Monday, August 15, 2016

Around Swans Island in Four Days

We floated just off Devils Head, a granite bluff on Hog Island, at the edge of Eggemoggin Reach, a dense white wall of fog between us and our destination. R held the radio up to his face and made the call: Sécurité Sécurité Sécurité,: attention boaters in the east end of Eggemoggin Reach. We’re a group of 5 kayaks crossing from Hog Island to White Island, estimated crossing time, twenty minutes, standing by on one-six.

We paused, we listened: nothing. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.” Or I might have said “let’s boogie,” which I often seem to say in such situations. So we did. We boogied, but at that moderate pace that enabled us all to stay close together as we made the crossing. We were all following our compasses, but D paddled just ahead of the pack, the chief navigator who made it easier for us to follow the bearing without bumping into each other.

This was the fourth and last day of our around-Swans Island journey, a trip organized through Pinniped Kayak, and though I hadn’t exactly planned for this fog, it was, in a way, a good thing. I wouldn’t have been heartbroken had it lifted, but it enabled us to work on navigation and communication in a way that gave us immediate and obvious feedback… or consequences. 

The four paddlers in the group had come on this trip not just to have a guide, but hopefully to go home with some improved skills as well. They’d all had some previous instruction and experience, and at times I found myself wondering what they most needed me to teach, which were usually subjects provided more by the environment than any agenda. A four-day journey doesn’t lend itself as well to nit-picky strokes and maneuvers development as well as it does to overall journeying skills.

At every juncture I tried to put the route planning and decision making into the hands of the group. We had an overall plan: try to get around Swans Island, camping along the way on three probable islands. On the first day we left Old Quarry and took our first break on Saddleback Island, hoping to get across Jericho Bay to our first campsite on Marshall Island. But the winds blew in the mid teens, gusting into the low twenties – blowing with the flooding mid-tide current, but still likely to create some lively conditions for a 3-plus-mile crossing. Like the fog though, this was an opportunity for decision-making and for paddling in rough water that one might not venture into without the safety net of an instructor.

We could have taken the easier downwind ride northward. I would have been fine with that, but the overall consensus pointed us toward Marshall Island, so off we went, and soon found ourselves amid some considerable ups and downs. I’m sure we each have our own mental picture of what it felt like in those waves. At first, the skills learned in calmer water might be difficult to muster – the edging and efficient sweep strokes to keep from turning too much into the wind, the degree of skeg needed to avoid weathercocking. A couple of schooners blew toward us from Isle au Haut, sailing wing on wing, straight downwind, passing behind our sterns. We tried to stay close together without colliding, keeping a heading toward the northern end of Marshall Island, where, after an hour, we landed.

So we got the bumpy crossing out of the way, and that evening I think everyone felt some sense of relief and accomplishment as we ate our dinner and watched the sunset. Each evening we were treated to a display of shooting stars, as the Perseids meteor shower drew near, lying back and watching the night sky until we could no longer keep our eyes open. 

On Tuesday we wound through the islands south of Swans and made our way to Frenchboro Long Island, where we ate our lunch before heading to our campsite on West Sister Island. On Wednesday we followed the east shore of Swans up to Casco Passage and through the Black/Opechee group of islands before heading across the north end of Jericho Bay, to our campsite for the last night. 

As always, I often felt challenged to get people to focus more on the moment than the destination, which is more difficult when you have some miles to cover to get to your campsite. But that last evening after we’d made camp, I offered to go for an additional paddle around the island we were camping on, and half the group joined me, while the other half, a bit cold and tired, took a well-deserved break.

The distance around the island wasn’t much more than two miles, but we took our time, following each contour of the shore: around rocks, beneath bluffs and boulders, picking our way in empty boats through the mist and fog. Despite the miles we covered in the overall trip, and despite the challenges we’d overcome to get places, these moments were certainly the most peaceful, and perhaps most representative of why I paddle in the first place: the joy in maneuvering a boat well, the quiet connection to a place, those moments where your head empties of all the choices and chit-chat, narrowing-down to the path you’ll paddle among a winding, rocky passage.

As often happens on the last day though, the focus on getting there becomes heightened. We made a couple of foggy crossings and after the fog cleared, took one last break on the Lazyguts before heading back to Old Quarry for lunch.

Swans Island is Trip #13 in my guidebook, AMC’s Best SeaKayaking in New England. This version of the route is suggested as one of the alternatives, launching at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures in Stonington, rather than Naskeag Point, and focusing more on the surrounding islands than on Swans. We camped on Maine Coast Heritage Trust Islands (Marshall, West Sister and Hog). 

I have one more journey on the Pinniped calendar this year: The Downeast Journey, September 6 through 10. There may be space for one more person.

Here's a photo of me, courtesy of Rob Sidlow. Yep, that's a toilet and a tarp lashed to my stern deck.