Monday, September 30, 2013

Kayaking Across Penobscot Bay and Maine's Island Towns: Maine Island Trail

Penobscot Bay is one of the more scenic sections on the Maine Island Trail with small island hamlets and formidable crossings. 

This is part of a series of posts about my 200 mile trip up the coast of Maine by the Maine Island Trail. Previously: Solitude and Muscongus Bay on the Maine Island Trail
Penobscot Bay on the Maine Island Trail
Day 5… or was it 4? I have to get the tide chart and check my notes. I’ve been on enough long distance trips to know how easy it is to lose track of the days. Time seemed to ebb and flow as effortlessly as the tides. Although this trip would end up taking a week, such trips always feel much longer and for good reasons.

Despite the relatively short time of the trip, mornings fell into a natural routine. Wake up with the sunrise, rustle up some boiling water for coffee, re-wash dishes and make breakfast, read, listen to the NOAA weather report on the Marine radio, review the charts, re-pack the kayak and push off. It was a pleasant routine, unhurried but deliberate. I always had enough sleep and enough time in the morning to get my bearings and collect my thoughts.

The computerized voice of the NOAA VHF announcements was my most constant companion for this week on the sea. Most of the time, it was my only electronic link to the modern world. As for the rest of my gear and supplies, they were all 21st century in design but it felt archaic in nature. I had no GPS, phone or any way to get to the internet. While canned beans and instant coffee were not available to the natives or early explorers but I still felt like a bit of a frontiersman. Sure, I was paddling by pockets of civilization and I could hail the Coast Guard if needed. It was just nice to spend a whole week depending on completely manual means of navigation and transportation.
Long Crossing of Penobscot Bay
Each day presented unique challenges and today it was making the extended and exposed crossings of Penobscot Bay. At this point I’m intimately familiar with just about every island and channel in the bay from past trips but this means I’m simply more aware of all the things that could go wrong. Since planning the trip, the Penobscot bay crossing had been gnawing at my mind. Western Penobscot Bay was a 6 mile crossing from Owls Head to North Haven Island which is halfway across the bay. From there, the Fox Island thoroughfare between North Haven Island and Vinalhaven Island is protected but busy. Then there was the 5 mile crossing from the havens to Deer Isle: exposed to ocean currents and another busy shipping channel.

As it turned out, the early morning crossing was as flat as it was serene. It took at least two hours but the paddling was pleasant. A few lobster boats passed by and waved but no large ships were in the channel on this day. Unencumbered by any currents or wind, I effortlessly glided across Penobscot Bay.

Arriving at the Fox Island Thoroughfare, I was once again reminded of the fact that many other people love cruising the Maine Islands. Boats hailed from all across the country and world. Each had its story written on the stern of how far they've come to get here. Some were from as far away as the Caribbean. I don’t blame them for making that journey- I’d much rather be darting in and out of these secluded islands than jockeying for position at an overcrowded, overdeveloped southern beach.
North Haven, Maine
Arriving in the town of North Haven was a treat. I’ve written a few times before of how much I love this little island town because of its working port feel. It was busier today but this did not deter from its homey surroundings. I wasted several perfectly good hours of time here; time that could be better spent padding. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hang out with a coffee on the docks and eavesdrop on the conversations of lobstermen and round-the-world sailors. North Haven (and Vinalhaven) may be considered “summer colonies” by most, but the people who live here all year seem to have a blend of frontier self-reliance coupled with a carefree attitude. I suppose that comes with generations of people living on island time.

Unfortunately I was not on island time and my trip was contingent upon making crossings at the right time and right tides. Perhaps on another trip I’ll simply make it to North Haven and idle away a carefree week.

Coming out on the eastern entrance to the Fox Island Thoroughfare, I encountered more difficult conditions. Chop and wind made the crossing of Western Penobscot Bay a more difficult affair than the morning. Although I loved my little siesta spent in North Haven, I knew I was paying the price in this 4 mile crossing on higher seas.
Pulling in to Stonington, Maine
Even though this kayak was newer to me, I’ve already gotten a good feel for how it rides and flows. In the way of touring kayaks, plastics are more entry level than the higher end fiberglass models. Nevertheless, she handled pretty well in the choppier conditions and I was soon across the Penobscot and into Stonington.

Yet again I’m faced with the dilemma. Should I spend more precious hours enjoying another bucolic island town or take advantage of the few remaining hours of sunlight? Inevitably, this became a real nuisance on this trip. The weather thus far had been utterly phenomenal but one does not want to waste this precious blessing on Maine’s vicious coast. The fact that I had gotten away with 5 days of favorable winds, currents and weather was something I’ve never had the privilege of enjoying in this state. Bad weather is a part of life but good weather can’t be wasted. On the other hand, Stonington is difficult to get to by any route- whether by car or boat. This is, of course, part of the appeal.

