Friday, March 5, 2021

Gooseberry Island

As we paddled along Little McGlathery Island, a mild swell washed over the near-shore rocks, lifting our kayaks gently and then dropping them as the waves rebounded from the granite bluffs.
 Gooseberry Island lay to the south, with Isle au Haut rising behind it. The day had started bright and clear, but now a layer of high, wispy stratus clouds floated over us from the west, the sun a pale disc. Rebecca maneuvered beside me. She said, “Lunch on Gooseberry?” We turned our bows southward. 


Paddling excursions had lately been the result of watching the weather, and days ahead, deciding that a particular day might be good enough for a paddle. And when that day arrived, if the weather forecast was close enough, and if we weren’t too lazy or too stuck in our routines, we dropped everything and went. Sunday was one of those days. With the temperatures approaching 40 degrees, we made some sandwiches, filled the Thermos with hot mocha and went for a paddle. We had a few ideas about places to go, but once we launched we just pointed across the Thorofare and went with no particular goal, until finally we found ourselves on the seaward side of Little McGlathery, angling out toward Gooseberry Island, a half-mile off. 

Even on the last day in February, I had a sense of relief as we rounded the point and saw that there was no one else at the beach where we liked to land, at the head of a narrow cove, overlooked by a dense boulder field. Of course, there was no one there, but the habits from summer remain. We hadn’t come across other paddlers since some time in the fall, and in a way I looked forward to seeing others out there again. There weren’t even many lobster boats out, quiet for such a nice day. 

We landed on the shell sand beach, barely pulling our boats up since the tide was retreating, and we sat on a log to eat our sandwiches. The water looked glassy clear, as it does in winter when there’s less algae, but frigid, probably just above freezing. I don’t think we had much to say. We’d had no shortage of time together lately, and we always found things to talk about. But it was also a relief just to sit and eat our sandwiches and look out toward Isle a Haut, with the clouds thickening before the sun. 


We then walked out among the boulders. I can’t think of any other spots with such a concentration of them, like the glacier just tired of artfully placing them here and there on sloping granite shores and said “ah hell, just drop ‘em all here.” Walking among them feels like strolling through a natural sculpture garden. 


Gooseberry Island is one of the many names that pops into my head when someone asks me about a favorite place out in the archipelago. It’s been a favorite for a long time, even back when it was privately owned and we’d heard that Maine Coast Heritage Trust would acquire it. We like the island’s small size, the boulder field, the way it feels like the last stop at the edge of the archipelago, with Jericho Bay and Isle au Haut for a backyard and the vast Atlantic stretching out beyond. It’s only about 3 ½ miles from the launch, a good distance for a casual paddle, just far enough away from the busier islands near town, and yet angled away from the archipelago, so it feels more remote. 


We started feeling a little chilled and launched again. I made my inevitable joke about skipping the swim at Green Island, and when we returned to the launch we were surprised how late it was; the days were getting longer. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Fort, Second & Andrews Islands

Our winter excursions tend to be a bit less ambitious than in warmer months, so if we launch from town, we find ourselves at the usual places fairly often. Nothing wrong with that, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d paddled out the Deer Isle Thorofare and, instead of going left or straight, taken a right turn.

With all the attention given to the islands between Stonington and Isle au Haut, some nearby neighborhoods are often overlooked, like the southwest corner of Deer isle with its trio of small uninhabited islands just offshore. It really does feel a bit like a watery neighborhood, bounded on the north by Fifield Point, which stretches slightly southwest toward The Fort and Second Island and more distant Andrews Island. The stretch of residential shoreline between Fifield Point, Sand Beach and Moose Island makes up the other side – about a mile-and-a-half of bulbous, glacially smoothed granite with a few pocket beaches and a bunch of (mostly) modest summer cabins.

Rebecca and I met Todd down at the ramp just after lunch and headed out just as the tide was cresting. The clouds were thick and gauzy, with the sun occasionally shining through. Temperatures hovered around freezing; we were comfortable as long as we kept moving.


We went past the boatyard and followed the shore of Moose Island, past the newer, large homes with corresponding ‘PRIVATE ESTATE’ signs posted over the beaches. With the tide so high, there were plenty of shoreside rocks to weave among, and a very slight swell rolling in, and as often happens in such conditions, we started focusing less on any destination and more upon the feeling of maneuvering through these passages. 


The sun was already low, dimmed by clouds, casting the boulders in  a flat, wintery light. We paused and remarked that none of us had harbored high expectations for this developed shoreline. Perhaps in the summer, with more people around it would feel busier, and certainly at a lower tide we would be more limited in our options, but at high tide on a winter’s day, when many of the summer cottages had boards over their windows, surprise, surprise: it was pretty nice to be there. 


Sand Beach, which is essentially a town park and a go-to spot for those wanting to get out for a bit of fresh, salty air, or perhaps a sunset over the Camden Hills, was empty. We followed the shore and finally spotted a distant couple walking the shore, pointing binoculars out toward the water.

At Fifield Point we headed across to The Fort, a 2 or 3-acre island with a prominent rocky bluff rising above many of the trees. The island is only a couple-hundred yards from the point, but we began to feel the northeast breeze as we pulled away from shore – the wind from the northeast was part of our logic in choosing this mostly sheltered route – and we felt quickly chilled as soon as we landed. It would need to be a quick stop. Maine Coast Heritage Trust owns the island, named, apparently, as a reference to a time in the past when it was a popular duck hunting spot, and often resounded with gunfire. A trail leads up to the high point atop a granite promontory with broad views of East Penobscot Bay. It’s a big view for so little effort. Across the bay, the Camden Hills were spotted with snow. Nearby, in the shallows leading toward Second Island, seals were piled upon a ledge. 

I’d be lying if I denied repeating our usual winter mantra: this would be really nice in the summer. It’s fine out there in winter, and certainly better than not paddling, but right now it sounds pretty idyllic to spend a little more time hanging out without getting cold. We paddled around Second Island and over to Andrews, also owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust and would have loved to have landed there and taken a walk around, but we were a little chilled and sunset was nigh. We paddled back to Moose Island and retraced our path back up the Thorofare, arriving at the ramp a little after sunset.



The Fort and Andrews Island are owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust and open to day use. 


State-owned Weir Island, just off Sand Beach is on the Maine Island Trail and has a campsite.


Sand Beach is private land designated as a town park. In recent years it has suffered from a dramatic increase in visitation. The recently expanded parking area continues to become overrun, resulting in sloppy parking along the road. This past summer there were complaints, echoed in a newspaper story, about boaters parking trailers  that take multiple spaces. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Rainy Day in September


I’m lying on the couch, wearing dry clothes, drinking coffee. I managed to sleep an hour or so later than usual. Outside the front windows, fog hangs thick over the harbor. It’s been raining and tires hiss over the wet pavement below. I’m very happy to be here, and happy, for a change, to not be out there on the water. A day off from paddling. My last day off was another rainy day almost two weeks ago, and before that was a similar span of good paddling days, all filled with work. My body feels beat-up. I’ve done my stretches and thinking maybe another ibuprofen may be good. My mind feels a little beat-up too, and I’ve been looking forward to sitting here, doing exactly this, even though I still have very little time to do it. 

It has been an amazing summer, especially considering how it began. Back in June we had little idea of whether we’d even have a business through the summer. Maine had largely avoided the virus, partially due to strict quarantine and testing requirements. At first it looked like our only customers might be people from Maine. All our trips were cancelled. The ten-day guide’s class I teach in June was cancelled. I pondered over whether I should continue the liability insurance for Upwest & Downeast Sea Kayaking. I wondered if maybe our guiding business might become a footnote: one good summer followed by a global pandemic. I could sell a few boats. We thought maybe we’d just do a lot of kayaking on our own this summer- an appealing thought, even if it avoided the question of income. 


But then the Maine restrictions eased- just enough to allow more visitors and still be safe. We worried about it of course. We worried about the virus more than making a living. Making a living was a little more within our control. I posted the COVID restrictions on the website, for which I received a little fallout, as if I were making this stuff up myself. But so be it, I thought. I didn’t want people who weren’t careful or considerate. 


On July 4th I ferried over to Vinalhaven to guide my first trip of the season. The next came a couple of days later, up in Brooklin, and the next a couple of days after that. The pace rapidly increased. Our guests seemed so glad to be here, so relieved to be outside. Soon we had trips every day, and then multiple trips every day, with both me and Rebecca guiding. We focused on providing custom private trips, which had been our intention from the start. 


Added to the influence of the virus were changes at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures. Bill, the owner had retired at the end of last year, and with the virus it seemed prudent to remain closed for the summer. But a crew evolved and it did open, at least long enough for someone to buy the place as a private residence. It closed on July 31st, and suddenly the demand for trips rose dramatically, along with the desire for rental boats. Traffic at the town ramp increased, and people started launching and parking at places that became problematic and raised the ire of various people. On some days the ramp became quite crowded, often with people who parked for hours while loading their boats. We began to see many more obviously unprepared people heading out into the archipelago. Campsites appeared randomly on various islands. Kayakers’ cars began occupying prime downtown parking spaces for days at a time. We began cautiously renting some of our boats, a side of the business about which I’m still hesitant. 

A weird summer was made even weirder by the death of a woman off Baileys Island when she was bit by a great white shark. We only had one trip cancel for fear of sharks, but it has been on everyone’s mind. Just this last week rumors of local shark incidents have been circulating- a shark nipped at a lobster trap as it was being hauled onto a boat, and there is apparently an increase in dead seals being spotted. I don’t want to spread unsubstantiated rumors – Facebook works well enough for that – so I’ll leave it at that for now. I saw many many seals yesterday off of Little Cranberry Island, and they didn’t seem too concerned.


So here we are, nearing mid-September. I expect demand for trips to taper in the next few weeks. We have much to think about in terms of where we want to go with our guiding business. We like the simplicity of the ‘mom and pop’ aspect – just me and Rebecca, private trips, keeping it simple. And yet we spend a lot of time hauling boats around. Every evening we spend hours cleaning gear and answering emails and other inquiries. I recently turned 56. I feel like I’m in pretty good shape, but some of these days are pretty tough. Most of the time I hardly think about it – I just show up and do it, but on a day like today, with the rain and fog and a little time to reflect, I know that it all warrants some thought about what we’re doing and where we’re going with it.




I also have a book to finish. I published the Kindle edition in July so it could be accessed from Zest Maine, where the first chapter was published. We received a grant from the Maine Arts Commission to help with publishing the print edition. I’ve been too busy to shepherd the book into its final form, but maybe now I can finally do that. In mid-August we gave a webinar for the local land trusts about our trip and the book, and it can be seen here.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Island Clean-Up


Although we’ve organized many annual island clean-ups over the years, usually to Wreck and Round Islands, this year it was not on our radar until the Maine Island Trail Association contacted us about their plans, which were a bit different this year. Because of the need for social distancing, it is problematic to put a bunch of diverse people together in a small boat, so MITA has asked people to volunteer for less organized efforts with fewer people. Of course, we could pick-up all kinds of trash out there, but can’t really get most of it back in our kayaks. 


MITA organized a concentrated effort off Stonington though, with the MITA skiffs picking-up garbage, so I sent out an email or two. Also, staff from Island Heritage Trust wanted to take part, so we took-on our usual Wreck and Round Islands, which are both owned by IHT and are on the Maine Island Trail for day use. 

We ended-up with a nice group of people: 9 in kayaks and another 2 in a skiff. Some local, some from afar (one from out of state who had done his quarantine time). Social distancing was not difficult, and I think everyone was happy to be part of a group with a common goal. Rebecca and I are pretty familiar with Wreck Island and where the garbage usually accumulates, and I think our methods have become more efficient over the years. We split-up and went opposite directions, finally meeting at a beach on the south side for lunch, joined by the two MITA skiffs and the skiff from our group.  And yes, we all kept our distance from each other. Note: in the next photo, the people sitting close to each other are in the same family. 


The forecast had been for some fog, so I was relieved that we had a clear day, even a bit hot (90s inland). The day was really just perfect in many ways- the weather, the paddling, the people. After lunch we went-on to Round Island and found part of it clean, obviously recently picked-up by an anonymous volunteer (thanks, whoever you are). The other side had the usual accumulation of fishing-related garbage.  We meandered back to town, stopping at Little Camp Island for the slightly elevated glimpse of the nearby islands from the bare top of the island, where wildflowers are starting to bloom. 


I hesitate to include the weird encounter we had there, which cast a little shadow over an otherwise perfect day, but it’s probably worth mentioning. As we approached the landing beach on Little Camp we saw a portable latrine tent set-up atop the beach. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, certainly not on a no-camping island, and I suppose it might have signaled an unusual encounter to follow (or it could signal someone really concerned about Leave No Trace visitation). There was a familiar local skiff anchored, and after we landed we noticed a beach blanket and assorted other stuff, but saw no people. 


We encountered the couple and their dog as we walked toward the height of the island. Just to summarize- and I missed most of the exchange, being hard-of-hearing and having walked ahead- but he complained that they’d come out there to get away from people and that there was a virus going on, etcetera. He was reminded it was a public island, which only drew a lot of angry swearing. We could have elaborated that not only was it a public island, but a very popular one, close to town, and not a place one should ever expect to have all to oneself. And of course we were only visiting for a few minutes near the end of the day. Fortunately it ended there. I watched over our boats as they packed up and left. It’s not worth dwelling on it, but it was perhaps a reminder of the strange time we’re experiencing. I’ve had very few negative experiences with people out there, and the current state of things seems to increase tensions, and perhaps also enhance local residents’ sense of territoriality and animosity towards people who might be from somewhere else (even though many local locals are of the ‘no mask’ ilk). Maybe it’s good to take it as a reminder to not make assumptions and to try to be nice. 

We returned to the launch, having left two islands in a much cleaner state, part of a bigger effort that improved a bunch of islands out there, and that felt pretty good. I would encourage anyone to look for these clean-up opportunities and get involved. Here's a link to MITA's 'A Call To Oars' announcement.



1)    More info about this paddling locale may be found in my guidebook AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England.  I get asked quite a lot for basic advice: what boat to buy, am I being safe, etc. There’s a lot of that in my book. Please buy it or check it out from the library. I don’t mind occasional requests for help or advice, but it does get old when people are averse to just reading a book where all these questions are already answered. 


2)    While the quarantine order for people coming from out of state is in effect, those coming from New Hampshire and Vermont are now excluded from the requirement, and all others may skip the quarantine if they have a certificate of compliance from a recent negative test. New inquiries and bookings have begun again. Yesterday’s trip gave me hope that we can be safe and socially distanced without it interfering with our on-water safety and fun.


3)    The new book: it’s getting there. I will probably make a Kindle version available before the print edition is out. Proofs of the print edition have taken much longer than expected, and we still have some illustrations to add. Also, Zest Maine will include a link to the Kindle edition in their July/August online issue, which posts on July 15. 


4)    One thing we’re offering this summer is a 5-week subscription series: 5 full-day trips with instruction in various locales for only $400 (that’s $80 per day). I’m not very good at selling myself. I meet and communicate with so many people who would benefit and something keeps me from pushing it. You can try out different boats before you buy one. You can learn things and gain some basic understanding of how to be safe, all while going different places on fun trips. And you can meet some other local paddlers. 


5)    Old Quarry Ocean Adventures is open again, with, for now, a pared-down selection of offerings. There will be camping and kayaking. You can go there to park and launch. The other day we met Eric, the new manager, and he’s got a great attitude. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Remote Sea Kayaking

By ‘remote kayaking,’ I mean ‘remote’ as in ‘virtual,’ as opposed to ‘far away from things.’ I prefer the latter meaning. A month or two ago, the virus prompted pretty much everyone to start conducting meetings and other events via remote computer hook-up chats. For some reason I thought ‘no way, I don’t want to do that,’ and I did manage to mostly avoid Zoom for a while. Maybe it’s part of that tendency that people sometimes have when they get to a certain age where they feel filled-up, overwhelmed with all the new things in the world and want to stop learning. Bad idea, right? I started to cave-in to it when friends appeared as guests on some of these online events, and last week I even watched panelists from the Maine Arts Commission review my application (and several others) for a grant. Anyway, I’ve just finished watching, from a bug-on-the-wall’s perspective, the last of The Maine Island Trail Association’s ‘Lunch and Learn’ series, and I wish I’d started paying attention sooner. 

This episode featured three sea kayak guide/instructors: Karen Francoeur, Keven Beckwith and Nate Hanson, who all gave advice about getting into sea kayaking. There were over fifty viewers, some who commented or asked questions in the chat function. When the subject came to trip planning, I was grateful to hear my name mentioned, both in reference to AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England and to this blog. I felt a little pang of guilt, having not posted anything here for a while. 

In fact, I’ll admit that I’ve become ambivalent about the whole idea of blogging, as well as even sharing photos from paddling excursions on social media. There are many reasons for this – it’s complicated and perhaps best left unexplored for the moment. My feelings about it go far beyond the current situation with the virus, but I’m not sure about flaunting it when many people are unable to get out, and when many other people are gung-ho to do so – in rec boats, in jeans when the water is still cold. There have been two paddling deaths in the last month or so on Maine freshwater, both probably due to unprepared paddlers in cold water. This has always been the case in spring, but this year the illusion of summer came to us a little earlier, and people have time on their hands.  Frankly I’m surprised there haven’t been more mishaps.  

