Thursday, September 12, 2013

Cobscook Bay / Bold Coast

Just east of Machias, Route One stretched onward in my headlights, a tunnel of pavement through a blur of shadowy, swaying trees. On the passenger seat atop a heap of charts, my VHF, switched to the weather station, delivered the bad news in a computer-generated monotone: rain, wind, big seas. I felt tempted to turn around and head home-- I could be there by midnight-- but I had two days off and wanted to make the most of it. At the very least, I thought, I would camp at Cobscook Bay State Park and go for a hike in the morning.

That day I’d paddled in Machias Bay. The forecast had been just about as foreboding, but I found my way to the launch at Starboard Cove and convinced myself that it didn’t look too bad out there. A sandbar connecting Starboard Island to the peninsula created a long crescent of breaking waves that I followed out to the island. Then I ducked my head down and paddled directly into the wind toward the castle-like home on Foster Island. Grazing sheep looked up as I approached and made my way around the ledges. South of the island, where the current squeezes through Foster Channel, the waves grew and steepened, and I turned back toward the bay. Ahead, a seal jumped nearly out of the water, and I turned the video on just in time for the next leap.

I spent the rest of the afternoon bouncing over the waves among steep-sided islands off Bucks Harbor, where bluffs of yellowish-reddish stone dropped straight into the ocean. Across the bay, the 25 radio towers on Cutler Peninsula glowed in the late afternoon sunshine. 

I woke in my tent Sunday morning to the sound of rain pattering on the fly. The weather forecast had not improved. I’d hoped to paddle from Cutler along an exposed stretch of the Bold Coast, but it would have to wait for a calmer day. In the meantime, I could continue my exploration of Cobscook Bay. I made coffee, packed quickly and drove to the Reversing Falls Town Park. I arrived just after slack, the flood just beginning, with currents already swirling and forming small waves. 

The previous week, I’d paddled through here a little after slack and continued around Falls Island, the chock stone island that divides the current and creates Cobscook Reversing Falls on the north side. I’d noticed a truck with a boat trailer parked at a stony beach just to the east, so I decided to find that beach. I drove down a rutted dirt road and emerged at a gravel and rockweed beach. Perfect. I launched about an hour after slack.

The current that now ran upstream of the falls didn’t appear too strong yet, so I set a ferry angle and headed across. A ferry angle is a compromise between pointing into the current and toward your destination. In a strong current, you may be looking at a calm eddy on the other side, but your bow points upstream. As I neared Falls Island, I had to paddle harder and harder, my angle turning ever higher as I felt the current build. It was all I could do to stay upstream of a rocky point, where the current would grow even more, perhaps faster than I could paddle against.

I took a breather on the other side and resolved to make my return crossing at a bigger expanse further east, where I hoped there would be less current. But now I let it take me downstream in a different direction. Patches of whitewater appeared here and there, and as the current built, boils erupted unpredictably. I’d feel my boat start to spin and I’d brace for a moment before continuing. I took a break on the end of Coffin’s Neck and ate my sandwich, watching another constriction for a few minutes, realizing that I would probably have trouble getting back against the current. Time to turn around.

I made my way east, to Denbow Neck, where I could progress, as much as possible, along the edge of the current. The water level seemed to have gone up quickly, and I began to worry that maybe I should have parked the car in the woods, instead of on the beach. The predicted wind and rain arrived. Now I was really having fun.

The gap between Leighton Point and Denbow Neck is almost a half-mile wide, but it is still a constriction, where greater Cobscook Bay starts to squeeze into its narrower fingers, and accordingly, the current accelerates. And here I was, at its mid-current peak; a swath of foaming whitewater extended all the way across, below a haze of misty air. I picked a range- a convenient spruce lined up between two ledges like a rifle sight, and started across, adjusting my angle here and there to maintain the range. All went well until about two-thirds across, when the real current began and I quickly drifted downstream. This is when you just focus on an efficient forward stroke and hang-on. I hung-on, I got there, adrenaline slightly elevated, and made my way toward the car, which still had a good 4 vertical feet of dry beach below it.

Later that day I took a hike out to Boot Head on the Bold Coast. While there was still a bit of wind, the sea looked fairly calm.

Here's a video from my previous trip Downeast: