When you begin what you know will be a long day of paddling, it’s best to think more of the task at hand than the task ahead. With the hilly profile, some six miles distant, of Isle au Haut rising behind the archipelago islands, the thought of not only getting there, but then paddling around the island could be enough to make you prematurely weary. It’s best instead to focus on an efficient forward stroke and to enjoy the surroundings along the way.
As we paddled, Rebecca and I hardly needed to speak. We’d been over this territory – the islands within a couple miles of Old Quarry – many times over the summer as we’d guided trips out of the campground/outfitter, enough that our bows seemed to point of their own accord. It felt good to let loose and just paddle without worrying about leaving anyone behind, and soon we pulled up to the beach on Hell’s Half Acre.
When you’re guiding a group, it can be nearly impossible to take a short, quick break, and their visit to this island may be as much their reason for the trip as the paddling they did to get there, so you won’t deny them a good visit. We were on the beach for a leisurely six minutes- enough time for a pee, a drink and a snack, as well as a few photos - and were on our way again. On this trip we weren’t answering questions or trying to remember names. It was just us – the first time we’d paddled together on our own since April. Pathetic, yes, but that’s how the summer had gone. So we cut loose and just paddled, the dark shape of Champlain Mountain drawing us onward.
We skirted the edge of Ram Island, where, just over a year earlier, similarly stressed as a busy season wound-down, we’d celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary by watching the sunset from a granite bluff (an event Iwrote about for a piece in an upcoming issue of AMC Outdoors Magazine).
It was a sunny, warm morning with the wind from the northwest pushing us along with the ebbing current. We passed between McGlathery and Little McGlathery Islands and decided we’d head counter-clockwise around Isle au Haut – opposite of the direction I outlined in Route #15 of AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England. If the wind continued we would get a push down the west side of Isle au Haut, and be sheltered from it as we returned on the east side. Besides, I thought, it couldn’t hurt to spend the day considering the route from a different perspective. The current in Merchant Row pushed us east as we tried to keep a range on Bills Island and avoid the path of a lobster boat hauling traps. We passed Bills and Pell Island and began following the Isle au Haut shore, beneath the dock of Point Lookout, into the Isle au Haut Thorofare. We tried to catch what current we could and avoid the eddies, but here our current seemed to be slowing. We’d paddled over six nautical miles to get here, and depending on how much we explored the shoreline, it would take us another nineteen to get back.
But we were feeling good. Aside from our usual state of feeling a bit beat-up with sores and cuts here and there (one that had grown into a painful infection) a creaky shoulder threatening to do something weird, and a mind full of tricky questions about what we ought to do with our lives, things were going okay. The cadence of our paddle strokes remained even, almost as if we were fueled by some deep desire to break on through to the other side, to find something akin to the runner’s high; just paddle paddle paddle, the demons getting exorcised, callouses on top of callouses, miles upon miles, past the lighthouse at Robinson Point, past the Seal Trap until finally, along the shore, we began to slow down as a mild swell began filtering in among the rocks and the rock magnets in our minds began searching for opportunities, nooks to get into, places where we’d feel the tug of the ocean and try to get into that rhythm, in and out, over and through the rocks. Far to the south, Matinicus and Seal Island rose just over the horizon, unusually clear. To the west Saddleback Island Light and Brimstone Island seemed almost close. It’s a very different world out there than the one just off Webb Cove.
We’d planned on lunch at a favorite little cove on the other side of Western Head, but Rebecca paused in front of a cobble beach and said “let’s eat here.” She liked the look of the rocks, and I could see why. The way a few scraggly trees stuck-out above the beach, the piles of smooth beach cobbles heaped among boulders all looked like paintings waiting to happen. We ate lunch, drank coffee, walked around leisurely and looked at rocks. An hour and a half later we said maybe we’d better get going. We had a staff party to get to at Old Quarry at six.
But that didn’t speed us up as we went around Western Ear and found play spots along the cliffs on the east side of Western Head. We found just enough swell to make it fun, but not enough to be intimidating. In one part of our minds we knew we still had about 13 miles of paddling to get back… and not enough time to make it to our staff party on time, but the other part of our minds – the part that says we’re here, make the most of it – dominated.
As we played, I inevitably thought of some of my first forays into these rocks, nearly a decade earlier with Todd Devenish, who was more skilled and confident than I was and helped push me beyond my comfort zone. And yet, looking back, I realized that we probably pushed it a little too far at times, like that five-mile foggy crossing from Brimstone to Isle au Haut. Given the same circumstances now, I’d certainly think twice before doing so many things that relied essentially on luck.
At Eastern Head we took one last helmet-clad foray – this time into the dark chasm known as Thunder Gulch, before switching back to our other hats and our getting-home strokes, willfully ignoring the shoreline features with an eye toward the farthest point, trying to catch the most current.
We had far to go, and not much time to do it, even before sunset, which we observed from the middle of the Deer Isle Thorofare, and arrived back late for the party, but not too late for the food, which we devoured. I felt tired enough that it all felt a bit surreal- the difficult questions (would I like my veggie burger on a bun?) (the accident off Corea at the beginning of the summer – talk about it). When the staff party began dwindling, we retired to the upstairs classroom and played Uno, which was oddly satisfying. I looked around at the people we’d been working with, most of them a good deal younger than us, and thought this would probably be the last time we’d all be together like this, and it seemed unlikely that most of us would even work together again after the season ended. We would all go our separate ways and this evening would become a footnote to a season remembered by most more for staff melodramas than kayaking trips. But as those dramas and the usual office ups and downs became the forefront of life at Old Quarry, we had retreated a bit: a house and a cat to sit, work at other outfitters, and now even a kayaking excursion of our own.