Two kayakers embark on a nine day wilderness paddle beginning in this article with a launch at South Addison and camp over on Stevens Island in the Maine Island Sea Kayak Trail. This is the first of several accounts that beautifully take us along on their journeys.
There is something about that first moment you arrive at your launching place, and feel the cool salty breath of the sea on your face. After all the planning, packing and driving, boats still on the roof of the car, you pause, standing at the edge of a different world. Timetables, phone calls, meetings and responsibilities fade away, and are replaced by this moment poised in time, and its immediate concerns; tides and currents, weather and wind, night and day under the wide sky. Island time. (image right: Stevens Pool by author - clicking image opens it in LightBox)
I have been paddling the islands on the Maine Island Trail for many years now, always with my friend, Marnie. Sometimes in past years, there have been others along as well, but we have settled in to just the two of us. We both have Necky Arluk 1.8s and are evenly matched for speed. Our boats are nearly 19’ long and hold an impressive amount of gear. When I see the huge pile of food, water containers, clothes, tents, cookware and stoves, sleeping bag and mat, art supplies, books, and safety gear on the beach next to each of our boats, I never believe we will manage to fit it all in, but we always do. This year, because we will be on the islands for eight nights, we plan to come back to the car half way through the trip to re-provision food and water.
Even though it’s a clear sunny day, we check our heading from the public beach at South Addison to Stevens Island where we plan to spend the next two nights: 120 degrees magnetic, and a little more than 2 miles away. Not much of a paddle but it takes a bit of time to ease into this different world. Perhaps after we have unloaded and set up camp, we will go out for an evening paddle.
Stevens is a 30 acre island with a terrific all-tide landing beach in a cove half way down its eastern shore. The last time we were here 4 or 5 years ago, there was a rotting whale carcass perched on the rocks on the southern side of the cove, probably washed up in a winter storm. Wow, it stank. Now all that is left is a vertebral disc and some other tail or fin-like object too far gone to identify. We sit on the beach eating lunch, considering our options, and taking turns pulling the boats up on the incoming tide. Should we push on to another island or stay put? At one point we are so engrossed in the chart we fail to notice that our boats are floating off toward deeper water. We both charge down to rescue them, feeling both foolish and lucky. It’s a nine-mile paddle to Little Water further east and seems like too much for the first day. We decide on caution and stay put.
As we are unpacking the boats, we see a bald eagle fly by with a large fish in its talons. It’s struggling a bit in the wind to carry its prize, presumably back to its family. With camp set up, Marnie heads off in one direction to paint, and I head out in the other to explore. It takes awhile to settle down to island time, so I walk and look, picking up sea glass as I go.
Stevens has always been a pretty good island for glass. This is the third time we have camped here. I find a grove of white rugosa roses at the southwest corner of the island, and patches of some kind of heather nestled between the rocks, just above the high tide line.
I sit on the southern end of the island enjoying the sun-warmed rocks and looking out to the islands further south, the treeless, summer sheep-grazing ones that face the full force of the North Atlantic, like Flat, Nash and Big Nash. So exposed and remote, they are uninhabitable in the winter months. Although this was not always true. Nash has a lighthouse, and just after the turn of the 20th century, the lighthouse keeper’s family lived out there year round, with a large garden and a full complement of farm animals. Jenny Cirone, a lobsterwoman and sheep-raiser who lived in South Addison, was brought up out there. More about Jenny later.
I notice that the wind has risen and there are whitecaps racing toward me on the southwest wind. I am glad that I brought my raincoat and fleece. And I am very glad that we are not out there struggling toward Little Water.
I sit for a long time until finally, with the tide still rising, I’m afraid I won’t be able to get back to camp on the rock apron that skirts the island without getting wet. I head back to camp to get supper started. After supper, with higher wind and the sun going down, the temperature drops to the low 50s. I’ve got most of my warmest clothes on but I’m still chilled. A cup of tea helps but we turn in just after sundown, to read and be snug in our tents. I hear the faraway ocean rollers crashing against rocks as a low thrum, and wind in the trees overhead as a more syncopated rhythm. Smaller waves flirt with the nearby cove’s apron of rocks on the falling tide. An island lullaby.
