Friday, August 30, 2013

Kayaking the Western Rivers, Boothbay and Pemaquid Point: Maine Island Trail Thru-Paddle

On the second day I kayaked across the mouths of several of Maine's largest rivers including the Kennebec, Boothbay Harbor and rounded the infamous Pemaquid Point. 

This is part of a series of posts of my 200 mile kayaking trip up the coast of Maine by the Maine Island Trail. Previously: Kayaking across Casco Bay
Near the mouth of the Kennebec where the currents pick up
After camping out at the edge of Casco Bay, I headed for the next leg; The huge western river outlets and Boothbay harbor. I had some formidable obstacles this day. First I had to round the exposed point of Phippsburg where there are many submerged rocks and currents. Next I had to cross the mouth of the mighty Kennebec which dumps much of the water from the northern Appalachians. Finally there was the even more exposed Pemaquid Point which guards the entrance to Muscongus Bay. I had my work cut out for me today.

As most mariners know, the morning is the best time to cover greater distances before the afternoon brings stronger winds and currents. This was true when I was kayaking the Channel Islands of California and its true out here in Maine. As soon as the sun was up, I packed my camp and hit the water. I rounded Phippsburg without too much trouble but given my timing, I would be hitting the even more dangerous Pemaquid Point late afternoon. There was just no avoiding it; at times I would have to be tacking tough sections at tough times.

View Day 2: Casco Bay to Muscongus Bay in a larger map

On the other hand, I would be tackling the mouth of the Kennebeck at a perfect time- slack tide and early morning. The Kennebec River is one of the more formidable rivers of New England and holds so many memories for me and Maine. Its watershed stretches all the way to the Canadian border. Moosehead Lake serves as its headwaters. At 40 miles wide and 10 miles long, it is the largest alpine lake in New England. I did a weekend kayak trip of it in late November last year and barely saw a quarter of Maine’s greatest lake. From here, it jogs through some ponds and shoots down the Kennebec River gorge with vicious force. I remember whitewater rafting those icy waters in June when torrential rains and high water made the swollen river like a roller-coaster  We took out at the forks where the equally wild Dead River meets the Kennebec. From here, the rapids are calmer as it passes by some of Maine’s famous mill towns of Waterville and Skowhegan and eventually Augusta. If I turned north, it would be possible for me to paddle all the way to the capital, 40 miles inland.

After the capital, the Kennebec flows into Merrymeeting Bay where 5 other rivers meet. The Androscoggin River flows straight down from Mt Washington and is every bit as historical and vital to the economy of Maine. With the water of six rivers all running down to the ocean at the mouth of the Kennebec and Shepscot Bay, I try to maintain focus on my technique and surroundings.

I don’t mean to belabor the details of the Kennebec, I’m just point out that this is a crossing of the Rubicon. I feel more nervousness than I do excitement.
Reid State Park after crossing the Kennebec's mouth
I know I’ve entered the crossing of the Kennebec because the current gives my boat an instant jerk. It didn’t knock me off balance but I could feel the force of 6 rivers hitting my boat at once. I had to change my bearing significantly to account for the current and prevent my boat from going out to sea. Off in the distance is Popham Beach and Fort Popham which once guarded the mouth of the economically vital river. I laughed thinking of the times spent at Popham Beach simply relaxing and killing time.

It’s a long crossing. It is only about a half a mile but the cross current makes it a struggle. I use a few of the islands in at the mouth for cover and rest. Eventually I feel another palpable change in the currents and I know I’ve made it. It was such a profound feeling to be entering and exiting the mouth of the river- difficult to explain.
Classic coastal Maine
On the far side of the Kennebec’s mouth I come to the welcoming beach of Reid State Park. Already feeling exhausted, I rode a wave into shore and took a late morning siesta. What a curious sight that must have been. Reid State Park is a popular family day trip area and the beach is great for swimming so it was crowded on this Friday. Then, some guy in a cowboy hat and a 16’ kayak just comes out of the blue and lands right on the beach (I’ll explain the hat later). I am here to relax too before my next big crossing.

