Thursday, September 29, 2016

Frenchman Bay

In my guidebook, AMC’sBest Sea Kayaking in New England, I divided Frenchman Bay into two basic routes: the eastern side, from Sorrento out to Ironbound Island, and the western side – essentially the Porcupine Islands, which could also be expanded to include Ironbound Island.  There are, of course, plenty of other great places to paddle in this neighborhood, but with a Best of guidebook, the nature of the beast is to seek-out the highlights. Over the past couple of days I’ve been fortunate enough to have full-day trips that covered both routes, or at least some version of them. 

On Saturday evening, as I drove home from a class at Sullivan Falls, Sunday’s forecast called for 10-15 knot winds from the northwest with gusts to 25, which was more than M really wanted. We were hoping to explore some of the eastern side of Frenchman Bay, essentially M’s backyard, and we especially hoped to paddle along the rugged southeast shore of Ironbound Island- a tough spot in rough seas. I reasoned though, that we could launch in South Gouldsboro and paddle mostly in the lee of islands as we made our way south. We could even set a shuttle in Winter Harbor and avoid paddling back against the wind. We decided the trip was a go, and I hoped that my optimistic theories would hold true. Rebecca decided to join us, so we loaded two boats on the car.

The launch in South Gouldsboro is dominated by local fishermen and has very limited parking, but I included it in the guidebook with the caveat that it might be more practical later in the day or in the off-season. Sunday morning the place was quiet, with most of the lobster boats still bobbing on their moorings. We made our way out to Stave Island and found calm with a bit of wind and current pushing us south in the lee of both Stave and Jordan Islands. Lively seas dominated the openings between the islands – following seas south of Stave, while howling wind and beam seas funneled into the gap between Jordan and Ironbound. Shortly after that though, we had nearly two miles of very calm water along the cliffs of Ironbound Island.  

Part of the thrill of paddling Ironbound’s southeast shoreline is how it unfolds, and I like watching people react to it as we make our way south. The place inspires a certain reverence and awe, and our pace dwindles. After the first stretch, it would be easy to think you’ve seen the cliffs, great, but now I’m ready for lunch. But then, beyond a rock outcrop jutting into the sea, the next vista reveals cliffs twice as high as the first, stretching a mile ahead. One could paddle a quarter-mile out, just checking-out this impressive wall of rock, but unless conditions prohibit it, you ought to get in close, and if you’re lucky with the swell and have the wherewithal for it, you get-in really close. It’s much more than a wall of rock: some of those dark shadows along the base contain caves, some of which you might enter at the right tide. And of course, depending on tide height and conditions, you might find rocky passages, towering chasms and the occasional overhanging tree limb supporting an eagle or peregrine falcon 150 feet over your head. 

After lunch, we left the lee of Ironbound and made our way south along the islands off Grindstone Neck. With mid-teen winds gusting into the low twenties, we were grateful that we’d arranged for a shuttle in Winter Harbor, so we wouldn’t need to paddle back against the wind. We took one last break on a cobble beach near the north end of Turtle Island (owned by The Nature Conservancy) and made our way around the decommissioned lighthouse on Mark Island, before heading-in to Winter Harbor. 

Another day on the bar - no hordes, but the usual mild drama

Monday’s trip left from the bar in Bar Harbor, guiding a couple from Texas in a tandem on an open-ended excursion. They wanted something more than the usual tour out of Bar Harbor and I knew what they meant. In Bar Harbor, a ridge of gravel stretches from the end of Bridge Street – you can drive right down the street and onto the bar – and at low tide the water goes away and is replaced by hordes of tourists. I usually avoid the “T” word- most of us travel and are occasionally visitors in other places. “Tourists” often enough connotes the less admirable traits we sometimes exhibit while traveling. For similar reasons I would usually avoid the “hordes” clichĂ© as well, but the Bar Harbor bar inspires travelers to be tourists and groups to be hordes. And while I have launched plenty of guided trips from the bar, I’m aware that the guided kayak trips that launch from here often represent the end of the kayaking business spectrum that caters to hordes of tourists. Experienced paddlers seem to enjoy turning their noses up at this lucrative end of the business – the “milk run” tours that get a dozen paddlers in tandems onto the water for a couple of hours, allowing them to check the “kayaking” box on their itinerary while the guide wearily coaxes them along, delivering boilerplate narrative about the place while half the group drifts away. There’s much that could be written about this whole experience – I could both defend it and critique it – but my point is that it isn’t so easy for a paddler visiting Bar Harbor to have a satisfying experience. The logistics of renting a kayak are tough, and you will likely end-up in a group of varying abilities and interests. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to Rum Key and back – maybe four miles of paddling over nearly four hours. Or you could arrange your own private trip, like L and L did, and do the Grand Tour out through the Porcupines, Ironbound and even Egg Rock Lighthouse.

We launched at the bar shortly after high tide, and not only did we have the whole day ahead of us with the current to help us along, but the conditions were pretty close to flat – flat enough that we all got into The Keyhole on Burnt Porcupine Island- the first time I’d taken someone in there in quite awhile. That was an auspicious start, as were the reactions of L and L when she started trying to describe what it was she liked about being in such rocky places and I knew exactly what she meant. Some people just seem to like rocks. I told her she’d come to the right place.

We took our first break on The Hop, a small island barred to Long Porcupine with a grand view from the meadow atop its bluffs. If that’s all we did it would have been a great trip, but we continued, pushed by the current into the same gap between Jordan and Ironbound Islands that had been so torn-up the previous day, and we made our way along the shore of Ironbound, again slowing the pace to explore and revel in this rocky wonderland.

That would have been enough, but while we ate lunch, we gazed out at the Egg Rock Lighthouse and it seemed to draw us onward, as lighthouses are prone to doing.

As we paddled the last few miles back into town, our eyes fixed upon a massive cruise ship anchored north of Bald Porcupine, we felt the miles catch-up with us (over a dozen). We’d paddled well beyond the usual Bar Harbor guided trip, and L&L knew they would feel it, but, as we like to say, it’s a good sort of tired feeling.

These routes are covered in Trips #8 & #9 in my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in NewEngland.

-The map in the guidebook for Trip #8 shows Schoodic Woods Campground right next to the shore. This is not accurate; there is no ocean access from the campground. (This was probably added amid our many back and forth rounds of edits, and I just missed it).

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