But it is getting warmer, and summer will come, one way or another. I really haven’t paddled much for a while, and my excursions have not been ambitious – it’s been enough to just get on the water. And staying at home has been good on other fronts. A couple of articles recently came out in Zest Maine, both personal essays that revolve around sea kayaking. In their next issues, the online magazine will publish the first chapters of my new book, Upwest & Downeast: Meandering the Maine Coast by Sea Kayak. I know I’ve been saying for a while that it’s almost done, but… it’s almost done.

My statement on my guiding business site about COVID-19 has changed a couple of times and it has been difficult to plan, but so far we’re proceeding with the assumption that, at least for a while, we might be guiding and teaching people who live here in Maine or have quarantined for 2 weeks. In many ways it would be a relief to avoid the limbo of unknowing and just skip this year, but we’ll see. We’re in a good place, living in downtown Stonington near Rebecca’s studio, which is just up the street from the public ramp. I feel inspired every time I look out the window, even on days like today when a dense fog obscures the usual view of the archipelago and Isle au Haut. Hopefully we’ll be taking a few people paddling soon, or at least just getting out more.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Isle au Haut - Camping at Duck Harbor

As with our canoe trip the previous week, we were dragging our feet about getting out to Isle au Haut. I’d made the reservation for Duck Harbor Campground back in early April, which is pretty much the only way to get a reservation for the five-site, National Park campground. As the only public camping area on Isle au Haut, its sites are in high demand. The sites are deluxe – perhaps what some would call ‘glamping’ if you rigged-up a few string lights. Each site has a three-sided shelter, a picnic table and fire ring. There’s a couple of outhouses, and drinking water comes from a well just down the trail. It’s the perfect base camp if you’d like to spend a day or two exploring the rugged and remote southern end of Isle au Haut, either by paddling or on foot. 

If you’re just tuning-in, Isle au Haut is the big island (about 6 miles long and 2 miles wide) that lies 5 or 6 miles south of Stonington, our home on the Maine coast. Much of the island is part of Acadia National Park, but unlike the heavily-populated part of the park on Mount Desert Island, which is thick with tour busses and very casual visitors, access to Isle au Haut is by boat only, which has a way of weeding-out the riff-raff. It takes a little effort to get out there. 

Of course, as the big island on the horizon, it also has a way of attracting people who don’t know what they’re getting into. A decade or so ago, Outside magazine ran a short, rather misleading piece touting the island’s merits, suggesting that novice paddlers ought to rent a kayak and just head-out to the island, flagging-down a lobster boat along the way to grab dinner, and then “crash” in one of the lean-to shelters. For a while at Old Quarry, the ‘kook’ factor, already high, greatly increased. I still encounter paddlers whose plan is simply “Isle au Haut,” never mind the archipelago along the way, or the fact that much of the shoreline there is private or difficult to access. (Or the fact that paddling skills, including navigation might come-in handy). There’s a tiny village near the island’s north end, home to about 40 year-round residents and more in the summer.

As is often the case for us, getting out the door took more effort than it should have, and we didn’t launch until sometime in the afternoon. We had the current and a north wind helping us along, but if we’d continued to Duck Harbor we would have arrived around sunset. 

After 45 minutes of paddling, we paused below the campsite on Harbor Island, eyeing the sun sinking toward the Camden Hills, and decided to spend our first night there. We had the maximum 3-night reservation at Duck Harbor, but as much as we wanted to get there and wake the next morning to a full day, we prefer to avoid late-day arrivals, especially when the seas are lively, as they were even in Merchant Row. So we camped on Harbor the first night.

The northern campsite on Harbor is a favorite (although I suspect I might say the same of any island in the archipelago when I happen to be camping on it). The granite ledge slopes gradually down to the water, where a cushion of rockweed makes it easy to pull a kayak ashore. We pitched our tent on the soil just above the ledge. I quickly set-up the stove on a particularly flat-topped boulder to cook dinner, and Rebecca remarked that I seemed to have the routine worked-out. I’d camped there a few weeks earlier with a client and used the same rock, and had probably used it in the past as well. There were a few mosquitoes, but we carried our dinner to a windier, bug-free outcrop and watched the sunset. By bedtime (pretty early these days) the wind further shifted northward, and it rustled our tent fly all night.