Sheepscot Bay is directly adjacent to Reid State Park and Georgetown Island. This is a larger bay and also serves as the mouth for the Sheepscot River and part of the Kennebec. Further upstream, some of the water from the Kennebec shoots through narrow corridors known as “Upper Hell Gate” and “Lower Hell Gate”. Not a good place for a kayaker on his own. Sheepscot Bay ends up being relatively flat and current-less for me but at several points there are reefs and submerged rocks which create standing waves and breakers. Once again I am forced to be staring at my charts more than anything else. Off to my left, the little swell I just floated over increased to four times its height and breaks over a patch of water that was flat a minute ago. Such is the way of the “drowned coast”
The small harbor at the edge of Southport Island
Things become a little duller after this and I am thankful. I roll right by Southport Island and Boothbay Harbor, wishing I had the time to dock and stroll around. At some point in the planning I was thinking that I would have time to stop in every little town along the way and poke around. I find I have no time to waste; weather this good can turn fowl quickly in Maine.

Pemaquid Point is off in the distance and I’m rounding it when the wind and weather are the worst. Its not bad in the grand scheme of Maine weather but it will be a wild point for sure. I’m paddling towards the south to get around the point and many submerged rocks is against the wind. The Pemaquid Point Lighthouse is a famous scene depicted on Maine’s State Quarter. This is just one more iconic landmark of Maine that I have the fortune to see from the ocean. Once I round the point and begin paddling north, I ride the currents and watch the tourists on the shore. This is undoubtedly another strange scene to see a lone kayaker in a cowboy hat 300 yards off the coast fighting currents while hundreds of tourists idle away at the lighthouse.
Having an island all to myself feels so luxurious
I didn't always have a nice tent platform so this was also another luxury 
Bar Island is my campsite and destination that evening. Exhausted from the several formidable crossings of the day, I pull my kayak on the shore and find the campsite. This turns out to be one of the more developed campsites on the trail with large tent platforms, a staircase up the eroded shoreline and even a flagpole! I set up camp and watched the sunset over Muscongus Bay. Two days of nearly perfect weather and I'm 60 miles in on the Maine Island Trail. 

Next: Muscongus Bay and Penobscot Bay

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kayaking Casco Bay: Maine Island Trail Thru-Paddle

This is part of a series of posts of my 200 mile kayaking trip up the coast of Maine by the Maine Island Trail. Today I casted off from Portland and kayaked the Casco Bay. The first leg of a Maine adventure. Previously: My first trip on the Maine Island Trail
Casting off in Portland
The time had come for me to finally start this voyage from Portland. The day before, I drove up to Camden and purchased a 16’ yacht of a kayak and all the required gear. I think it is impossible to live in Maine and not have a desire to someday own a boat or a camp. It was only a matter of time before this would happen. Some Mainers dream of owning a camp someday, I dreamed of having a sea kayak. Seeing as it would bring me to some 200 islands available for camping, I would say that I do own a camp.

Up at 5:30am with everything packed, I drove out to the Bug Light public launch in South Portland. For about an hour I played gear Tetris; trying to shove a week and a half worth of supplies into one kayak tested my skills of spatial perception. Fully loaded, I believe my kayak was somewhere between 120-150lbs. Normally before a grand trip I am brimming with excitement but today I was apprehensive and edgy. Once I cast off from Bug Light, I would be at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean for the next week. So many factors played into this trip of which I had no control. Godspeed.

View Casco Bay Kayak Route in a larger map

I’ve kept relatively quiet about this trip to most people for fear that I would be telling friends about a grand adventure only to be turned around 2 miles off the shore. To those I did tell, I publicly recognized that I could get turned around before making it to Peaks Island. (just a mile from Portland). This is not feigned humbleness either- right off the bat I was paddling perpendicular to the busiest shipping channel in the state of Maine. Ocean going tankers regularly cross this channel and I doubt a 16’ kayak is going to alter their course. There were an infinite number of boats who could crush me and they would be none the wiser. Out of the furnace and into the fire. I vigorously paddled the mile long nautical superhighway between bug light and Peaks Island hoping I didn't end up like a fly on a windshield. It was something like crossing a Boston freeway on foot during Friday rush hour.

