The following story appeared in a recent issue of “Southwest Airlines Spirit,” the official magazine of Southwest Airlines. It provides a great glimpse into our multi-day island camping trips.
Like tall tales everywhere, those that originate in Maine may or may not be true, but they are representative. This story involves a particular media icon that lives in the Edenesque town of Bar Harbor, Maine, and has a reputation for throwing her weight around. Said icon was in a local store and asked to use the phone.
“Sorry, miss,” the proprietor replied. “Phone isn’t for customer use. But there is a pay phone just outside.”
Maybe it was the lengthy walk from the counter to the front door, or maybe it was raining. Even if it was sunny, it could have started to rain before the woman heard a dial tone; it does that in Maine. For whatever reason, this customer believed she was not subject to the rules.
“Do you know who I am?”
Given time, the proprietor would have frankly replied. But a voice behind the woman cut in.
“Miss,” said David Rockefeller, “I’ve never been able to use that phone, either.”
This would be the “Down East” attitude – the term used to describe the Maine coastline from Camden to the Canadian border – a practical outlook that says you can squawk all you want, but it won’t change the rules, your life, or the weather.
On this summer morning, our problem is the weather.
Glenn Tucker peers out toward what would be the water. Hard to tell behind the wall of gray. “Well, fog might not be such a bad thing for one day of your trip,” he says. “When you’re out there in fog, it’s pretty ethereal.”
Tucker owns Bar Harbor-based Coastal Kayaking Tours on Mount Desert Island. Down-home and snappily professional, Coastal Kayaking has been offering kayaking excursions – from sunset paddles to multiday overnight trips – longer than any other outfitter in Maine. But the weather doesn’t treat them any differently.
I have signed on for a three-day sea kayak and camping trip with Coastal Kayaking for a simple reason: I have spent my life around the water, and for years whispers had reached my ears. Maine, I heard, had waters like no other. Seas and bays of shocking blue pressed against pine-capped granite shores. Skies swept by osprey and bald eagle, waters rife with porpoise and whale. A craggy coastline of bays and headlands that, pulled taut, would outstretch the coast of California. One single bay, a sailor friend said, had 365 islands, one for each day of the year. And there were hundred more – many of them uninhabited or nearly so – though exactly how many hundreds no one seemed to know. Thirty-five hundred, one local said. Four thousand, said Glenn. Four thousand, six hundred, claimed a book I read. The things seemed to be breeding like rabbits.
If they were, this early morning would be a good day to continue that effort. The fog is so thick that Mount Desert Island appears to be floating alone in space.
I stand, along with eight fellow adventurers who have signed on for a trip, in Coastal Kayaking’s parking lot, amid a litter of gear, while Katie Thibodeau puts an upbeat spin on the fog.
Katie and Brittain Redcay will be our guides for the trip. Katie is a lifelong Mainer; Britt hails from North Carolina. Both women have white-toothed smiles they flash big and often, their grins made all the wider by a genuine love for their place in the world. Over the next three days, they will prove consummate guides, easy manners masking the ability to suture a wound or make a four-star meal out of slugs and seaweed. But I have traveled with first-rate guides before, and though I trust them implicitly in matters of survival, I have seen their twisted optimism before.
“It will be beautiful out there,” chirps Katie. “Fog makes a completely different atmosphere in a sea kayak. It makes you concentrate on things you really can see.”
Bending over a nautical chart, Katie points out that Maine is the closest state to Africa.
At least one of our troupe is concerned we mind end up there.
“How far off shore will we go?” asks Deb Hann.
The answer: farther afield than Coastal Kayaking had ever gone before.
But first we rode a school bus, kayaks and gear jouncing along in a trailer behind us, an hour north of Bar Harbor to the fishing village of Jonesport, virgin territory for kayak outfitters, and, for that matter, tourists of any kind.
Bar Harbor teems with tourists, and surrounding Acadia National Park draws more visitors per acre than any other national park in the United States. Jonesport is a fishing town that teems with overgrown lawns and rusted pickups.