By Monday morning, we’d lost our previous sense of hurry and took our time leaving Harbor Island and then meandering out through the Isle au Haut Thorofare, past Robinson Point Lighthouse, and then the last couple of miles to Duck Harbor. 

We parked our boats by the trail and carried our gear in Ikea bags up to Site #5. Only two other sites were occupied – perhaps thanks to the cool, windy weather and a rainy forecast. We’d stayed in the other sites, and this was our first time in this one, which is set-apart from the others, a little more remote, adjacent to a trail leading out to a cobble beach. We ate a late lunch and took a couple of walks, finally watching the sun begin to sink from the rounded granite hump of Ebens Head.

The first time we camped at Duck Harbor, years ago, we thought we’d use it as a kayaking basecamp. One could do that, especially if you wanted to don a helmet and get into the extensive rocks and ledges along the island’s southern end. But lately we had paddled enough that the simplicity of walking seemed a luxurious indulgence. Plus, you get to wear dry clothes. We headed-out around Western Head, pausing frequently to take pictures and just sit and take it in. 

It was nearing high tide when we arrived at Western Ear, the small island barred to Western Head at the southern end. Meaty waves rolled-in from the southeast, colliding over the bar with smaller ones from the west. We watched as the tide rose, mesmerized, regretting a little that we weren’t in our kayaks – I’d never seen such waves at this spot. Usually when I paddled around Isle au Haut I was out here around low tide. But this was a day to sit on shore and watch, which became more obvious as we walked the Cliff Trail. 

At every spot where the trail poked-out for a view of the waves crashing against the rocks below, we had to stop and take it in. 

We ate all our snacks. A walk that might take 2 or 3 hours grew into a 5 or 6-hour hike. We encountered no other hikers that day, and the only boats we saw were a couple of lobster boats.

The winds that day, Tuesday, were from the south, and would have made our paddle back to Stonington easier than in the strong north winds predicted for Wednesday. But by the time we arrived back in camp for a late lunch we were tired and didn’t feel like packing-up and paddling. Besides, reservations out at Duck Harbor are hard to come by, and you might as well make the most of them. 

We spent one more night and paddled back amid lively seas Wednesday morning, into a powerful headwind: exhausting paddling. It really was a mistake to not head back a day earlier, when the wind was in our favor, but it allowed us another long, leisurely day out there. And now with the hard work behind us, when we’re no longer cold and wet, it’s easy to only remember the more enjoyable parts.

Every time we go out to Western Head, we’re struck by what a different world it is from Deer Isle, and yet so close. Every time we go, we resolve to get out there more often. A few weeks ago we paddled out in the tandem in a little over two hours – maybe that’s one way we can do it. Or we just need to work less and play more.

Read more about this route in my book, AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England.

Reservations for Duck Harbor Campground may be made starting on April 1st. I suggest you wait a few days though, until we have our reservation.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Lobster Lake - West Branch Penobscot Canoe Trip

Because we were cooking chili on the last night, there were the inevitable fart jokes and comments – the lure of sleeping without flies over our tents to allow better air circulation, the hope that the beans would run their course by the next day when we would all pile into the truck at the take-out. One might expect that laughing at flatulence would be the sort of thing we outgrow, but we – all six of us – ranged in age from late forties to early sixties, and we had not outgrown fart jokes. 

But then again, it was day three, and we’d been having fun, like kids, laughing easily at just about anything. We were at the Pine Stream campsite, on the West Branch of the Penobscot River in Maine’s North Woods, our canoes pulled-up on shore below us. 

The trip had begun some 14 or 15 miles upstream where, instead of just paddling down the river, we’d spent our first night going up Lobster Stream to Lobster Lake. That first day we’d launched later than hoped. Rebecca and I had started the morning in Stonington where we’d been cat-sitting for a couple of weeks – a bit of luxury to have a bathroom and kitchen and a comfy couch with internet – a nice break from our trailer out in the woods. We left in the dark, as fishermen were arriving in town. We’d been up late, cleaning the apartment in anticipation of the owners’ return, our cars each stuffed with miscellaneous belongings and bins of kayak gear, and we were feeling weary of the unrooted nature of our lifestyle. We drove our separate cars over to Deer Isle, where the day before we’d loaded the canoes onto the trailer at our friends’ house. We finished loading gear and food, hoping we’d got everything, and set-off, six of us in the crew cab of Linda’s truck. We were hoping to meet our shuttle at 9 am, well over three hours away. 