Well I made it to Peaks Island- one mile down, one-hundred-and-ninety nine to go. At least I could say I didn’t get turned a mile off shore.
Rough idea of what I packed
As I float through the channels between Casco Bay’s more populated islands, the initial rush of the channel crossing subsides and I settle into the kayaking equivalent of a leisurely stroll. Pleasure boats dart in and out of private coves and occasionally a ferry goes by but for the most part my path is unobstructed. The stress of packing and planning also subsides and float on into this dream. “I’m actually doing this, I’m actually trying to float 200 miles along a wild stretch of the Gulf of Maine in a plastic, man-powered boat”. Not burned by any bad weather, currents or wind, I savor the moment. In Edward Abbey’s famous account of floating down the Glen Canyon of Utah, he writes what I now feel:

“I am fulfilling at last a dream of childhood and one as powerful as the erotic dreams of adolescence-floating down a river. Mark Twain, Major Powell, ever man that has ever put forth on flowing water knows what I mean”

True, I am on no river, but the ever dependable Southwest winds and currents of Maine fill my day with fair winds and following seas. I’m just on a wider river.
Harpswell and the edge of Casco Bay
Unlike the Colorado River however, the Casco Bay is populated and developed. For the most part I don’t mind it. I actually enjoy the passive company of fellow mariners and vacationers. I’m far enough away from each island and camp that I can sing songs or think out loud without anyone hearing but close enough to feel the camaraderie of fellow ocean-goers. I will not have this company the further I go.

From the bird’s eye view of a map, Casco Bay is easily navigable but when your eyes are just two feet above the waterline, it can be a maze. The whole coast of Maine is a navigational nightmare. I keep a constant eye on my heading, use lobster buoys to judge the current and check the marine forecast through my marine radio. I've been caught in high seas and thick fog where getting lost is easy. Upon the horizon, the various islands and peninsulas all blend into a green line which makes navigation that much harder. I have no GPS but I feel growing confidence with the passing of every island. I’m happy I forked over the extra cash for highly specific, waterproof marine charts.
Lobster country
Rounding Harpswell neck I thread the needle in between Bailey and Orrs Island which essentially is my exit out of Casco Bay. It’s just about lunch time and I've paddled ¾ of the distance I planned for day 1. Up till this point, things have been quite pedestrian. On the far side of Casco, I’m at once more exposed to wind and current. The real trail has begun. Although the winds and currents instantly became more serious, I was leaving behind the city and entering lobster country. The marinas, mansions and boat traffic thinned out and I began seeing more of Maine's thriving lobster industry.

Once I neared Phippsburg, the sun was setting and I camped out at a surprisingly developed campsite. Actually, it was more of a hotel except with tents. It had all the amenities of a hotel though: wifi, a restaurant, beach volleyball ect. How strange to be feeling like I am one a great wilderness adventure and to be staying at a posh campsite. I really had no other options and decided I would just deal with it. 

I covered almost 30 miles on my first day. Not bad.

Next: Kayaking the Western Rivers and Boothbay Harbor

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Prelude to the Maine Island Trail

"You moved to Maine from California? Why?" You wouldn't be the first to ask. 

This is part of a series of posts of my 200 mile kayaking trip up the coast of Maine by the Maine Island Trail. Previously: Introduction to Kayaking the Entire Maine Island Trail
First summer in Maine
My journeys along the Maine Island Trail begin in 2010, the year I finished my undergrad in Southern California.  Like many newly minted graduates, I had only vaguely sketched out what my future would hold. Also, like many new grads, I valued spontaneity and travel perhaps a little too much. Yes I certainly wanted a reliable future but I wanted to “see the world” or whatever that means. But instead of joining the Peace Corps or teaching English abroad like many of my ilk, I ran off to Maine. The subject of why I forsook the glorious climate and opportunities in Southern California for the comparatively rough and wild life out in Maine has been constantly questioned by Mainers and Californians alike. I suppose this story will serve as a backdrop for how I came to that decision.
I'll always remember this picture as the four colors of a Maine Summer
In the summer of 2010, I started working at a summer camp in the Western Maine mountains, an experience I’ll never forget and I will probably never fully understand how much it impacted my life’s trajectory. At the time, the trip just felt like a way out of what had essentially become my dull hometown. Southern California was a wonderful place to be a college kid, but I needed to experience something else. Many young people come from all across the east coast to work up in Maine for the summer and I just happened to have traveled from a further distance.
My first adventure on the Maine Island Trail
That summer was as idyllic as they come. The days were filled with meaningful work, the nights filled with good times and new friends. Time off was for exploration and adventure. In 3 months of work I believe I had maybe 6 days off and I used all 24 hours of them: hiking Mt Washington, hiking Katahdin, seeing the Lubec sunrise, Acadia and Portland. Maine suited me in almost every way; the wilderness was readily accessible, the cost of living was cheap and there was an abundance of adventure. Even the big city, Portland, was such a manageable city. All the art, culture and cuisine that people love about cities but drive ½ and hour outside of it and you’re in horse country. Eventually, while hiking along the coast of Camden, I heard about the Maine Island Trail. The Appalachian Trail of the water. A long distance kayak route. It sounded like something I had to try.