My conscious would only let me spend an hour wandering around Stonington. No sooner had I casted off that I wanted to turn back and rent a room or cottage on the shore.
Sunset on the Maine Island Trail
As it turns out, that evening I got something even better: my own private island. Tonight’s campsite was possibly one of my favorites on the whole trail. I had an easy landing and there was a clear campsite overlooking the sunset and with a view all the way out to Mount Desert Island. Tomorrow had its share of worries but I just sat there cooking up my dinner, watching the sun set and the moon rise. A simple night with some simple pleasures. 

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Solitude and Muscongus Bay on the Maine Island Trail

On the third day I had completely calm conditions across Muscongus Bay to Owl's Head which offered plenty of time for photography and musings. 

This is part of a series of posts about my 200 mile trip up the coast of Maine by the Maine Island Trail. Previously: Kayaking the Western Rivers and Boothbay Harbor

Sunset on the Maine Island Trail
In most of the country, solitude is a novelty. In Maine, it is a commodity.

I once read the wise words of a Master Registered Maine guide in a book called, “Your Maine Lands: Reflections of a Maine Guide”:

“How well you cope with being alone, all alone, utterly alone, is a good measure of your mental health. If you can’t hack being alone, that’s OK, but you might want to ask yourself what is it that is so threatening about being alone that you cannot tolerate it”

Terse but poignant. Typically Maine. 

The stretch across Muscongus Bay to Rockland was almost entirely flat water. It was a whole day of peaceful, uninterrupted paddling through glorious country. As such, I was able to let my mind wander.


Solitude, more specifically, wilderness solitude is an experience I’ve come to crave. I consider it a necessity. I can’t say exactly when I first realized this but I fondly remember spending two weeks completely alone in the High Sierra of California while hiking the John Muir Trail. Most anyone who has written about extended time alone will confirm that it is sour at first but it becomes sweeter as time goes on. Bitter but becoming delightful. Ever since those two weeks spent in the mountains, I’ve designed and planned for stretches of solitude in my otherwise social life.

Somehow I’ve ended up on both extremes of the social spectrum. I work in healthcare and I find the deep interactions I have with colleagues and patients to be rewarding. I’ve always had many friends and at any point I’m actively involved in four or five organizations. On the other hand, I’ve spent up to a month essentially alone and found it to be entirely pleasant. I look forward to opportunities to venture off into the mountains or ocean to just shut up and exist, contented and alone. I’m not an introvert, extrovert nor even an ambivert. I’m just a person who values the kind of solitude that is so rare everywhere expect in places like Maine.
Classic sights on the water trail
Maine has the tendency to polarize its long-time residents and visitors alike. To those who value wilderness, scarcity of population and time alone, Maine is a wonderland. To those who prefer the opposite, Maine can be hell. Over time I’ve understood why some people just hate being up here whether they are a 5th generation native or a one time visitor. As for me, the location suits me well.

In my last two and a half years in this state, I’ve spent more time alone than ever. Alone in the mountains, alone on the ocean and living alone at home- I think I’m alone more than anyone I know of. When I do get a 17 day vacation from work, I spend almost the entire time alone and call it a vacation indeed.
My own piece of paradise
I don’t always understand why I love solitude so much but I do know that Maine makes it easy. There’s comfort in the knowledge that it is easy to just disappear for a while in the mountains or coast which is one of the many reason why people come to Maine in the first place. Time alone with loved ones or time spent completely alone is a priceless commodity of the state. The Appalachian Trail, the Maine Island Trail, the lakeside camp, a hunter’s cabin, seaside cottages, dirt roads and snowmobile trails are all vehicles for charming seclusion. Let me be. 
Sunset on Owl's Head and the Camden Hills
On the more logistical side of things there was not much to report today. Muscongus Bay was a lovely and flat morning paddle. I briefly landed in Port Clyde for an interruption of my otherwise lonely trip and briefly enjoyed some passive company. After that I was making my way North through Western Penobscot Bay which was equally relaxing. Another 28 miles were covered and I camped just outside of Rockland, Maine.

Monroe Island was a real treat, sitting right off the coast of the famous Owl's Head Lighthouse. The imposing Camden Hills were off in the distance as were the shores of Vinalhaven Island. I spent a starry night on the beach and idled away time. 

Next: Across Penobscot Bay and the Deer Isles