realize, usually too late, that it would have been okay for a paddle, perhaps in one of the more sheltered nooks of the bay, but we’ve felt more motivated to walk than paddle. Most days the temperatures have hovered in the low 30s (or around zero, as they say around here) and it tends to get windy at some point. 

I’ve often gazed across the bay at the Lookout Hills and wondered what it would be like over there. Just beyond that ridge, around the corner from this view we have, the shore stretches about 8 statute miles to the southwest, to the town of Trout River. It’s a rugged stretch of coast, but there’s one area with a popular trail, called Green Gardens, so named for the gentle, rolling pastures perched atop the steep, shore-side cliffs. It is all part of Gros Morne National Park.

A week ago we took a hike down to Green Gardens. This is a full-day trip for us, since the trailhead is about an hour’s drive from here, and the hike itself- the short version that just goes from the trailhead down to the sea, and then back up – is about 9 or 10 kilometers (6 or 7 miles total). (The longer version is now closed, due to erosion). The weather forecast didn’t look great- a bit windy in the morning, increasing to a gale warning in the afternoon, along with the arrival of a snowstorm. But it was the day we had planned, the day we could do it, so we stuck to our plan – which, I was too aware, is the auspicious beginning of many outdoor survival stories. 

The trailhead lies high on a plain between The Tablelands and The Lookout Hills, in a treeless, rocky tundra, gorgeously austere, but with nothing to buffer the wind. We had it at our backs for the first stretch, a mile or so in which we climbed a couple hundred feet in elevation, and were aware that returning against it might be difficult. We reasoned that after we crested the hilltop, we would be somewhat sheltered as we descended toward the ocean- and we were. It’s a different landscape on that side, with trees, ponds and meadows. The Gulf of Saint Lawrence came into view, steely grey, corrugated with whitecaps, and we made our way down toward it, stepping through shallow snow, which tapered-out into mud and bare rock as we descended.

It’s a bit backward from hiking up mountains. We hiked mostly downhill to our destination, and had an uphill climb to look forward to for the trip back. But the destination – Green Gardens – was astonishingly beautiful, even now, when it wasn’t all that green. We came to the tops of steep cliffs and walked along these meadows and pastures, dotted with piles of sheep poop, looking down at rocks and sea stacks below. It invited us to imagine paddling there. We were glad to not be paddling then- cold and windy as it was, but what a playground! The near-shore area lay in the lee, the whitecaps and big, lumpy seas beginning maybe a quarter-mile out. The shore had big, dark beaches and cliffs – probably anywhere from fifty to a hundred feet – rising just above them. 

And the pastures themselves felt like playgrounds, grassy fields to romp through, with weird rock formations like sculptures or perhaps the set of a Dr. Seuss drama. On top of that, there are some campsites there: tent platforms, picnic tables, privies. I wouldn’t want to carry boats and gear up there from the shore (and you would probably need to carry everything up, unless you were sure the tide wouldn’t come too high) but it would be a great place walk to and camp. 

We walked a little ways down the shore, had some lunch and then headed back-up. We knew the storm was coming, and as if on cue, the snow began.

We encountered a young woman walking toward us, which came as a surprise, with the storm coming, and she didn’t look terribly prepared. But she also looked young and energetic. The wind increased as we climbed – we had nearly 800 feet in elevation to attain – and as we came back over the ridge, it hit us in the face, driving the snow – and sometimes painful bits of sleet – into our faces. But we were warmed-up from the climb, and just leaned into it, savoring the severity of the scene. It was a relief to climb back into the car. 

We worried about the young woman we’d encountered, and stopped at the park office to let them know she was out there. A ranger said he’d keep an eye out and make sure she got back to her car.

This hike is in Gros Morne National Park. Visitor’s centers are closed for the winter, but you can find information on their website. They sell a small-scale topo map that covers the whole park – not a lot of detail, but it gives you an idea where you’re going.

I also have enjoyed Hikes of Western Newfoundland, by Katie Broadhurst and Alexandra Fortin. It provides basic details for a number of hikes in the area, including several off-trail, multi-day backcountry hikes, which certainly fuels my imagination for warmer-weather treks. Alex Fortin and her partner Cory also have a website called Wildly Intrepid, which is full of inspiration for adventure travel.

I’m really pleased that a photo I took was chosen as the winner of The Preserve Prize in Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s Wild Maine CoastContest. The photo was taken at Western Head Preserve in Cutler, and is described in this blog post from September. There were a lot of gorgeous photos entered in the contest; I’m very grateful to have been chosen.

We still don’t have much in the way of plans; we’re mostly focusing on the present, trying to get as much work done as we can. Hopefully we’ll share some of that before too long. Of course, lately our distractions have included not just the magnificent view from the window, but from where I sit at the kitchen table we see the occasional spouts and diving tail flukes of humpback whales, as well as others. There's herring in the bay, and at night, the lights of seining boats float out there in the dark.

We’ve also been able to spend some time with Rebecca’s parents, and with other family and friends. I’ve continued to post snapshots every now and then on Instagram. I’m still not sure why I’m doing this (a bit like writing blog posts) but it is oddly compelling, and I enjoy perusing other people’s photos more than a lot of the ‘content’ that gets passed-around on Facebook. 

Oh yes, I suppose it's worth mentioning: my sea kayaking guidebook, AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England makes a great gift. 

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.

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).