View First Maine Island Trail Trip in a larger map

At the end of that summer, with just a backpack and a sleeping bag, I ventured for the coast. I hitchhiked and took busses to get to Camden where I rented a kayak. Leaving from Lincolnville Beach, I circumnavigated Penobscot Bay under perfect conditions and got my first real taste of the coast of Maine.

Fast forward 3 years later and I’ve morphed in to some kind of responsible adult with a plan, a paycheck and a degree. Sure I had gone back to California at the end of that summer, but no sooner than I returned, I applied to school out in Maine and found myself out in the Far East once again. You can check out any time you like, but you can’t ever leave. 

Next: Leaving Portland and crossing Casco Bay

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Kayaking the Entire Coast of Maine via The Maine Island Trail

Thru-paddling the coast of Maine from Portland to Machias, 200 nautical miles
Somewhere off the coast of Maine
Sunrise Coast. Lobster Coast. Bold Coast. Downeast. Acadia. Although it stretches only 230 miles from New Hampshire to New Brunswick, this distance includes Maine's 3,500 miles of jagged coastline and 3,000 islands surrounded by vicious tides and currents. Capturing the imagination of natives, explorers, artists and poets across the centuries, the coast of Maine has become the symbol of the state. 

Knowing how central Maine's coast was to its history, economy, art and literature, it was just fitting to me that I would one day head off and see the whole coast for myself. As it turns out, somebody thought of this long before I did. Twenty-five years ago, about the time I was born, the Maine Island Trail was forged for the purposes of exploration and recreation. Now there were over 200 campsites stretching from Portsmouth Bay to Lubec and the Canadian Maratimes. With a robust group of volunteers and a dedication to the wilderness similar to the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Maine Island Trail is the nautical answer to the Appalachian Trail. It would be perfectly reasonable to set forth on the Maine Island Trail and travel 2,100 miles without seeing the same thing twice.
Maine's most classic adventure
In a coastal trip from New Hampshire to Canada you would see nearly everything that makes this area so vital to Maine. The comparatively gentle southern beaches of York, Kennebunk and Old Orchard Beach showcase Maine's softer shores and beckon leisurely paces and hours spent on quiet New England beaches.  Rounding Cape Elizabeth gives the kayaker unobstructed views of Maine's famous lighthouses. The extensive Casco Bay holds the largest harbor in the state and a enough historical forts to prove Maine's critical roll in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Massive cruise ships and tankers race in and out of the bay alongside yachts circumnavigating the globe. No trip around the Atlantic would be complete without seeing the Lobster Coast.
The bold coast
Moving northeast, Maine's largest rivers finally make it to the sea. The Kennebec, Androscoggin and Penobscot rivers make their way from high in the White Mountains and Appalachians of Maine and enter the ocean with terrific force. Fertile lobster grounds are covered with trap buoys and lobster boats become close companions. Further up the coast is Penobscot Bay which forms a large bight and half a dozen friendly island towns. Finally there is Acadia and downeast Maine whose shores and mountains have inspired art across the world. Perhaps half of the art in the Portland Art Museum was inspired by this coast. Dependable winds and favorable currents push the mariner further and further away from civilization and eventually to end of Maine or the beginning of the country.  

