Here I sit, alone, looking across twenty yards of rocky coast toward six-foot surf. Beyond that, I can see nothing, because on this morning, just like the last, the Maine Coast lies beneath a blanket of some of the thickest fog I have ever seen. Yesterday I needed two trips (with the movement of an improperly placed can away from my compass in between) to hit a buoy less than ¼ mile offshore. Today I need to paddle 19 miles of mostly exposed coastline and cross two shallow bars, and the forecast called for 8-foot seas, 25-knot winds, and I can’t see an eighth of a mile. This was supposed to be an amazing eight-day solo trip around Isle au Haut and Mount Desert Islands, but I am about to give up and go home not yet halfway through.
Day 1 of the trip was spectacular, with blue skies and light winds helping me along from Naskeag Point down through the Merchant Row archipelago. Day 2 was calm, too, but the morning broke overcast and foggy and the forecast kept calling for afternoon thunderstorms — exactly what I didn’t need if I was caught on some unapproachable shore as I rounded Isle au Haut, a 17-mile trip I’d been dreaming about for years. And to make matters worse, the weather radio kept repeating a flash flood watch for the interior to the exclusion of any other information. However, having made it to Duck Harbor and fueled up on lunch, the weather started to clear and I decided to make a go of it.
In the end, this leg of the trip worked out. The isolated and totally exposed southern shore of Isle au Haut is almost certainly one of the most spectacular sections of the Maine Coast, and being there, with the high and broken cliffs to my left and the chop blowing in from the ocean to my right, was one of the best experiences of my paddling career. Just as I was sneaking between Eastern Head and Eastern Ear, finally escaping the turbulence, a pair of hikers waved at me from their perch atop the 60-foot cliffs. I waved back and continued, alone.
The third day held the longest crossings of the trip: a mile from Isle au Haut to Fog Island, then two miles to Marshall Island, and another mile to Swan’s Island. Fog in Maine is most prevalent during the summer months, when warm air moves over very cold water flowing down from the Arctic with the Labrador Current, and today the fog was thicker than molasses. On the second try, I did hit my target buoy, and continued on through the white, featureless surroundings. In the middle of the two-mile crossing I passed within 100 feet of a lobster boat, who must have thought I was insane. Perhaps I agree. Eventually, guided only by compass, I reached Swan’s Island and paddled out to a nearby island on the Maine Island Trail.
And that’s where I sit. I’m wearing my full rain gear to fend off the chill and the drizzle, and I still can’t see 200 yards. I hike the beautiful, moss- and dew-covered trail along the perimeter of the island back to my campsite, and sit on the beach writing in my journal, wanting deeply to pack up and move but refusing to go anywhere until either the forecast or the fog improves. Even if I decide to abort the trip I still need two days to get back to my car, and those two days might be spent paddling into a 20-knot wind. It’s already Noon, and if I can’t get started soon there’s no way I’m reaching my destination in Somes Sound, a 4-5 hour paddle. The agony sits heavy in the pit of my stomach.
And then, the fog lifts. Suddenly I can see Frenchboro Long Island more than two miles away. I look around my campsite, and there is stuff strewn everywhere. My normally organized nature had been overcome by the knowledge that I wasn’t paddling today, and I struggle to pack my belongings quickly. Finally, after what seems like forever, I push off the sand beach and begin my trek into the unknown. Yes, the fog has lifted, and the predicted 20- to 25-knot winds have not materialized, but there is a big swell running, much of the day’s route is exposed, and I have to cross the Bass Harbor Bar and head up the Western Way, whose charted depths are only 14 feet and 16 feet, respectively — not the spots I’d like to be in 8-foot swells.
As I start out, I have a nice 5-foot rolling following sea, and I round Swan’s Island and make the crossing to Placentia Island without incident. After a long lunch on Placentia waiting for a favorable tide, the sky has turned blue and I can see that Bass Harbor Bar is not breaking, as I had feared. I cross the bar and stare up at Bass Harbor Light, one of the most famous and most photographed lighthouses in America. The jealous tourists stare back.
But the worst, I fear, is yet to come. I am less than halfway to my campground in Somes Sound. As I approach the Western Way, the swells get larger and larger. I am almost a mile offshore to avoid the breakers on Long Ledge. As I turn north around a green buoy, the swells are now coming directly from my stern. When I look behind me, I see each swell rising until it eclipses the horizon, and I feel my boat surge forward, and the swell keeps rising, and rising, and rising until it sweeps under me and the whole cycle repeats. I estimate the swells at 8 to 9 feet, a measurement I later confirm via buoy data.
Across the entrance to the Western Way, the chart shows an ominous blue swath, a shallow bar ranging in depth from 11 to 16 feet. It’s low tide, so I don’t get any additional depth there. How is it possible, I ask, that these 9-foot swells are not breaking on an 11-foot spot? However, my eyes tell a different story: I see no breaking waves ahead, and sailboats are regularly traversing the passage. I aim to the right of the channel marker, hoping to find the deepest point, and paddle my heart out as the big waves push me along.
I reach the buoy marking the bar, and then pass Southwest Harbor, and eventually struggle, physically and emotionally exhausted, into Somes Sound. I pull out beneath the 700-foot cliff of Valley Cove, walk up to the edge of the trees, and splash cold, clean water from a stream onto my face. I sit down and relish a snack. After another mile, I reach my campground for the night, and after four more days I’m back at my car. I’ve gone 120 nautical miles, by kayak, alone.
The image of me is on Day 6 of the trip described in the post. Photo by Mel Mashman, a random guy I met at a campground who liked kayaking and thought what I was doing was awesome.