<It’s our first full day on Stevens. Yesterday I felt so happy to be on an island again, but a bit apprehensive about the rigors of kayaking. When Marnie and I started paddling the Trail back in the 90s, we were all about travel, and cranking out the miles. We never spent more than one night on an island and averaged 12 mile days on the water, sometimes going 20 miles in a day. We were a lot younger and stronger then. But age and discretion dictate a new approach. I am 65 with knee replacement surgery in my immediate future; Marnie is 59 with a bum shoulder. Because neither of us paddle nearly as much as we used to, we don’t start a trip with kayaking muscles in very good condition. And over the years our pace in life has slowed.
Both of us are artists and meditators and our island trips have slowly transformed from traveling as far and as fast as we can, to more of a vision quest, with the emphasis on the journey, not the destination. We tend to spend two nights on an island so that we can experience that particular landscape more intimately with time to explore, paint and just BE there. Also having two nights on each island means half as much loading and unloading. The lugging is hard on my knee, particularly over rocks slippery with seaweed.
But now on this sunny morning of our first full day, I feel more settled and confident than yesterday. The morning almost always dawns on calm seas and this one is no exception. We sit on the rocks above the cove with our granola and hot drinks, reading Holly Hughes’ poetry to one another. Holly is a friend of Marnie’s who was a salmon fisherman in Alaska and now is a professor of creative writing and poetry. “In Sailing by Ravens, she gathers wisdom gained from thirty seasons working off Alaska’s shores, weaving personal experience and her love of the sea with the history and science of navigation” (Amazon) – a wonderful collection. Then we begin to talk. Island talk is different from regular life talk. Deeper.
After breakfast we decide to go island-hopping, and eventually fetch up for lunch on treeless Flat Island. Twenty acres of scrub and meadow make a happy home to seals, seagulls, bald eagles, and a summer flock of sheep. We sit with our binoculars watching the seal families basking on the rocks, eagles and seagulls circling overhead. The sheep move as far away from us as the island permits, the ewes standing guard over their lambs and gazing balefully at us, the intruders. We see an odd thing going on with the seagulls. A mother (or father?) is guarding their baby which appears to be disabled, limping and dragging one wing, clearly not able to fly. The other seagulls keep dive-bombing the little family, at one point driving them into the water. This goes on for the better part of an hour. Is the flock trying to cull the disabled and presumably doomed baby? I do not know.
The sea still relatively calm, we paddle the three miles back to Stevens – a respectable 7.5 mile paddle for the day – and spend the afternoon napping, reading, painting, and meditating. I am nestled in to the lee side of sun-warmed rocks, and see that the tide has risen to just a few feet from me. High tide is at 5:15 – I better move or get wet. The sun has gone behind a cloud and soon the evening chill and damp will descend.
What a difference a day makes. Yesterday we were here, but hadn’t really arrived – too preoccupied and speedy and more than a little nervous. Going out on these islands requires nerves, good planning, knowhow and vigilance. Speaking of which, a wave just came within a foot of me; I have to get up. The tides remind me of the square dancing call, ‘Bow to your partner”. Move forward, curtsey and back away. So fast the tide comes in, hesitates, and then is quickly receding. I think the tide range is 12-13 feet here so that is a lot of water moving in and out of these bays. Twice a day just like clockwork.
It takes time to be on island time, to hunker down. I love this landscape like no other. The immense, ever-changing, mysterious ocean, these wild barrier islands so lush and sweet with summer, sundrenched and perfumed with rugosa, spruce, the tang of salt and seaweed. So inviting and comfortable in summer, these islands in winter are scoured and battered by wind and storm surges, uninhabitable and often unreachable. I call them barrier islands because, being furthest out, they protect the inner islands and coastline from the full force of the North Atlantic. We are on the very edge of the land. ‘Beyond here, there be dragons’ – no, not dragons - whales and England.
The journey continues... TopKayaker will have the entire nine day adventure linked here as they appear:
Clubs & Organizations
Charts & Maps
At Tom's TopKayaker Shop:
Tidal Current Tables 2014: Atlantic Coast of North America, by NOAA or search for current issue.
Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book 2014 or search for current issue.
Maine Atlas and Gazetteer