“Only 10 percent of the tourists that come to Mount Desert Island head farther Downeast than Bar Harbor,” Glenn had told me days before.
His finger swept a nautical chart, tracing the island-clotted waters off Jonesport.
“This,” he said, “is a really wild and scenic area. It’s what people expect when they think of the Maine coast.”
Precisely what I wanted to hear.
Our plan was idyllic and simple. Stuffing food and gear into our kayaks, we would put in at Jonesport, then paddle across the open water of Mossabec Reach into the sea of islands beyond. Depending on conditions, and our collective mood, we would paddle between five and 10 miles a day, stopping on islands of our guides’ choosing for a stretch and lunch. We would make camp by later afternoon, then stretch out and eat some more.
Arriving in Jonesport, we found the fog had thickened to a stage curtain. We could see nothing, a sore disappointment since Jonesport had been described to me as a simple, church-steepled town that bespoke of genuine Maine.
We loaded the kayaks. Stuffing the bags into the kayaks’ narrow hatches was like trying to thread a needle with a fat sausage.
Katie may have seen me sweating.
“The more you eat,” she said, “the less we have to pack out.”
Most of our merry band had little kayaking experience. But paddling a sea kayak, even one stuffed with gear, is a simple endeavor. With tourists in mind, Coastal Kayaking makes it even simpler. Roughly 17 feet long and broad-beamed, their plastic kayaks are both stable and indestructible. Everyone in our group paired up to paddle even more stable tandem kayaks, except for Katie, Britt and me – kayaks being their second home, and journalists being expendable.
Before we slid into the water, Katie gave a brief paddling primer and explained our route. Because of the fog, we would hug the shores of various islands – Beals Island, Pig Island, Sheep Island – staying in calm waters, and out from underneath lobster boats – until we reached Head Harbor Island, where we would pitch our tents for the night.
We set off at noon, Britt giving the appropriate underway.
“Let’s head off into the great unknown!” she shouted.
Paddling a kayak in smooth water is like flying. Being in the fog, bereft of directional clues, heightens that sensation. And it was as pretty as Katie said it would be. Navigating with compass and chart, Katie knew where we were headed, but we didn’t. And islands rose suddenly from the mist, granite Stonehenges with pine crew cuts.
Lobster boats – some moving, some swinging silently at anchor – morphed out of the mist, too. On one island – Beals Island, possibly, but only Katie knew for sure – a small community hunkered in the smoky mists: weather-beaten houses, a rusted basketball hoop, and a wooden dock piled with lobster traps and pulled at by colorful dinghies gently trying to tug themselves free.
Katie framed the scene with her fingers and grinned.
“Click” she said. “That’s Maine.”
Shutting down one sense heightens others, too. At one point I stopped paddling and just drifted, cocking my mist-dampened face to the sky. I inhaled, and Maine, its tang salty-sweet, coursed through my nostrils.
Drifting up next to me, Katie smiled.
“I love the smell of saltwater and pine,” she said.
My fellow adventurers were fun and nice. There were Ken and Laurie, a young couple from Colorado, and Joe and Michele, whose singing carried across the water. My favorite duo were Deb Hann and Donna Colubriale, spunky sisters who periodically left their lives in New Hampshire and New Jersey to pursue adventure together. Deb was 46, Donna 51. Neither had any kayaking experience, but both women piloted their tandem with shared gusto, except when the aft sister opted to quietly stow her paddle and rest.
The fog didn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. That evening at our Head Harbor Island camp – a beautiful meadow just up from a cobblestone beach – Donna surveyed our surrounding, or lack thereof.
“It’s so peaceful here,” she said.
“And it isn’t raining!” chirped Deb.
I believe my companions would have been upbeat without the glow induced by the several bottles of wine we downed at each dinner. Meals were fun. Katie would announce them with a deep breath and a single whoosh – smoked salmon, smoked trout, peppered mackerel, goat cheese, cheddar cheese, bagels, snow peas, sliced vegetables for lunch, or chicken, refried beans, salsa, veggies, roasted red pepper and spinach-wrap tortillas, poundcake with whipped cream and strawberries for dinner.
