The shores of Machias Bay are home to the largest concentration of ancient rock carvings on the east coast, and for awhile I’d wanted to check them out. One of the challenges is spending a day in the tamer, more sheltered areas at the head of the bay, forsaking the wild and exposed paddling just a few miles seaward. As it gets cooler though, having a few such semi-sheltered trips on deck makes it easier to get out.
Rebecca and I launched from the Gates House on the Machias River at high tide and paddled straight for the first site, just south at Birch Point. I’d done a bit of research, but anyone writing about the petroglyphs tends to be a bit coy: a tradition of protecting what are thought to be sacred sites. So we had only a general idea of where to look. Maine Coast Heritage Trust and the Passamaquoddy tribe own the sites at Birch Point and Long Point, but there are a total of 19 sites in Machiasport with carvings as old as 3,000 years. You might imagine that you’d just paddle along the shore of Machias Bay and see numerous rock carvings. Not so.
What do you look for when hunting petroglyphs? You could ask yourself “if I were an ancient stone carver, where would I go?” I think they favored the same places that we sea kayakers like to land: smooth rock surfaces just above the tide line, good landing spots nearby, usually a pretty view. So you follow your gut: we all like to hang out in the same gorgeous stretches of shoreline. I had that feeling about the first place we landed to have a look: a nice cove with meadows above, plenty of smooth, ledgy rocks. We looked and looked again, but saw nothing.
We got back in our boats and continued around the point, repeating the search process at every rock outcrop. We turned around and paddled past the same places, looking at ledges that were now uncovered by the tide. We stopped at our original landing again, but found nothing. Finally, after a couple hours, as we continued around the point, we saw a pair of men on shore, walking with a black cat. They said hello and I asked, maybe a tad exasperated, if they knew where to find the petroglyphs. They did.
We went back to our original landing spot and took a closer look. There, right where we’d looked before, camouflaged by lines in the rock and wet areas, were pictures on the rock: animals, antlers, a cross. It’s subtle. If you’ve been to places like Newspaper Rock in the Southwest, where bold lines are carved in the sandstone and further enhanced by desert varnish, you might need to reduce your expectations for these northeast petroglyphs. They’re created by pounding the rock face with a harder rock, which creates a texture. Since some of them are very old, they’re worn down by time, and they may be easier to see in direct sunlight, when there's shadows. But you can run your fingertips along the surface and feel them: a message left in the rock.
We had some lunch and headed across the bay to another site.
Speaking of leaving one’s mark, I’ve neglected this blog for awhile. It isn’t that I haven’t been paddling or writing; I’ve been doing plenty of both. I’m working on a guidebook: AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England, due out from Appalachian Mountain Club Books in the spring of 2015. It has kept me extremely busy, and will until next fall. I’ll also have an article in the March/April issue of AMC Outdoors magazine- a feature on an overnight trip to Steves Island that Rebecca and I took with Nate and his family.
Among other news, because of time constraints, I won’t be on the schedule at Old Quarry for the next year. But Nate Hanson has started his own company, Pinneped Kayak, which specializes in the kind of instruction and adventure that we love best, and I’ll be helping out there occasionally. We’ll start with pool sessions at the Ellsworth Y, probably in January. Nate launched his new website with an excellent blog post about paddling the southeast corner of MDI, a welcome addition to the Maine paddling blogosphere.
We found more faint petroglyphs on an island, but we’d used up our daylight and headed back to the river at low tide. It was the evening of the full moon, and this was an especially low tide, so for awhile, we paddled in only inches of water above mud flats, hoping that the tide had turned. We found the channel and made our way from one shadowy buoy to the next, arriving back at the launch as the moon came up.