Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Hiking the Cutler Coast: Best Coast Hike in Maine

Towards the very northeastern corner of Maine's coastline is the famed Cutler Coast. This stretch of coastline has some of Maine's highest cliffs and has abundant hiking opportunities. It is also free of charge because it is a part of Maine's Public Reserve Lands
The spectacular coastline of the Cutler Coast
People who know me say I use too many superlatives to describe all of the places I go. I doubt it comes to anyone's surprise that I would continue to do so on my blog. This probably will end up in a diluted pile of my "best of" posts but I know I'm not the only person in Maine who thinks the Cutler Coast is simply the best. I read about the Cutler Coast in Your Maine Lands: Reflections of a Maine Guide, by renowned Maine Guide Tom Hanrahan. He wrote about a three-day bobcat hunt in January which took place at this location. Even the bitter wind and cold couldn't keep him from describing it as serene and magical. Anyone else who's hiked the Cutler Coast would have a similar report.

Getting there is half the fun- its located in the far northeast corner of Maine's Coast and most of the drive is on country roads. Nevertheless, people drive from all over New England and Canada to hike here. When I pulled up, I saw license plates from 5 different states and 3 Canadian Provinces. (Map and Directions) Please be aware that there are absolutely no services at or near the parking area save for a few pit toilets. 

Here is an excellent hiking map of the Cutler Coast

Maine's Bold Coast
The Cutler Coast is part of the larger "Bold Coast" which stretches from Machias to Lubec and the Canadian border. This is the only stretch of Maine I was unable to kayak on my last trip because steep cliffs and erratic currents made for few places to land and set up camp. The 30 miles of cliffs do make for excellent hiking as it is in this case

This public reserve land has several options for trails and the best way to see everything is to take the 9 mile loop. Starting at the only parking lot, the trail heads almost directly towards the ocean. It reaches a junction 0.4 miles in, continue straight to get to the overlook. Its another mile from this point to the ocean.

Many people decide to just hike to the first overlook and back; this is perfectly acceptable for a nice 1-2 hour hike if that's what you're looking for. The first overlook was the most spectacular of all the overlooks I saw. It was easy to waste an hour just watching the powerful currents crash into the cliffs. I wish I could capture that sound and bring it back home with me. 
View from the overlook, Cutler Coast
From here, you can head southwest on the main trail as it hugs the cliffs. The views aren't abundant throughout this section but occasionally there are little "windows" where you can look out over the ocean or catch a glimpse of Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. The trail runs through a thick woods which feels like a rain-forest  Bring plenty of bug repellent and high socks- there's enough ticks and poison ivy to ruin your next day. There were some frustratingly overgrown sections of the trail but various viewpoints made the trip worth it
Windows in the foliage provide excellent views 
In about 1.4 miles from the original overlook, the trail dips down to the shoreline and to another junction. The shoreline is a nice place to grab a snack and although it is not as dramatic as the last section, its still wonderful Maine beach devoid of people. You can decide to cut your hike off early by heading right on the Black Point cut off trail. If you take this trail, it will link up with the inland trail and head back to the parking lot in 2.7 miles, making the whole hike 5.5 miles. If you continue on the Coastal Trail, it will wrap around the coast and come back through the inland trail, adding an additional 4.5 miles to the trip. This makes the total distance of the full coastal trail loop about 9.2 miles. 

Continuing on the Coastal Trail will bring you to three campsites overlooking the ocean. They are limited tent-sites with no services but I imagine the sunrise from these sites is worth the trip. 
More cliffs of the Cutler Coast

Hiking the Inland Trail, Cutler Coast
Classic Maine "beach"
Of course, pictures do the place no justice but I hope you can see why most anyone who's hike the Cutler Coast would say its the best seaside hike in the state. Its a long drive to get there, but then again, you would see almost the entire coast of Maine to get there, which is part of the adventure. 

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jonseport to Machias: Finishing the Maine Island Trail

On my final day I paddled through Jonesport and the rest of Downeast Maine and arrived in the town of Machias to finish the Maine Island trail after casting off in Portland one week ago.

