Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Two A.M. on Harbor Island

The sound of the waves woke me. Or it may have been the effect the sound of the waves had on my bladder: a gradual awareness that I’d need to climb out of my sleeping bag and pull-on my shoes. I’d pitched the tent on the soft, mossy ground just above the granite ledges, and from where I lay I could just make out the dim outlines of the kayaks twenty feet away, and beyond them, the dark ocean, the looming shapes of islands and the sparkling lights of Stonington three or four miles away.

The waves were a little closer than I’d anticipated. We’d carried the kayaks up the granite incline, far beyond the reach of rockweed and the dark, slippery patches of algae, and put them down, all in a row at what appeared to be a good height for a night with a nearly twelve-foot high tide. 

Earlier, I’d sat with the others out in the fading evening light with my back against a big driftwood tree. Some were drinking wine, remnants of the pasta dinner that one of the cooking groups had provided, and I was having my usual tea (which is akin to setting an alarm clock for 1:30 am, just before high tide). It was one of those quiet interludes in a trip when all the work is done, when we’re no longer teaching or questioning the group about which of their leadership methods is working and which are not, and the conversation bounces around the group, recounting experiences, learning about where the others have been and where we’re going. As the lights in Stonington became more pronounced and the voices of our friends became heavy with the wearying weight of a long day, the seals joined our conversation. They called-out in dog-like groans that sounded like questions. They may have been directed at us: who are you? What are you doing here?

Someone had a penny whistle, and he responded beautifully: clear notes, slow enough to avoid an obvious melody, but intentional enough to sound like a response. It seemed to satisfy the seals. They continued to linger down below, chatting as we had been, but perhaps resigned to accept our presence there. It was time for bed.

Later, when I awoke to the sound of nearby waves, I checked my phone, which I’d plugged into a battery for the night: about a half-hour before high tide. I pulled on a jacket and stuck my feet into the vestibule to get my shoes on, and stepped down the ledge to the row of kayaks. The highest waves were just beginning to lap at the sterns, so I pulled each boat up a few more feet. They were tied-up, of course, but I preferred to avoid seeing the kayaks actually begin to float and getting bonked-around by the waves.

Twenty minutes to high tide. The crescent of the waxing moon, just past new, lay to the west, just below the trees. Stonington’s lights were the brightest feature, while off to the northeast a dim glow in the distant sky marked the location of Mount Desert Island’s towns. Aside from that, a couple of blinking lights on buoys helped give shape to the night. Of course I always bring a few lights with me on trips, but it can be surprising how seldom I use them. I had my headlamp in my pocket, but didn’t find a need to use it even once. When I’d check my phone for the time (or to post a photo on Instagram, which I’ve just begun to experiment with) the light shone blindingly bright, cancelling, for a moment, my ability to see much else around me. But most people seem inclined to use headlamps fairly liberally, and as I stood there watching the tide crest at the sterns of our kayaks, a light came-on in a tent and bobbed down to the boats to check them, followed, a few minutes after I’d returned to my sleeping bag, by another: a good omen, I felt, for our leadership students, since it seemed that their internal clocks, or perhaps their bladders, were also becoming better-attuned to the nuances of tide.

This was the culmination of day 3 of Pinniped Kayak’s SeaKayak Leadership course, based at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures. The course is meant both for aspiring guides and those looking to improve their skills at planning and leading sea kayak excursions, whether alone, with friends or family or more organized trips. 

As I’ve pointed out in the group management section of my guidebook, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England, the need for leadership skills sneaks-up on you, whether you’re planning on guiding or leading or not. Learning these skills intentionally is far preferable to learning them the hard way – by trial and error – which are often the trips we read about in the news. 

We were camped on Harbor Island, at a MITA campsite along the edge of Merchant Row. You can learn more about this area in AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England, Trips #14 and #15. 

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