Saturday, July 12, 2014

Cape Ann on a Calm Day

After Cape Ann kicked my butt back in April, I knew I had to return and see what it was like to circle the peninsula on a calmer day. On that April trip, I learned a great respect for the area’s potential to develop nasty conditions, but while I focused on staying upright, I missed some of the near-shore subtleties. This time I spent a couple of days paddling shorter routes, getting a closer look at the nooks and crannies of the Annisquam, Gloucester Harbor and Castle Neck, and I set my sights on Thursday, which looked like the calmest day of the week. I started the morning by driving out along the southeast shore to scout the conditions; while waves beat against the shore rocks, the seas were generally calm. The pair of lighthouses on Thacher Island beckoned.

I launched on the Annisquam River at high tide and the current quickly increased as I made my way toward Gloucester Harbor. On my last trip around the peninsula, I’d paddled clockwise, and thought I’d like to try it counter-clockwise this time. One advantage of this was that I’d be paddling the waters I’d just scouted only a couple of hours after I’d seen them, and I’d get that southeast shore out of the way early. I exited the Blynman canal less than an hour after high tide and already a small wave train had begun to develop where the current shot into Gloucester Harbor. 

The current gave me a nice push; even after a quick break on Ten Pound Island (no bathrooms at Long Wharf Landing) and dodging a regatta of youngsters in sailing prams, I made it out to the end of Dog Bar jetty- about five nautical miles from the start- in a little over an hour.

Fishermen perched at intervals along the jetty, casting into the sheltered side, while others strolled, enjoying the sunshine and the mild breeze off the ocean. To the southwest, the skyscrapers of Boston poked above the horizon in the growing haze. A mild swell carried me up and down as I followed the breakwater toward the lighthouse and I couldn’t help but compare this to my last trip around Cape Ann, when I’d arrived here going the opposite direction. Then, I’d been focusing on reaching the breakwater for the last two and a half hours as I’d struggled through rough and confused seas all the way from Thacher Island. I’d paddled a dozen or so miles before I’d left Thacher, and my weariness, along with the splash of forty-degree water and gusting winds turned a fun paddle into an ordeal frought with uncertainty, tossed by the constant mogul-field wobble of waves pushing from different directions, and occasionally, a fat wave rising before me that just grew and grew.

But that was back in April, and those seas bore little resemblance to this calmer, sunnier version of Cape Ann. Brightly-colored specks of sunbathers dotted the sand on Good Harbor Beach, where a light salty mist hung in the air amid the din of children playing in the surf. I paused behind Salt Island and set my sights on the two towers of Thacher Island. It’s convenient that instead of building one granite lighthouse tower rising 166 feet above sea level, they built two; even the least confident navigators should know which way to point. But the twin towers were deemed necessary back in 1771 when they were first built, due to rough seas and nearby ledges that were the cause of numerous shipwrecks.

A father-daughter team of caretakers greeted me. They maintain the grounds and the north tower, which is now a private navigation aid, maintained by the Town of Rockport and the Thacher Island Association. At that moment, I was the only visitor and we chatted for a bit while they rigged lobster traps. I gave a quick lesson on tying the bowline, glad to have something to offer, and they told me that some days, especially in August, there’s so many kayakers visiting that they run out of places to stack the boats.

I took a quick walk around, checking-out the camping area, following the railway that carried fuel between the houses, and made my way to the north light, which was guarded by numerous seagulls and their young. I climbed the iron spiral staircase up to the top, and very carefully stepped out onto the catwalk. Nice view up there. I forgot to look for Boston, but the horizon had turned a bit hazy by then.

I continued north, around Straitsmouth Island and across Sandy Bay toward Halibut Point. By then I’d gone more than half-way and had started thinking of the long drive home. The seas had turned from mildly bouncy to almost flat-calm and the last few miles went past quickly as the tide turned and began flooding back into the Annisquam, giving me a mild push. On the west side, swimmers and sunbathers crowded Wingaersheek Beach, strolling far out upon a sandbar that made them appear to be walking along the water surface. Further west rose the dunes near Crane Beach, where I’d paddled the previous day, and it felt satisfying, the way the pieces of the puzzle come together. I made my way back to the launch, loaded-up and drove home.

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