This is part of a series of posts about my 200 mile trip up the coast of Maine by the Maine Island Trail. Previously:  Bar Harbor through Downeast Maine
Final sunrise on the Maine Island Trail
I had quite the miserable morning with mosquitoes. I was swarmed, literally. A cloud of mosquitoes made breaking down camp impossible. I thought I was being cleaver by wearing a wetsuit but they stung right through the neoprene. Anecdotally,  I’ve heard of people going crazy with mosquitoes and I was on the edge.

Eventually I was able to push off into the morning fog and sun which made the morning enjoyable again. Today was another logistically interesting day; campsites in Downeast Maine are few and far between. Getting all the way to Machias would be preferable but should I not be able to cover the distance, it would be difficult to find a campsite in between. I decided to take it as it comes.

View Day 7: Jonesport to Machias in a larger map

It was almost a straight shot all the way to Jonesport from where I camped and I enjoyed coast alone. It was almost like traveling back in history as I paddled further and further east up Maine. Gone were the cities, modernized villages, coastal mansions and tourists. It had been almost exclusively replaced by the coastal homes of working men and women. There were no pleasure boats and no commercial ships, just lobster boats and fishing trawlers. Up here I was probably the only one who viewed the ocean as anything but a source of sustenance and economy. I almost felt like an intruder.

 I stopped briefly in Jonesport for a cup of coffee and to stretch my muscles out for a while. There really wasn’t much to Jonesport which was nice. I picked up some gas station coffee and wandered around a bit. There was a bit of sadness in me knowing that this was the last town I would stop by before the end of the trail. It hit me that I would be heading back home soon and although the adventure had taken its toll on me, part of me wanted to continue kayaking all the way to Lubec and beyond to New Brunswick. Another trip perhaps…
Roque Islands
The many islands of Chandler Bay
Long crossings and island hopping was ahead of me from here until Machias but there were enough sights to see to keep my mind occupied. Chandler Bay and the Roque Islands were spectacular and I spent some precious time circling around the many islands. I landed at a beach or two to enjoy snacks and a lunch. It was becoming apparent that with this pace, this would be my last day on the trail which is why I stopped more often. The stretch between Jonesport and Machias was one of the prettiest on the trail and the fact that I was essentially alone made it even more enjoyable. I continued hopping islands until I landed at the wildlife reserve- Halifax Island.
Halifax Island, Maine
Halifax was mostly deserted and had very few trees which made for a nice mid-afternoon snack. I poked around for a while and planned out my one last challenge- entering Machias Bay. It was not anything I hadn’t encountered before but the wind and waves had picked up and the book did record this area as having frequent, erratic currents and difficult landings. Visibility was good but not unlimited; I had to work out my bearings carefully.

Crossing Machias Bay and the entrance was strenuous but saddening. I fought against some currents and wind but for the most part it went without trouble. Distant lighthouses and fog horns were my swan song for this adventure as I paddled further inland through brackish water. The Machias Bay became the Machias River and, for the first time in a week, I was paddling upstream and against a significant headwind. I smiled thinking about how phenomenal the conditions had been for this adventure. I briefly landed in Machiasport for a victory picture and continued up river to the actual city of Machias. Just as the last glimmer of twilight disappeared, I ended my trip at the Machias Town Landing. No celebrations, no finish line, just sore muscles and satisfaction. But to anyone who saw me land, I was just a kayaker who had come back from a trip.
Pulling in to Machias Bay
After a full week on the ocean in a plastic boat, I was ready to enjoy some creature comforts so, against my wilderness spirit and outdoor nature, I rented a motel room. I took a heavenly shower (the first in a week) and dove under the covers of a queen size bed. I even watched some mindless programming on TV. From savage to civilized in less than a few hours.
Although the phrase is overused, it had been the adventure of a lifetime. I accomplished something I always wanted to do and saw my adoptive home state in a way I could never see from anything but a kayak.
Finally in Machiasport
I suppose at this point I should write something about how the trip changed me or how I realized something I never knew about myself.  Young people tend to think such trips will result in some type of spiritual awakening or personal makeover. In all reality, I’ve never felt that way after a long journey. I feel renewed, rejuvenated and even rested despite the physical exhaustion. I even feel like I’ve satisfied the near-endless desire for adventure but as a whole I am no different. All I can say at this point is, it was one hell of a vacation.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Bar Harbor to Downeast: Kayaking the Maine Island Trail

My sixth day on the Maine Island Trail was spent paddling through Downeast Maine which is the least populated part of coastal Maine and probably the entire East Coast. 

