Dick and Kale met me at the ramp in Stonington. Temps hovered around freezing with a breezy north wind, but the sun on my face felt warm. The breeze gave us a push as we paddled toward the sloping profile of Steves Island.
I hadn’t paddled here in awhile. Lately I’ve preferred to car-top elsewhere, getting better acquainted with areas I don’t know as well, a satisfying process as I stare at the chart and see the pieces coming together. The satisfaction deepens when you return and see those places at a different tide, or in different weather, and your experience with a place starts to take on layers, informed by what happened each time you were there.
A few weeks ago, paddling around Bartlett Island off MDI, I remembered how a group I had guided there started singing. As I paddled, the song came back to me- not the popular rock band’s version, but the students paddling their kayaks version. The song drifted through my head as I slowed to stare at tall icicles dripping down the cliffs. Then, below those icicles there was movement, and a coyote took a good look at me before loping off into the woods. And so another layer was added to my experience of the place.
But in the Stonington archipelago, my adopted backyard, there are enough layers of experience that they all blend together. I've paddled certain routes enough that it sometimes feels like a routine evening stroll, my mind wandering among my thoughts as much as the landscape. Other times, it’s all still new. Having someone else along adds a whole new dimension. We paddled to some favorite spots: the tiny island paradise of Steves, McGlathery with its boulders perched on sloping slabs of granite, and on to Gooseberry, where we took a break. Out of the wind, with the sun on us, we felt plenty warm.
Meandering into the wind back toward Stonington, we hopscotched in the lee of islands: back to McGlathery, over to Spruce and on toward Hells Half Acre. Wherever we stopped, the beaches looked inviting with little to visually suggest that it was January. In colder months as the water cools, the algae thins-out, and the water turns clear... inviting even, if you weren't moving just to stay warm.
Despite the name of this blog, I sometimes wonder how long I can keep writing about paddling around Stonington and keep it interesting, at least for myself. One way is to get out of Stonington and then return. I like Thoreau's often-quoted statement from Walden: "I have traveled a good deal in Concord...". A case could be made that experience is experience, that it is just as rich to travel in small circles and get to know your backyard as it is to make an extended journey. I love reading accounts of extended journeys, yet I often read with a skeptical eye when the author claims more than he should about a place he glimpsed for a tiny fraction of its (and his) history.
There are too many variables: the tide, the weather and season, and perhaps most importantly- what's going on in the author's head. I think I've been skimming over the surface in these dispatches, and maybe that's all I will ever do. But when we land on some of these islands, or when I let the waves toss me along their shores... it's hard to describe the feeling. I walked among the sun-warmed boulders on Gooseberry and felt something bittersweet, that I loved it so much I didn't want to leave. I could only express this to my friends by saying something like "I really like this place." For now, I'll just leave it at that.