Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Night on Hells Half Acre


We had hoped to camp on Saddleback Island, one of my favorite campsites in the Stonington archipelago, especially for a group, but from a mile-off I could see the colors of boats hauled-up on the rocks, and the blob-like shapes of tents beneath the trees. I interrupted the current leader of our group, and pointed-out that, while we could stop on the island for lunch, it didn’t look promising for camping. 

We had been on the water for well over two hours already, this group of College of the Atlantic students and me, and really, we should have stopped for lunch soon after we had launched, because it was now mid to late afternoon, and the lack of lunch made the occupied campsite feel like a bit of a blow. But as much as possible, I tried to leave the leadership to the students. They chose the destination and the route, and as we progressed, I convened the group periodically to touch upon points of group management and navigation. This, of course took some time that the students hadn’t really planned on.

At the beginning of each academic year, College of the Atlantic gives incoming freshmen the chance to go on an orientation trip in the outdoors, and one of the choices has been a week-long kayak excursion with a guide. It was a fun trip to guide, but all of their other trips are student-led, and Nate convinced the college to get Pinniped to train students to lead the kayak trip as well. We do trainings on day trips, in the pool and on overnights, like the trip I took with this same crew last October. It’s very satisfying to work with the same students over a period and watch their skills progress.

We wanted the navigation practice, so we took the long way to Saddleback, curving north around the Sheep Islands and across to Eastern Mark, a stretch, with the wind pushing against the tide, that turned a bit lumpy, and where I noticed the bright boat colors below our intended campsite. 

We chose a lunch spot around a point from the campsite and talked about the last stretches, which group formations had worked best and what it felt like to be a little out of our comfort zone in lumpy water, and what that would feel like while guiding beginners. I didn’t have any easy answers. Paddle a lot, improve your skills, get comfortable in conditions beyond which you expect to be taking people. Learn to anticipate when conditions might get tricky. We looked back over the stretch of water, which now looked more or less flat. Nobody would have guessed it would be rough, or perhaps had been a half-hour earlier at mid-tide.

While we talked, a group from the campsite, which appeared to be comprised of early twenty-something leaders and teen-age campers, spread-out along the shore, leaving each camper alone with their thoughts and a pad of paper. As we passed the campsite, we saw the boats were some sort of large canoe-like pulling boat. One of the young leaders stood guard with a long piece of driftwood, reminding me of something out of Lord of the Flies. We waved, but he didn’t wave back. It’s great to get the kids away from their devices and into the outdoors, but sometimes it’s no wonder that so many people see outdoor pursuits as ordeals to endure rather than the sweet vacation get away time that many of us enjoy.

The good news is we got to camp on Hells Half Acre, another favorite campsite. We broke branches off one of the big downed trees and had a little campfire below high tide line while we ate our dinner. The night grew dark and the tide rose, the coals sizzling as the water slowly engulfed the remains of the fire. 

The next day was a bonus trip, out around McGlathery and back to Old Quarry. 

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