This is part of a series of posts about my 200 mile trip up the coast of Maine by the Maine Island Trail. Previously: Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park. 
Downeast Islands
t was strange to be waking up in Bar Harbor. I slept alone on islands over the last 5 days and to be waking up in a city felt jarring or as if I had only dreamed about the trip. But the glorious sunrise and calm waters reminded me that this was real. I indulged in a few pleasures of civilization while in Bar Harbor; a hot breakfast and organic coffee. I casted off from the main beach and kayaked across Frenchman Bay. 

View Bar Harbor to Downeast in a larger map
More good weather and more challenges. Today I had to round both Schoodic Point and Petit Manan Point which are difficult in a motorized boat and more so in a kayak. Schoodic Point, which guards the eastern reaches of Frenchman Bay, is cliffy and exposed to currents and wind. I toured the shoreline here on foot not too long ago and loved watching the waves crash into the cliffs shooting up water 25 feet into the air. This didn’t help my nervousness when I returned in a kayak. 

Rounding these exposed points is always a test of judgment and control. One must fight the desire to hug the coast thus shortening the distance. However submerged rocks and waves make this a dangerous choice. It’s a difficult obstacle to keep the boat comfortably off shore without getting too exposed to currents and wind. 

Rough Waters and Currents at Schoodic Point
After getting around Schoodic Point, I entered a relatively lonely section of the Maine Island Trail- Downeast. This is a pretty ambiguous term used to describe the northeastern section of the coast of Maine and if you ask 12 different Mainers where downeast begins, you would get 12 different answers.  Despite its indefinite borders, Downeast Maine is well regarded as an enchanting and glorious stretch of coast which is often seen in pictures but rarely traveled. By boat or by car, it’s hard to get to.

As I ate lunch on one of the hundreds of uninhabited islands, I had a peculiar sense of loneliness. I had been alone up to this point, but I always seemed to be just close enough to a small port or a group of lobstermen which was comforting. Past Schoodic Point, even the lobster boats thinned out and I made many of my longer crossings alone. The weather was hazy today and although it did not inhibit travel, most of the views were obscured and it amplified the loneliness. 

Near Corea, Maine
Loneliness on long trips in not entirely unexpected but it comes on abruptly. I value the solitude of such trips but I know at some point I will probably experience times when I wish I had company. It is tough to adapt to and it makes the miles drag on. I briefly stopped in Corea but this was hardly the size of Bar Harbor, Stoningon or Camden. I continued on to round Petit Manan Point.

Petit Manan is similar to Schoodic Point but the reef extends extremely far out off the coast. The reef is so extensive that the Petit Manan Lighthouse is located over 2 miles off shore on a small island. On a kayak it wasn’t necessary to go that far off shore but I had to keep a good eye out for those submerged rocks. Speedy and confusing currents made for slow going and constant heading adjustments.

Lonely islands
I saw fewer lobster boats the further I went
On the far side of Petit Manan, I encountered another large, lonely bay. I planned on staying on the gigantic Bois Bubert island which is under the jurisdiction of the National Wildlife Refuge. I had called them earlier for permission to stay on the island. Of course, I hit the island at the worst time- low tide and with about 2 hours of daylight left. It was an awkward position because I didn’t happen to find any suitable campsites and I didn’t want to waste precious daylight. 

With nearly six days of kayaking under my belt I'm beginning to feel fatigued and worn. I can't say I enjoyed this day as much as the others although I was satisfied with the progress. I covered another 5 or 6 miles from Bois Bubert island and found another wildlife refuge island I could stay on. I had a gorgeous view of a sunset.
No shortage of gorgeous sunsets and sunrises
For whatever reason, I've noticed that any pangs of loneliness that I have during the afternoon tend to disappear after sunset. I don't really know why but once night fell, I was in cheerful spirits once again. I had a belly full of canned chili and was stargazing from the safety of my tent. I read books, studied charts and enjoyed my temporary home.

