Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paddling Around Our Backyard, Part II

Our arrival at Brimstone Island had the feel of a pilgrimage. We've seen this island from afar, jutting from the ocean, and often wondered how it would feel. The name suggests volcanic, even demonic influences; the sort of place where you'd discover the portal that leads to the center of the earth or a different plane of existence. Indeed, it feels wild, but not quite so otherworldly as we might have thought.

From our usual vantage point in the Stonington archipelago, Brimstone appears set apart, larger than life. In reality, the 32-acre island rises 112 feet from the sea and shares the company of several lower islands. Dark, polished stones make up the beach, clattering like billiard balls when the waves toss them about. The grassy highlands rise gently skyward, purple asters blooming everywhere, while below, swells from the deep Atlantic hammer the encircling cliffs, ringing the island with white spray. From the summit, Vinalhaven seems almost close, while Matinicus and Criehaven are bumps on the horizon. A thick fog bank hung between us and Isle au Haut, where we were headed next.

We left Brimstone Island, heading into the fog toward Western Ear on Isle au Haut, a five-mile crossing.

We followed a compass heading directly toward Western Ear, a line that effectively separates the open ocean from the beginning of Penobscot Bay. We soon found ourselves in a wordless rhythm of bumpy, horizonless paddling. In the fog, there's little to lend scale to the scene, and it's difficult to tell how far one can see. You just keep paddling, keep adjusting for the compass, and hope you're going the right way. Finally, we heard a hooting sound, and the light on Saddleback Ledge came into view.

I felt immensely relieved to see the lighthouse; we were right on course, and had covered almost half of the crossing. Not long afterward, the profile of Isle au Haut appeared from the clearing fog; we were headed straight for Western Ear. By the time we rounded Isle au Haut, the fog returned, thicker than ever, accompanied by increased wind and waves. Our progress slowed, and it was getting dark, so we stopped short of our destination and made camp.

The weather forecast wasn't good: it looked like we might be stuck on this island for a couple nights. The next morning the fog cleared, replaced by strong winds and waves. We decided to stay put for awhile. Over the phone, Rebecca told us that Mt. Desert Rock reported 29-knot winds. We waited. Some fishermen came close to shore and gestured, shouting a question that could only be an inquiry about our well-being. We gave them the thumbs-up, and they motored away, splashing heavily through the waves.

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