I paddled past the breakwaters at the Rye Harbor entrance and took the inevitable pause to look out at the distant islands and think “sheesh, that’s far,” but I didn’t pause for long. The sea looked about as calm as it might ever get, and with about six miles between me and the islands, I figured I’d best get to it.
What most people know about Isles of Shoals probably concerns its history, mostly from the late 1800s: a notorious axe murder on Smuttynose Island, Celia Thaxter’s salon of artists coming and going on Appledore Island. For most sea kayakers though, it probably stands out more as a challenging crossing. And also because there just aren’t a lot of islands off this stretch of coast, which is all exposed to the infinite horizon of the open ocean and whatever conditions that may bring. I paddled and paddled, trying to avoid pausing to wonder how far I’d come and how far I had to go. The islands slowly grew closer, the features more distinct. An old WWII concrete radar tower identified Appledore, and the grand old hotel-- classic white with a red roof stood-out on Star Island. I aimed for the lighthouse on White Island.
I encountered few boats during my passage: a whale watch boat that launched shortly after I did, a few recreational fishing boats and a handful of lobster boats. Far to the south, the blades of wind generators turned in the haze. I occasionally found a range on the sparse buoys, and determined that the current carried me a bit to the south, so I adjusted as well as I could. Finally, I approached White Island. Neighboring Seavey Island is separated by a sandbar, home to a noisy tern colony. Three people walked carefully around, inspecting nests. I went around the lighthouse, where a couple came out and waved.
I paddled around the east side of the islands. Despite the calm conditions, enough swell came in to keep it lively near the shore. Being alone and some seven miles out to sea, I stayed away from the rocks. Breakwaters are built between Star, Cedar and Smuttynose, and the shore on the east side is pretty rough, so even though I’d been in my boat for awhile, there was no stopping. On the north side of Appledore I found some nice slots with land-able cobbles but I kept moving, on around to the west side harbor, overlooked by the old radar tower and the buildings of Shoals Marine Laboratory.
I took a break on Smuttynose Island, but kept it quick. The wind was picking up and I didn’t want to push my luck. I took a quick tour around Gosport Harbor and past the Star Island waterfront, where workers were busy readying the conference center for its summer season. It would be nice to spend a little more time exploring sometime, perhaps even staying a night at the accommodations there. I headed across to Lunging Island where I paused and got my bearings. I could see the entire New Hampshire seacoast, from the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant over to Portsmouth where the Picsataqua River Bridge arced above an otherwise flat landscape. Multiple cranes poked into the Portsmouth sky. Further north, Mount Agamenticus rose over the southern Maine shoreline. My bearing back to Rye Harbor almost matched the location of a few convenient cell towers, so for the next hour and a half, I kept my bow pointed at these. Once again, even though high tide had come and gone, the current drew me south.
Back at the parking lot, I felt tired but satisfied. As I loaded my boat and gear and made some coffee for the road on the Jetboil, recreational fishermen returned, trailering their boats, gathering around the beds of pickups to chat. I had a long drive back home, but I couldn’t help but follow the shore for a few hours, thinking about all the places I have yet to discover.