Veritable swarms of mosquitoes covered my tent, poised for an all out ambush should my bladder force me out of my refuge. For all the natural glory that is Downeast Maine, I've never, ever seen more mosquitoes in any place on this continent. This includes other places famous for mosquitoes- Alaska, northern Minnesota, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Ontario, central New Brunswick... Downeast reigned supreme. I was the only inhabitant of this island so by my estimates, there were about one hundred million mosquitoes per capita. I was probably the only meal they had in weeks. 

All things considered, it had been a good day; I safely rounded two of the most exposed points on the coast and covered an additional 28 miles. I was nearing the end of this adventure. 

Next: Jonesport to Machias and finishing the Maine Island Trail

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mount Desert Island and Swans Island: Maine Island Trail Thru-Paddle

On the 5th day I crossed to Swan's Island and rounded Mount Desert Island, the largest island on the entire trail.
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 Across Penobscot Bay and Stonington, Maine

Day 5- Another uncommonly gorgeous morning. How lucky can I get? The ocean was glassy and the wind was non-existent. I went through my morning routine and prepared to make the crossing to Swans Island and onward to Mount Desert Island.

I certainly haven’t always been this lucky when I kayak this part of the world. Two summers ago I paddled through two days of thick fog when I was kayaking from Bar Harbor to Stonington. Thick fog and fast-moving currents made for a harrowing day. I prefer to rely on my compass and map skills that I’ve had since the scouts. Although they didn’t fail me, it was a hell of an experience.

Last year, also about this time I was circumnavigating New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island just off the coast of Lubec where I encountered similarly difficult conditions. Winds, waves, chop and of course those wild tides made for a tough trip. All of these things were on my mind in the planning phase of this trip and I would have never guessed that I would not have to deal with so much as a whisp of fog. 

Classic profile of MDI which can be seen from miles out to sea
With advantageous conditions I decided to take a bold but shorter route around Mount Desert Island. MDI, as it’s called, is Maine’s largest island and is the most famous of them all. As far as paddling goes, one can either take the more protected but longer route on the land-facing side of the island or the shorter but more exposed ocean-facing side. The land-facing side is comparatively easier but not a cake-walk. Kayaking up the deep Blue Hill Bay is strenuous and narrow channel closest to the mainland all but dries up during low tide. 

Swans Island was a sleepy little island without much in the way of resupplying so I had to head further to Southwest Harbor. While the conditions were great, the boat traffic was as heavy as it was in Casco Bay. Cruise ships, tall ships and clippers were all coming to MDI and I don’t exactly show up on radar.  I had to plan my crossings carefully. The narrower channels between the Cranberry Islands were absolutely overrun with traffic. Nevertheless I was still able to enjoy the gorgeous view of Somes Sound which people say is the closest thing to the Fjords of Norway on the US east coast. I pulled in to Southwest Harbor and re-supplied.

Regular scene on the Southeastern side of Mount Desert Island
At this time it was roughly 3PM and I had another 15 miles to go around the exposed southeastern portion of MDI. Fortunately this happens to be one of the most gorgeous stretches of the Maine Coast which is best seen by boat. Part of Acadia National Park, the cliffs of MDI are almost always featured in tourist publications of Maine and New England. Park roads weave in and out of the varied coast and provide some views but it is nothing like seeing it by kayak.

It is a stunning but somewhat peculiar sight to see. Larger currents and waves collide with the jagged cliffs which have been shaped by the eons. Just above the cliffs are walls of pine trees as thick as any rain forest. Then, every so often, there’s a sprawling coastal mansion. It is just so strange to see the summer retreats of celebrities, politicians and American magnates dispersed along one of the more rugged coasts I’ve ever seen.

There are even a few beaches to land upon
I paddled nearly 33 miles that day which meant I was paddling up into twilight. Finally reaching Bar Harbor, I pulled into shore and spent the night. Compared to my previous campsites, the passive company of a small city was actually a little comforting. I didn’t exactly interact with anyone but it was nice to be around people for a little while. The next stretch from Bar Harbor through downeast would be completely solitary.