Friday, October 15, 2010

Sullivan Falls

We’re lucky here in Stonington that launching usually involves walking over to the ramp, getting the boat out of our storage area, and going. I have to admit though, that on those rare days we car-top the kayaks to another launch, I enjoy that first part of the day: driving along, listening to some music, getting a coffee and a snack at the Blue Hill Coop. Yesterday, after a rosy sunrise portending today’s nor’easter, I drove off the island, admiring brilliant foliage in the sunshine. There was some traffic, but in no particular hurry, I got out of it atop Caterpillar Hill, where I paused to admire the fog hanging in the valleys, and Penobscot Bay spread-out, just like on the chart I spend too much time poring over.

Sullivan Falls lies at the head of Sullivan Harbor, which lies at the head of Frenchman Bay. The harbor narrows into a river-like passage, which is then further constricted by a peninsula jutting from the north shore, blocking three-quarters of the “river”, constricting the current to a width not more than a couple-hundred yards. As the tide comes in and goes out, the ocean squeezes into this slot, accelerating the current and causing standing waves to develop. The current reaches a crescendo at mid-tide, then tapers-off until slack tide, which is almost imperceptible as the currents continue to roil. Then the current changes direction and begins building speed once again, with an entirely new set of waves and features.

I met Nate at Sullivan Falls during its mid-tide ebb, with enough current running through to get the butterflies low in my stomach to start fluttering. Soon, Peter and Leif arrived from the Belfast area, and we were all on the water, cautiously peeling into eddies, getting the feel for the current while Nate traversed the wave sets, and caught a nice ride or two. Nate recently spent some time at Sullivan during the Downeast Sea Kayaking Symposium. Peter and Leif were new to paddling in tidal currents. I’d taken a class with Mark Schoon at Sullivan Falls three years ago, and had played a few times in Bagaduce and Blue Hill Falls. Still, I haven’t done it enough to feel at ease with a strong current and big waves.

We cautiously made forays into the current, and bit by bit, those intimidating waves in mid-channel began to look more manageable. We parked behind a ledge and took turns trying to get onto the wave. It’s tricky. You need to keep the bow into the current with just enough angle to ferry sideways, but not so much that the current spins you around. And if it does, you need to brace on the downstream side- opposite our usual instincts to brace into the waves. It helps to be committed, to know that you really do want the current to suck you down into that gully and up onto the face of that roaring wave.

My first few tries lacked commitment, and I watched as I slipped past the wave, and into the messy, but manageable turmoil below. But I edged closer each time. Finally- maybe after the wave had diminished sufficiently- I was on it, edging sideways, watching spray erupt from my bow. Over the roar, I heard encouraging sounds from the guys nearby. It felt good. It was easier after that, and soon we were all riding the quickly-shrinking wave, finally paddling back and forth over the spot where it had been, like we were dancing on its grave.

While we ate lunch, we watched for the current to turn- about two hours after low tide, and hurried back out as a new set of waves formed. The waves looked small from shore, but by the time we paddled onto them, they made smooth and shallow corrugations- easily surfable. We all got on that front wave as the current began to build, surfing side by side, occasionally bumping into each other, but reveling in the relative ease it took to ride. You could fall off the wave and pause in the current below before powering back up onto it. It felt magical. And I could take photos while on the wave.

That probably lasted for an hour as the current built until finally we could no longer power ourselves onto the leading waves. I felt exhausted. We played around some more in a couple of other spots, but our energy was mostly used-up. It’s worth mentioning that there were the expected capsizes and rescues, all of which went well, but seemed more difficult to carry off with finesse as fatigue set-in.

The drive home was as much a treat as the morning commute: a quick stop at the L.L. Bean outlet, a coffee from the usual gas station and a new CD to listen to as I drove toward a sunset of tall, billowing clouds.

Here's a blog called Penobscot Paddles
, written by someone who paddles in some of the same spots we do, as well as a few places I hadn't thought of yet (like the canals in Bangor)- lots of fun.


PenobscotPaddles said...

Thanks for the referral, though I suspect it gives your readers adrenaline whiplash. I was wondering what you would have done with the swells off the Porcupine, I think I found the answer in your Aug 25, 2009 post. I bow in awe of your kayaking prowess!

Speedbumps said...

"Adrenaline whiplash"- I like that- maybe a good model name for a kayak. Playing in the falls is fun (and helps build confidence for rougher conditions) but most of the time we like to go places on the water... which is what I like about your blog. Your descriptions make me want to go to all those places.