Friday, August 10, 2018

Escape From Old Quarry: Wheat Island

A few days ago, I had the sudden gift of a day off – just like I did last week: an entire day with no work or commitments. I could do whatever I wanted with it. So I got my gear together. I could do something epic. Maybe paddle around Isle au Haut. At first I thought I didn’t have to work until later on the next day, so I packed camping gear. Then I learned I’d be guiding a morning trip the next day. But I already had the gear and food together. Whatever. I could figure it out as I went along. It was a gorgeous day, and the only thing that made sense was to just get on the water. It was mid-morning by the time I launched.

It felt good to be paddling away, alone, heading across Webb Cove without first getting my group lined-up to make an efficient crossing, no pre-trip briefing or endless foot peg adjustments. And of course, as always, it was liberating to let my paddle strokes fall into their own rhythm: not necessarily fast, just my own, without looking around wondering what I could do to help everyone move more naturally in their boats. As I followed the shore of Indian Point and headed out for Russ Island, I realized I felt weary, and a bit lazy, and maybe I wasn’t in the mood for an epic paddle after all. I had my hammock with me, and I began thinking about setting it up and just swinging in it for awhile, enjoying the day on some island.

As I passed Blasters Rock on Little McGlathery Island, it occurred to me that it was a Maine Island Trail island and I hadn’t yet visited it for the 30 In 30 Challenge. MITA is celebrating its 30th year by challenging members to visit 30 MITA islands and documenting their visits. I’vebeen posting photos on Instagram with the #mita30in30 hashtag, and it’s been afun challenge. At first I figured I wouldn’t need to go out of my way, that I’d naturally land on the islands during the course of my trips. But inevitably I’ve begun to veer toward islands with the goal of adding them to my list, as I did at McGlathery (#15). I’ve taken many pictures of this rock, but why not another?

It’s been fun to follow how other people have risen to this challenge as well. MITA posted an account of someone who took a motorboat around Casco Bay and bagged the 30 islands within 24 hours. I’ve been seeing some nice photos from these island visits on Instagram. And last week, Rebecca ran into a group of women who call themselves ‘Ladies Who Launch’ who took an epic trip around the archipelago to set foot on 18 MITA islands in one day. That sounded like fun, but I wasn’t going to take such extreme measures. Still, I felt the collecting impulse rising in me as I paddled across Merchant Row, plotting how to add a few more islands to my list. 

I pitched my tent on Wheat Island (#16) and after lunch headed next door to Burnt (#17). As popular as Wheat Island is, Burnt Island, less than a quarter-mile away, seems to get far less use. I’ve stopped before to try to locate something that looks like a campsite, and not found anything obvious. This is how it is at some private islands that don’t get a lot of use. There’s also brackish, standing water above the shore, which may be partially responsible for the island’s reputation for mosquitoes. Such a rumor certainly helps weed-out visitors, but even in the mid-day heat I slapped a few bugs, so it’s easy to imagine they might get a bit more intense toward dusk.

From there I went on to Isle au Haut and crossed over to Doliver Island (#18) where I ate my second sandwich. I hadn’t stopped on Doliver in years (perhaps this post from 2007 was my last visit?) having more or less decided that I preferred campsites that are less exposed – both to the environment and to homes on the shore of Isle au Haut. But it struck me differently this time and I instead saw the exposure to Jericho Bay as an asset, that not only was it a pretty place to eat lunch, but would be a special campsite as well. We should never make up our minds about a place after one visit. Maybe the grass was a little greener this time, or the lone spruce tree a little taller than before. Or I was simply in the right frame of mind.

I continued around York Island, enjoying the gentle swell along the rocks on the eastern shore, and then headed back to Wheat Island. 

I hung the hammock, took a swim and dried off in the sun. I realized I’d been looking forward to this down time about as much as I looked forward to the paddling. And it’s funny, how my incentive to paddle has changed over the years. We came to Maine not long after living on a Greek Island, where, when I got off work I would rush off on the scooter to a remote beach and just relax, usually with a bottle of retsina and a book. In my first years of running our gallery in downtown Stonington, I mostly just wanted an escape, a way to get to some remote beach like I did in Greece – a place where I could just chill. The kayak seemed the perfect way to get there, so I saw it more as vehicle: a way to get from point A to point B.

But as I learned how to maneuver my boat, I grew to love the getting there at least as much as any destination. It was all about the journey, not where I ended up. And I think that was reinforced by the kayaking education I’ve had, the emphasis on learning to maneuver well, the joy to be had in overcoming challenges, of riding a wave or slipping deftly through a rocky chasm, propelled by the sea. And since I then learned to teach these skills to other paddlers, the learning and teaching process sometimes overshadows our surroundings.

But last summer when Rebecca and I spent two months paddling the Maine coast, usually in heavily-laden boats, we began thinking more about the destination. Our life was easier if we didn’t dilly-dally too much along the way and we arrived at camp early enough to enjoy the place. We grew to love our zero days when we stayed in camp, usually avoiding some bad weather. My hammock became my living room and office, no matter where I hung it. And everywhere we paddled, we were struck by the beauty of the place. It’s the Maine coast in summer, after all: about as idyllic as it gets.

So lately it feels like my kayaking aims have come full-circle. I love both the journey and the destination, and I’ve been finding more time to enjoy those places. When I’m done with work early enough I’ve been getting out for a couple hours to just ‘hang-out’ somewhere. And my evening on Wheat Island was like that as well. I made dinner, watched the sun get absorbed by the clouds over the Camden Hills and made myself a cup of tea as the stars began appearing. In the morning I paddled back early, in time for a little breakfast before my morning trip.

The areas in this trip are featured in trips #14 and #15 in my guidebook, AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England.

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