At no point does the trip become predictable. At every point the mariner is exactly halfway between peril and paradise. The same forces which form the stunning cliffs of Acadia could easily be the demise of a careless mariner.

Easy to lose one's way on the "drowned coast"
I have to do it now. Voyaging in a boat up the coast would be the original Maine Adventure. So I took two weeks off from work, spent a thousand dollars on a touring kayak, bought two-hundred dollars worth of nautical charts and planned my adventure. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hiking Doubletop Mountain, Maine: Baxter State Park's Best

Doubletop Mountain is a gorgeous peak located just west of the more well known peaks of Katahdin. Although its not even close to being the tallest peak in the park, it is in the running for the best view!
Spectacular summits of Doubletop
My last day in Baxter State Park was a lovely 65 degrees and sunny. Such weather always seems to be a rare blessing up in Maine and I picked a heck of a day to hike Doubletop Mountain. This is yet another gorgeous summit in the park which is often overlooked by the hoards of hikers wanting to bag Katahdin. While I have nothing against our highest peak, it would be a shame if Knife's Edge was the only thing you hiked in the park. I've found that the Traveler, the Brothers and now Doubletop are also excellent adventures. This one can be done in about 1/2 a day from the Nesowadnehunk Campground in the far west of the park. 

Here is a map to give you an idea of the hike and how to get there:

The campground is really in the farthest part of the park along the tote road and will take at least an hour to get to from the entrance. From there, the trail actually begins towards the edge of the old campground past the bridge across the river. Essentially, just park by the bridge, walk across it and turn left to follow the old road until you get to the trailhead.

From here, the trail gently follows the direction of the stream will little elevation gain. After about a mile, you will descend and cross a larger creek which offers the last water source for the hike. As you might have gathered from the topo lines, the ascent gets very steep, very quickly. Its classic New England hand-over-feet hiking. 

After about another mile of this ascent, you'll come up to what you will surely think is the summit but a sign will say the true summit is in another mile. But don't worry, its not nearly the ascent that the last mile was! The trail follows along what seems to be a more wooded version of the Knife's Edge before finally popping you out upon the North Summit of Doubletop. This is the true summit but the South Summit has much more expansive views.
This is actually the first time I've seen Katahdin cleared of clouds in all my time in Baxter
The walk over to the South Summit is not too bad- just 0.2 miles will little elevation gain and loss. Again, its the better of the two summits
The summit block of South Doubletop
I am a slow hiker and I hiked this one easily within half a day. Left by 7, was back by 12. Another option if you have a car shuttle available is hiking all the way over Doubletop and down into Kidney Pond which makes for a nice day hike. Either way is great.

Well that's a wrap for my time in Baxter State Park! There sure is a lot more to see here than the highest summit in Maine!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

North Brother, South Brother, Mt Coe and Fort Mountain: New England 100 Highest

If you get bored climbing New England's 67 4,000-footers, you can always go for the 100 Highest! The hiking loop around North Brother, South Brother and Mt Coe is enough to draw any hiker out to this wilderness. 
Gorgeous view of the Klondike and Katahdin from the Brothers Loop
Like the last two hikes, the Brothers Loop is a favorite of many Baxter State Park hikers. This is a challenging hike which encompasses North Brother, South Brother and Mt Coe with the option of hiking Fort Mountain. North Brother is of interest because it is a 4,000-footer while Coe and South Brother are merely great lookouts (and also on the 100-highest list). Fort Mountain is of interest for a few strange reasons- one that it is a tough bushwack on the 100 Highest list but more commonly it is hiked to see the wreckage of a B-54 bomber which tragically struck the mountain in 1944. As for me, I was simply hiking it for the 100-highest status. 

The Brothers loop will definitely take you all day but there are some fantastic summits along the way-

This is one of those hikes where you need a particularly early start. It would be best to either camp in the park overnight or get to the park gate when it opens at 6AM. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the parking lot from the gate. Use the map above to get directions.

