July third, Bar Harbor. We unload our boats and Nate drives around for awhile to find a parking space while Peter and I get into our drysuits, readying the kayaks. Amid a tour group in tandems and a group of wetsuited stand-up paddleboard students, we launch a little after high tide and soon follow the shores of Bar and Sheep Porcupine Islands. It’s a perfect day: warm with poofy clouds rising in the distance. I’m accustomed to being denied such perfect conditions, and it feels strange, like I’m playing hooky. July third and I'm not working; Rebecca is in the gallery. Nate and I had work-related plans that got us here, but now we have a whole day off in Frenchman Bay. I feel grateful with every stroke I take.
Nate and I have been concerned that the bulk of our fair weather paddling is becoming work, rather than play. Today will be dedicated solely to play. And it turns out to be even more play than we might have guessed. There's just enough swell coming-in to create plenty of opportunities among the rocks, but not so much as to be particularly intimidating. We meander along the shore, letting the surf buoy us over ledges, riding into wave-amplifying slots, and generally looking for trouble.
The Keyhole, a large slot on Burnt Porcupine, is relatively calm. We're able to ride in on a small wave and land on the smooth cobbles at the end.
We all have memories of each feature in much bigger conditions. In my mind's eye I have superimposed images of huge surf that kept us from even getting near the rocks. This is just about perfect, and we have it all to ourselves. Clusters of tandems in tour groups amble past, far-off shore, but we see no other individual paddlers. As usual, a few tour boats pass by, passengers crowded at the rails, and as always, I feel pretty lucky to be the guy in the little boat getting the close-up view of the shoreline.
As we move further out, the swell gradually increases. It’s a nice progression. We warm-up with easier challenges and slowly up the ante. I occasionally need to explain rock gardening to someone; it’s easy for me to forget how bafflingly odd it may sound to people who think sea kayaking is all about getting to a destination. It usually starts-out on flat water as a way to challenge your boat handling skills: see if you can squeeze through those rocks and make that quick turn at the end. Then add a little swell. Then let the swell create opportunities that weren’t there in flat water. Your maneuvers become timed with the in and out motion of the sea sliding in between and over the rocks... and you begin sliding in between and over the rocks.
But that’s just the physical challenge of the paddle. There is still a destination involved. We were there within moments of launching, and we’re there the rest of the day. Cliffs rise above us, stretching along the shoreline, and below them are playgrounds of hidden coves, rocky chasms and pillars of dark rock (Ellsworth schist?). I keep having these moments- it’s hard to explain, but these instant revelations that go something like this: wow, oh man, awesome, wow. I know... deep.
This goes on all day. On to Long Porcupine Key and then Ironbound Island where we paddle into dark sea caves below the tall cliffs and finally, grudgingly, we make the call to head back.
It’s tough to stay away from the rocks as we paddle back to Bar Harbor. It feels so strange then, to pull-up at the town landing, an amphitheater-like beach, and emerge dripping wet from the sea, hauling our boats up onto the green grass of a park. The town is bustling, buzzing, and it feels strange and good to peel-off our wet gear amid all of these clean, curious bystanders who point their cameras our way like we’re rare sea creatures emerging from the deep.