It starts at Sparrow Island. We’ve taken a break on the beach, with the seals swimming increasingly closer, poking their heads up for a look before splashing away. We’d stood on the grassy top of the island, enjoying the feeling of apartness that this treeless bump on the ocean inspires. Sparrow is one of the more “out there” islands with only open ocean between it and Saddleback Light, a bump on the horizon six miles away.
But we’re headed back into the archipelago, with all afternoon to explore. This is Nate’s first visit to these islands, and we hardly knew where to begin. We start paddling toward Ram Island, but something about the rocks just offshore seems worth checking out. It’s high tide and when the swell rolls-in, narrow passages appear among the rocks. If you time it just right you can glide right through. Or not. Nate makes it through a slot in the rocks, and I just have to follow. In fact, maybe I could fit through that even narrower slot: no room for a paddle, but if you get going and the swell takes you...
And look at that little wave that forms over the reef... almost surfable. When we drag ourselves away and point toward Ram Island, there’s eight or more seals gathered around, poking their heads up. I won’t assign them human expressions, but they’re suddenly very interested in us.
The distance we paddle along the shorelines of Ram, Hardwood and Merchant Islands only adds-up to a couple miles, but if you’ve ever taken a bird dog for a walk in a meadow, you know how they go back and forth, sniffing everything, and the dog probably walks three miles for every one of yours. That’s how it is when you’re compulsively looking for the next feature among the rocks. The shores of these islands are strewn with glacial erratic boulders, and at high tide, it’s a playground.
The glacier left a messy tumble of boulders beside Hardwood Island, and here we find a four-way intersection that can be paddled around and around, a different passage through the rocks each time. You have to try to time it with the swell, but inevitably, it sometimes catches you in an awkward position and you lose as much gelcoat from the sides as from the bottom of the hull. That scraping sound becomes a recurring theme.
Beside Merchant, Nate gets tossed about and left high and dry between two rocks, leaning heavily upon his paddle until another swell comes in... and lands him higher. I’m torn between wanting to take a picture and getting myself into position to help. There’s not much for me to do though, and the next swell removes him from his perch.
By the time we get to Gooseberry Island, we’ve become aware of the time and we have to cut down on all this dilly-dallying. The hour or so it takes to get back to the ramp feels like a bit of a slog... all that straightforward paddling you need to do to get somewhere. Sometimes, the distractions along the way are the best part.