The first 1.1 miles to the junction are pleasantly steep. At the junction, you can either head right and tackle the infamous Mt Coe slide first or head left and climb North Brother first. Either way, its a flatter ascent at first followed by a murderously steep section. I elected to head up North Brother first so that if afternoon thunderstorms came in, I would be off its bare summit by then. It is 2.0 miles from this junction to the saddle between North and South Brother. The trail is very well marked and open.
Nice view of Doubletop Mtn from the brothers trail
At this saddle, turning left will bring you to the 4,151ft summit of North Brother while going right will bring you to the turnoff for South Brother. I headed up North which is 0.7 miles according to the National Geographic Map. (There are discrepancies between different maps and the trail signs). The trail up North Brother was a little dicey in some sections- overgrown and wet. Although it was easy to follow, it felt rather unmaintained. Eventually I popped out on the completely foggy and bare summit. Oh well...

I should note that the view on top of North Brother is usually amazing and later that day when I had clear weather, I could tell you could see most of the park from the summit. Alas, that's just another reason why I will have to come back some day.
Looking off towards Fort Mountain from North Brother
Now, as I said earlier, I wanted to hike Fort Mountain as well. For those who have any reason to hike Fort Mountain, be warned; its a hell of a bushwack/heard path. The trail leaves directly from the North Brother summit and is almost a straight shot over the saddle and to the summit of Fort. I would NOT recommend you bring some big trail backpack on the way- you will be fighting a battle against thick krummholz and underbrush. The route is well marked with tape and a few cairns but make no mistake; it would be easy to get lost between the summits.

Damn that was a struggle! I know that many have been on worse bushwacks than this and in the way of New England bushwacks, this one's nothing. The fact that there is at least a somewhat clear route with tape makes it easier... but by the time I was on the summit of Fort Mountain, I was sliced, diced and not feeling to happy about this decision. There wasn't even a view in the fog. Why do I do these things?

Ah well... all part of the New England hiking experience. I made my way back through the bush and popped back out on the summit of North Brother. I couldn't believe that the total round-trip distance to Fort and back was 1.2 miles. Bummah!
The summit of South Brother
After getting down from North Brother, I was back at the saddle and started making my way to the summit of South Brother. It was a comparatively nice walk. There is a turn-off to to the summit just 0.6 miles past the saddle. Its 0.3 miles up to the summit of South Brother. While North's view eluded me that day, South was completely clear and I got was I came for!

The weather was finally moving out, as predicted that day. The hike instantly turned from misery to magnificence. One should always expect rough weather when hiking in Maine which makes good weather all the more enjoyable. I actually spent some considerable time on the summit which is also rare in New England as I usually get chased off by fierce winds or a threatening thunderstorm.
Doubletop Mountain from South Brother
Clear weather on the brothers loop
View of the Brothers from Mt Coe
From the turnoff of South Brother, it was about another mile to the summit of Mt Coe. Again, another gorgeous summit. Mt Coe is the shortest of the summits on this loop but the views of the Klondike basin and Mt Katahdin were phenomenal. Thank goodness!

Although the ascent up to the Brothers saddle had been crazy as well as the up and down and up and down of North Brother and Fort Mountain... my biggest challenged lied ahead- the Mt Coe slide. There's really no nice nor easy way to go up or down Mt Coe. The slide is exposed, steep, slippery and rocky. It is reminiscent of the slides on the Tripyramids in New Hampshire if you've ever done them. Going up it is tough but coming down it is tougher. There were just too many opportunities to lose one's footing and slide down 500 feet of scree. I would say this was the least enjoyable part of the day. You've been warned!
Might not look too bad from this picture... but it was a heck of a way to get down
After coming down from the slide, it was a gentle descent of about 1.1 miles back to the turnoff for North Brother. Then its another 1.1 miles back to the trailhead. I left at about 0700 and was back by about 1700. It was a long but accomplished day. 

According to my map, the distance was about 11 miles which includes the crazy jaunt over to Fort Mountain. Without that, its about 9.5 miles, I believe but other sources and other maps may differ. Regardless, it is a full day's hike and there's enough ascents and descents to make it a challenge for anyone. The fun's not done; I camped out at Nesowadnehunk Field and was off to the summit of Doubletop the next day. Boy did I rest well that night though!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!