Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Stonington Archipelago


When we launch from Stonington with a full day of paddling ahead of us, the difficulty lies not in finding a good place to paddle, but in narrowing the choices down to the narrow path we will actually take, knowing that no matter where we go, we’ll be forsaking some other perfectly awesome destinations. It’s a good problem to have.

M, new to the Maine coast, wanted me to show her around the Stonington archipelago. She’s a very fit paddler with a good forward stroke* so we could have gone just about anywhere, getting out to far-off targets like, for instance, the Spoons, but we opted instead for the approach I outline in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in NewEngland… a route plan that I first wrote about in an article in Sea Kayaker Magazine in 2009 called “The Archipelago Arc.” The idea is that you can paddle out 2 or 3 miles to whatever island you would like, and then arc around the edge of the archipelago, maintaining the 2-3-mile radius so that you always have approximately the same distance for the return trip.  There’s the “inner” arc and then the “outer” arc that crosses Merchant Row and winds through some of the islands on the Isle au Haut side.

Or you could mix it up a bit for a hybrid inner/outer route, which is what we ultimately did. With a little wind from the southeast, we decided to go counterclockwise, heading first toward Penobscot Bay, with a vague plan of meandering through the islands back toward Jericho Bay, and getting a push back to Webb Cove at the end of the day from the southeast wind. We set-off toward Indian Point like so many of our trips begin, but with a whole day ahead of us.

In a way, such a trip – a full day off Stonington with one paddler – is my dream trip, and I felt very lucky to have it, especially after a busy week in which I’d guided or taught in Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Sullivan Falls as well as multiple trips from Stonington. Most days had involved some rescues (instructing and otherwise) and plenty of uncertainties about the weather and the capabilities of my groups. I felt tired and a bit beat-up, and I’d started imagining the calendar ahead and how, as much as we love the summer, the slower pace of autumn would be welcome. But the prospect of a full day paddle among some of my favorite spots helped me summon some energy for yet another long day. 

We took our first break on Green Island, largely because it seemed I would be remiss to not show M the quarry pond that many of our half-day trip clients are keen on swimming in. I enjoy swimming in it as well, especially after a long paddle, but for many of our visitors it is all they see of the archipelago, since a swimming stop there, especially with a bunch of kids, takes up all the time that would be spent paddling among other, perhaps more interesting islands. Green also tends to represent the western limit of our half-day trips, so it felt good to paddle onward from there, out between Crotch and Sand Islands into the eastern edge of Penobscot Bay, where we meandered among islands thick with gulls, terns and seals. To the south, the horizon loomed large, with Brimstone Island bumping above it just south of Vinalhaven. It seems that everywhere I paddle I’m reminded of all the places I haven’t been to in awhile. 

We’d stretched the western end of the arc out to Sparrow Island, five nautical miles from Old Quarry, and now began a meandering path back, which brought us to Ram, Hardwood and Merchant Islands before we took a lunch break on Nathan, sitting on a sunny granite slab, warm in the lee of the island. I made instant coffee. We chatted. We fueled-up for more paddling: Pell>Bills>Gooseberry (another break among  glacial erratics spilled over the shore like marbles). McGlathery>Spruce>Millet> and another break on Phoebe.

The “arc” part of our journey had taken us about eight nautical miles. Now we had a little over three to get back to Old Quarry, passing the campsite on Saddleback where I waved to the group I’d advised about campsites the previous evening (it looked crowded there – at least two groups with multiple tents). One camper, who sat on a rock a short distance from the campsite played “Yankee Doodle” on a penny whistle, a tune that maddeningly stayed with me as we paddled toward the lowering sun, re-entering the usual territory of half-day trips, Bold and Grog Islands and that last stretch along Buckmaster Neck toward the busy-ness of Old Quarry. The office at Old Quarry had been trying to reach me, perhaps to remind me that “full day” trips are only 6 hours, rather than nine or ten, but my radio had accidentally skipped down a channel and I’d been blissfully off in my own world, where a full day is whatever I can squeeze out of it.

It's worth mentioning that, though in some ways the Stonington area gets a bit busy with paddlers in mid-summer, we saw only one other kayak on the water all day, far in the distance. It helps to get away from town.

In my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England, The Stonington Archipelago is Route #14. This is a good example of how you can take that basic route concept and expand it to suit your desires and the day’s conditions. If you would like to join me on a more involved learning journey to some truly outlandish places, there's still room for another paddler or two on the Downeast Journey I'll be guiding from September 6-10.

*You might notice that I very seldom have praise for anyone’s forward stroke. Rebecca recently remarked that the best forward stroke she’d seen lately was done by the nine-year-old girl she’d just taught (it seems nearly impossible to get anyone who has already been paddling to improve much, the first step in the process being acceptance of one’s need for improvement and the will to do the work). This is a diatribe I will save for another day, but this aside is merely intended to point out the rarity of guiding or teaching someone with a decent enough stroke. Which is not to say that this stroke couldn’t use work – we are all constantly trying to improve or at least maintain the efficacy of this commonly misunderstood skill.

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