Over meals, we shared stories. Katie told us about the mako shark she spotted – “Right by the kayak, just sitting there, probably sleeping off a meal.” She and Britt offered up tidbits about Maine. We learned that Bar Harbor in the 1800s, then aptly called Eden, was home to summer residents who rivaled haute culture anywhere. The Astors, Fords, Morgan, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts hobnobbed as only people with ridiculous amounts of money can. One mansion was fitted with solid-gold plumbing fixtures because they proved easier to polish. We learned that the lobsters now being gobbled in Maine for pretty pennies in every imaginable form were once so plentiful they were harvested with rakes at low tide, and the poor who ate them were so embarrassed that, under cover of night, they buried the shells in their backyards. We learned that Maine’s coast is prone to tidal fluctuations of 18-plus feet, and neglecting this is unwise. Paddling just off Bar Harbor, a kayaker came across a shiny-tipped antenna. The antenna ran down to an equally shiny Ford Explorer parked on the bottom.
“Tides can come in real fast,” said Katie.
Donna was right. On this particular pea-soup evening it was so peaceful I could feel my skin prickle.
“Bugs,” said Britt. “They come out at dusk. It would be dusk, if we could see it.”
We woke Friday morning to a sun-shocked, cloudless pale blue sky. All around water sparkled, a sheet of dark blue. Dozens of islands rounded up out of this lovely carpet – from small, bald rocks barely big enough to sit on, to the enormous mass of Middle Hardwood Island, invisible yesterday, now only a quarter-mile off our campsite.
It was as if God had pulled back the curtain to reveal a new landscape. Today, I think I’ll do something with baby blues.
It was so calm and clear Katie opted for a treat, though it was unclear who was really being treated.
Hunched over the chart, she ran her finger down the length of Great Wass Island to its southern end. There it ran up against the great bulk of the Gulf of Maine.
“This, oh my God, this is absolutely gorgeous,” she beamed. “I’ve only been here once before. It’s huge cliffs, and crashing waves, and razor-billed auks, arctic terns, bald eagles, and puffins, hundreds of puffins. A mysterious, magical place.”
Leaving our tents up – we would paddle a circle, returning to camp that afternoon – we set off, heading south through Eastern Bay. Ten minutes from camp we paddled past a colony of harbor seals, most of them basking on a distant rock, but several dozen swimming out to form a watchful perimeter, ink-pool eyes seeing us on our way. Farther down we paddle past a salmon pen. Behind the netting, farm-raised, table-bound immature Atlantic salmon leapt clear of the water in glittering flashes. And everywhere the water’s surface was littered with brightly colored lobster buoys, hundreds of them, each attached to a cage designed to let the lobster venture in, but not out. No one is hiding shells anymore. Lobstering is Maine’s top fishery, and the waters off Jonesport resemble the aftermath of an explosion in a cork factory.
Katie undersold the backside of Great Wass. There were no puffins and only a few razor-billed auks. But the world was filled with sea and sky, and the rolling ground swells that gently raised and lowered our kayaks as they surged against the granite cliffs, their foamy white palms running high up the rock, falling short in their attempt to drag pine and meadow into the sea.
It was at once electrifying and serene. I felt a swell of loopy giddiness, a to-the-marrow joy one might experience when dropping a winning lottery number on an employer’s desk or gazing on a sleeping child.
Britt shouted across the water.
“It’s like kayaking on the edge of the world!”
The following day, our last on the water, we packed up our Head Harbor Island camp and paddled again to the edge of the Gulf of Maine, this time navigating the backside of Steele Harbor Island. It was equally beautiful. When we rounded the island’s edge and turned back into calm water, we looked north into a sky salted with hundreds of small puffs of white cloud, each distinct as an island, marching away until they became specks on the horizon.
It was as if the sky mirrored the island below and, but for the bad luck of gravity, we could easily reroute and paddle among the clouds.
This time I was sad to see Jonesport.