Before each academic year, College of the Atlantic offers an orientation trip to their incoming freshmen. These trips range from hiking on the AT, canoeing on the Allagash, sailing and - of course, sea kayaking. Mel (former co-proprietor of Bar Harbor’s Carpe Diem Sea Kayaking) and I would each take a group - seven students and two student leaders in three tandems and three singles- from Stonington to Mount Desert Island. Her group favored a more sheltered northern route around MDI. The student leaders in my group, veterans of Patagonian sea kayaking with NOLS and teaching sea kayaking to kids at Rippleffect, hoped to lead our group around the wilder and more exposed southern end of MDI. Of course, everything would depend on the weather and the group.
We met Monday morning at Old Quarry and spent the afternoon practicing rescues in the pond. In between learning to pack gear, setting-up tents and making meals, the groups circled-up often, getting to know each other. That was the real point of the trip. The fireworks that erupted that night over Stonington Harbor (they followed the Flash! In The Pans performance at the Fish Pier) seemed appropriate somehow. This was a significant time for these students. For some, that night was the first they had ever been camping.
On Tuesday morning as waves of rain and fog swept through, we packed boats and launched. The sky gradually cleared, but as we stopped for lunch on Saddleback Island, we had our eyes on tall ominous clouds growing in the western sky. Since the next day’s forecast called for strong winds, we’d decided to get across Jericho Bay while the getting was good. It wasn’t good for long; just as we started pulling our boats into the water, thunder rumbled in the west. We all looked at each other and I said “We’re staying here.” It pays to make lunch stops on potential camping islands.
We got camp set-up and the storm came through - not too bad, but had we left it would have caught us out in the middle of Jericho Bay. Everyone seemed content to be on Saddleback, especially as the sun came-out. Some of us hiked around the island. Later, we sat on the sloping granite slabs and ate dinner as the sun set and lights came on in Stonington.
We made our way to Bar Harbor over the next four days. We faced plenty of wind and waves as well as seasickness and other ailments, but the students’ spirits remained high, and they were patient - good at helping each other over the tough spots. They didn’t seem to care much where the route took us; it was all good. We camped at Hog Island, off Naskeag Point and on to Hardwood Island, where the owners gave us permission to camp above the beach. With forecasts looming for ever-increasing wind, our route shifted to the north side of MDI, and we made our way up through Bartlett Narrows and beneath the bridge to our last evening’s destination, Thomas Island.
We often played games as we paddled: “if you were a pirate ship, what weapon would you choose?” After everyone else had chosen deck-mounted machine guns or light sabers or whatever, I said I was a pacifist, just because my mind was on other things. We were, after all, in the middle of crossing Blue Hill Bay, with the tide picking-up against the wind, the waves growing steeper, and I really just wanted to get the group across. Of course, part of their goal was to distract their seasick friend.
One thing I like about teaching and guiding is seeing improvement- a change in people’s skills and confidence. This comes in many forms. The students who could barely make progress against the wind on Tuesday focused on their form, and by the end of the week had better forward strokes. On that last evening I vowed to myself to not nag about moving the boats above the high tide line. I wasn’t going to let the boats drift away on one of the highest tides of the month, but it was time for someone else to take charge, and sure enough, they did, pulling the boats up and tying them off to a tree. Some students took extra trips with me in the late afternoons, and it seemed clear that they’d discovered something that they might stick with.
On the last evening, the full moon shone on Cadillac Mountain, where headlights occasionally poked through the night. We finished dinner and sat around a candle. That pirate ship question came back again, and I was encouraged to choose a weapon. I thought about the sci-fi television I’d seen lately and the answer just came-out: “an FTL drive.” After a moment’s silence, someone said “a faster than light drive... not bad.” I felt I’d passed a test.
On the last morning, I suggested to the student leaders that they could take charge on the water and I’d hang-back a bit. The directions were straightforward enough: keep Mount Desert Island on your right for about eight miles until you see Bar Harbor.
We paddled straight lines far from shore- the most direct route to get us there. At Hadley Point we ran into the other group- they were heading-out for a day in the Porcupines. I suggested to my group that if anyone wanted to, we could check-out the Porcupines as well, but they seemed focused on the destination: the comforts of their new dorm rooms- flush toilets, television and computers. For miles, we paddled along while the students played games. Gandalf or that wizard from Harry Potter? Beatles or Rolling Stones (I woke up for that one- the sole Stones supporter). On and on. Nautical miles had been replaced by highway miles, and the games made them go past. I pulled into the caves at the Ovens- spectacular cliffs dropping directly into the sea- and the group kept paddling, getting far ahead without once glancing back to see if they still had a guide.
But it felt good to round the corner into Frenchman Bay and to see the Porcupines spread-out to the south. The predicted strong winds peaked before we launched, and the rest of the day looked relatively mellow. We passed Hulls Cove and a few big old houses on our way into Bar Harbor- passed the old ferry dock, and there it was: College of the Atlantic with its steel pier and a little beach just waiting for us. One by one we landed, and began unpacking boats.
I thought I would accept a ride back to Stonington, but my boat sat near the water’s edge, ready, too much to resist. At mid-day, I still had hours to get to a campsite that night, and I could take all of Sunday to get back home to Stonington. I got rid of my garbage, topped-off my water, accepted a gift of some leftover chocolate (very much appreciated) and said my goodbyes. Then I paddled back to Stonington. Another story.