Those plans dissolved quickly when, north of Blue Hill, a wheel came off the trailer. Linda saw it happen and stopped quickly enough to avoid destroying the hub, and amazingly, we found the wheel and tire intact, along with 4 out of the 5 lug nuts, in the roadside weeds. A man waiting with a child for a bus helped us get it put back together. At the time it felt like maybe the trip was doomed, like it was a sign. We’d all struggled with the decision of whether we would go or not. It seemed there was so much else going-on, and it would have just been easier to stay home. But we all told ourselves that these were mental obstacles, that once we got our butts into the canoes, we would be very glad we came. Now we weren’t so sure. At nine am, instead of meeting our shuttle, we sat in the waiting room at a tire store in Brewer, flipping through magazines. The truck and trailer could be shuttled later though, and now we were not beholden to a schedule.

By then it seemed prudent to persevere; what else could go wrong? We launched mid-afternoon and paddled a few miles to our campsite at Lobster Lake. Along the way we had glimpses of Katahdin and other nearby mountains, but I was struck that the area was mostly flat, mostly wet, criss-crossed by waterways. Our canoes were piled with gear in the middle, some with coolers and folding chairs. In the back of my mind, I observed how this differed from doing the same thing in a sea kayak, but also compared it to a composite L.L. Bean catalog cover, and wondered if maybe I should be wearing plaid, or a more backwoodsy sort of hat. We camped at Shallow Bay campsite, above a sandy beach. Not far away, an L.L. Bean guided trip had camped on another beach, and as it grew dark, the glow of their campfire was the only other light we could see. 

On Saturday morning we paddled back up Lobster Stream, past the put-in, overflowing with trucks, and entered the West Branch of the Penobscot, where we suddenly had a little current helping us downstream. I started off paddling in the bow and it felt good to work on my canoe stroke, to get into a torso-turning rhythm, to know when to throw-in a little draw stroke to pull us around an obstacle. Our friends, unknown to each other before the trip, chatted behind us. I wondered when we might see a moose. We stopped to check-out campsites, but never felt like we’d gone quite far enough. Then when it did feel we’d gone far enough the campsites were full: big tents, fishermen, canoes with outboard motors. Around Big Island, the sites were all close enough to each other that you’d never feel quite alone. We stopped at a vacant site, ate a late lunch, and kept going until late in the day, when we were almost to the next lake, not far from where we would take-out. By then, the vacant site near Pine Stream felt a bit miraculous: a big hump of smooth rock rising from the river. Before the canoes were even unloaded we jumped off the rock, into the river, and swam. Fresh water: that’s another difference between sea kayaking and canoeing. 

While we ate dinner we easily decided to spend another night at this site. We liked the smooth rock and the broad view of a bend in the river with shallow, marshy banks. It seemed inevitable we would see moose here. At the first campsite there’d been tracks in the morning – a moose strolling right up to the tents – but we’d seen none along the river. There were plentiful tracks in the mud here as well. We decided we’d spend Sunday enjoying this place and taking a side trip up Pine Stream.  

On the map, Pine Stream winds several miles south, originating in several remote ponds. The water was only high enough to paddle a mile or two upstream though, so we got out and walked a little and then headed back, stopping for lunch along the way. We had a little down-time that afternoon, something we all needed. I lay in my hammock and read for a while.

The weather changed overnight, clouds moving-in from the west, the wind increasing, and in the morning we paddled the last couple of miles out the river to Chesuncook Lake with the wind behind us. Katahdin rose above the lake in the distance. We took-out at Graveyard Point and found the truck and trailer parked there. The rain began while we loaded-up.

Moose seen: 0 (maybe they were anticipating the start of hunting season on Monday).

Shuttle provided by Allagash Gateway Campground, $225. 

There were a few other fees as well, a day-use fee and a nightly camping fee – all well worth it, but another notable difference between camping here and along the islands of the Maine coast, where it is generally free. So, groceries and gas aside, three nights of camping with a shuttle came to a couple-hundred dollars per couple.

Among our friends on this trip were Shari and Hutch, whose adventures living in a tiny trailer can be read about at their Freedom In A Can website