Once again, on Saturday morning we find ourselves, at a reasonably early hour, down at the end of Bridge Street where a sign warns motorists "Flood Area: Do Not Park On The Tidal Bar" before crumbling asphalt gives way to beach gravel and, since we'd arrived at high tide-- the ocean. We'd been coming to pool sessions in Bar Harbor for much of the winter, and it had been good to practice skills in warm water, but on some of the nicer days we got out for a paddle in the morning, and now, with four or five hours before our pool session, we head out into the Porcupine Islands.
The Porcupines-- so-named (I imagine) for their spruce-spined over-the shoulder humps rising from the ocean on the islands' high, cliffy southern ends, extend east from Bar Harbor, steep stepping-stones leading across half of Frenchman Bay before a gap to Ironbound Island. Often when we paddle out into the Porcupines, we do so with a vague float plan, dependent on the seas and our ability to get close to the rocks and and chasms below the cliffs. The first two islands, Bar and Sheep Porcupine make up the northern perimeter of Bar Harbor, and tend to get a bit less impact from open ocean swells as the further-out islands. It's a good shoreline to follow and warm-up- see how well you're maneuvering before venturing into the surf zone along Burnt Porcupine, where swells on a calm day can end in dramatic explosions of whitewater upon the rocks.
By the time we get to Burnt Porcupine, I've lost enough gelcoat to reinforce the conservative approach Rebecca and I tend to take in the colder months. This generally means we stay behind breaking waves instead of in front of them. On a day with 1-2-foot seas, most wave sets have a couple of larger swells. When they trip over a submerged ledge they can rise into steep and formidable waves. Most of Burnt Porcupine's southern shore is fairly vertical, pocked with narrow chasms and steep rock faces and broken-away boulders and ledges. It doesn't take much of a sea to turn the shoreline into frothing clapotis, waves colliding with reflecting waves, pounding and thundering, the air hazy with salt. That big attraction over on Ocean Drive- Thunder Hole? There are a lot of thunder holes out there, and as sea kayakers we have the privilege of getting to know them well.
As we paddle, some places are still linked in my mind to lessons learned, sometimes in classes, sometimes not. Now that I'm an instructor, I have to give credit to one of my first teachers- Mark Schoon- for giving me a long leash and testing my skills in fairly big conditions. We backed into "The Keyhole," a big, rocky slot, and watched the swells roll in and funnel toward the chasm: as much an exercise in keeping calm and trusting yourself as anything. Today we pause at the Keyhole's entrance and watch a series of swells washing through the opening, breaking as the chasm narrows- not so bad. But then a pair of much larger swells wash in, and the narrow strip of water erupts into chaos- not a place I'd want to be.
Or the "Swellevator," a rocky corner where you can ride the swells up and down. And somewhere along these cliffs I performed my first really desperate low brace as a wave pushed me against the wall. And the gap beside Rum Key produces some excellent surfing waves, and occasionally a very tall steep one like the wave that endo-ed me onto a ledge (did more harm to the boat than me). And of course not so long ago that spot off Sheep Porcupine (did more harm to me than the boat). Both of those waves had my name on them, and I think there's always a personally-monogrammed wave out there somewhere.
We continue to Ironbound Island, and at the southern tip, pause to admire the booming surf as it rises over a ledge, plunges into the undercut bluffs and explodes, a deep bass that resonates as much in one's chest as in the surrounding air. Sitting close enough to such a release of energy, it might feel like we've absorbed some of that spent potential. It can be an intimidating place to hang-out, but we seem to be somehow energized by the waves and the salt in the air. When I was still fairly new to paddling, I was in a class with Mark Schoon when we paused off of this point. The seas were smaller that day, but I was unaccustomed to spending my time in such spots, so it felt plenty intimidating to me. Mark asked what my go-to self rescue was, and I answered, a bit too sure of myself, "cowboy."
"Okay," Mark said. "Let's see it."
Of course he was going to say that. Let's just say my opinion of my go-to rescue was much higher than it should have been, a lesson I learned very well.
But today, with forty-degree water, our goal is to stay in the boats, and we do, all along the eastern shore of Ironbound Island, which is just stunning. It seems I've paddled Ironbound's shore more in the late afternoon or evening, and I've come to think of it as a dark, somewhat forboding stretch of cliffy shoreline, but in the morning sunlight the cliffs are sunny and gorgeous, no less awe-inspiring, but maybe more John Singer Sargent or Childe Hassam (both who spent time on the island) than Winslow Homer. Our lunch on a cobble beach, soaking-in the sunshine was more akin to those impressionists as well, a feeling we carried with us all the way home.
Here's a story about the artists who once frequented Ironbound Island.