All photos by Mike McDonald unless otherwise noted
You know you are on an adventure when you find yourself at sunset with six other kayakers padding down the main street of a small town in Maine in full, dripping paddling regalia. Heads swivel and you hear the locals chatter as you pass. You've paddled thirty miles that day, visiting islands miles off the mainland, and tested yourself against headwinds, strong following seas and tricky tidal currents.
You have no place to stay as all the hotels in town are full. Restaurants are closing soon and the group has to check in at U.S. Customs before the foraging for food and shelter can begin in earnest. You know that you have to get up at 3:30 a.m. the next day to catch the tide. As you stand in line at the Customs office and the chill sets in you wonder, "I paid good money for this kind of abuse."
The answer is yes. And yes we got our money's worth. This is the report on an 8 day trip in the Gulf of Maine/Bay of Fundy organized by the Geneva Kayak Center (GKC) and led by Ryan Rushton that occurred in mid-August, 2010.
As for that evening in Lubec, Maine we were able to find a two-room cottage where we could sleep on the floor, each to his own little patch of floor. Before we crashed we talked a local restauranteur into staying open a little later than usual. There was no happy ending, however, when it came time to wake up the next day after a few hours sleep. The tides wait for no one.
This trip was intended to be a learning experience. Ryan assigned us homework that immersed us in the subject of navigation in an ocean environment featuring strong tidal currents.
Some folks were able to earn promotions in the ACA/BCU hierarchy while on the trip. In the end, however, it was a kayaking trip through and through. There were no phony scenarios or canned demonstrations. The challenges of fog, brisk tidal currents, tricky waves in tight rock gardens, and the like presented plenty of challenges.
The trip of about 150 miles originated in Jonesport, Maine. We then paddled up the "Bold Coast" of Maine to Lubec, which is on the Canadian border. From there we paddled out in the Bay of Fundy to Grand Manan Island, which we explored over the course of a few days. We returned from Grand Manan to the mainland via the Wolves, a small group of uninhabited islands miles from anywhere. After another stop in Lubec, we spent a day playing in the rapids at the reversing falls of Cobscook Bay and then returned to Chicago.
Tom Bergh, who runs Maine Island Kayak Company, joined us for the first part of the trip. Tom offered plenty of local knowledge and lots of paddling wisdom. Even as he deconstructed our paddling strokes, reminded us always to look out to sea when we were playing in the rocks and bit his tongue at our navigation errors, Tom helped us build our confidence in these unfamiliar ocean conditions.
The group was anchored by Mark Anderson, Aaron Litchfield and Mike McDonald, who are top GKC paddlers and instructors. Mark has a slight build but blazes a fast pace on the water mile after mile. Mike McDonald is well known for his teaching prowess and his love of exploration. Aaron is one of those big guys gifted with both balance and strength. He's only been paddling for about two years but is very accomplished.
Chris Anderson, a philosopher at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, was the only non-Chicagoan in the GKC group. This was his first kayak "expedition." Chris is probably the only person in the world who combines expertise in questions such as "individuality in Spinoza's one-substance metaphysic" with substantial paddling skills. Together, Tom Heineman and I provided many years of paddling experience and paddling talent in somewhat inverse proportion.
The first day we puttered around the Great Wass Island off of Jonesport. This was a great opportunity to work on navigation through the Jonesport harbor and out through a narrow channel into more open water. The area reminded me a bit of the north shore of Georgian Bay, with rounded rock reaching out into the open water like giant fingers and fists.
View from Moose Peak Lighthouse on Mistake Island Near Jonesport
We learned about the power of the ocean swell. While the swell was under two feet high and had a relatively short period (for the ocean) of eight seconds, we found an area where this swell wrapped around a set of rocks, piled up and kicked up substantial surf well over two feet high. Where the Great Lakes waves tend to be steep and come at short intervals that slap you about, ocean swells are massive mounds of consolidated force that work with more subtlety and more power. We played in this surf for awhile and then crossed to a landing near the Moose Peak lighthouse.
Worn Exterior of Moose Peak Lighthouse
After lunch, we visited the lighthouse and then paddled back to Jonesport for dinner and lots of kibitzing about navigation, tidal currents and the like.
The next day was windy, with a bit of drizzle and fog. We pushed off in the late morning, with our destination being Cross Island.
Our route took us across Chandler, Englishman and Machias bays. Along the way we got schooled in how tidal currents change the dynamics of paddling compared to the Great Lakes. One group aimed Great Lakes style to the nearest island, with the intent of paddling along a line of islands pointing to our destination. A smaller and seemingly wiser group paddled further offshore, catching the full power of the flood tide and avoiding the eddies that formed near the islands. As for the basics of group paddling--e.g., staying together--we all agreed that we had to do better.
We had a quick lunch in a protected cove facing Stone Island and then paddled on to an Outward Bound camp on Cross Island. We were able to access the house for dining and drying out, but camped outside. It was great to sit around the table and ponder the charts by flashlight after a satisfying dinner. A fire provoked reflection on what we had covered and what lay ahead.
Mark Anderson and Chris Martin
The next day was foggy, which was a nice test of our navigation skills. The initial leg of the trip took us by some large military communications towers, which were especially spooky in the fog. The rest of the day we paddled along the Bold Coast to East Quoddy Head, the easternmost point of the United States.
Sometimes we were well off shore, wrapped in the fog. It was scary when we could hear but not see nearby boats. Other times we ran close the shore, which allowed the adventurous spirits to poke into holes and tight spots.
During one of these excursions, Chris found his boat pinned to the side of the rock and then the water washed away from under him, which made for a memorable experience.
We took a quick and cold break to visit Each Quoddy Head Lighthouse.
We rounded East Quoddy Head and then had to paddle roughly 4 miles up to Lubec against the ebb tide. This was a slog, where we newcomers tried to learn the subtle art of reading the water and finding eddies along the shore to assist us against the prevailing current.
We arrived in Lubec in the evening, ferrying across the strong current in Lubec Channel near the bridge. Tom encountered a vigorous whirlpool, something not typically found on the Great Lakes, and paid for the experience with a quick dunk. I tried to recall from my limited whitewater experience how to deal with the current and crossing the eddy lines--"Let's see is it lean away or lean into the current"--and did not earn any style points for my efforts. Fortunately, I missed the whirlpools.
We drug our boats up, as the tides in the area have a range of about 20 feet, and spent the night at Cohill's Inn, a welcoming inn on the edge of the water. We made a sizable dent in the inn's kitchen and bar inventory and then fell into bed.
The next day was the trip over to Grand Manan Island. This was a fine navigation challenge as we had to depart from Lubec, cross over the Lubec Channel and check in at Canadian Customs, head back down to East Quoddy Head, make the 8 mile crossing to Grand Manan, proceed down the west coast of the island and then round the south tip of the island and proceed the last few miles up to Seal Cove, our destination.
The strong tidal currents in the Grand Manan Channel added a whole new dimension to navigation for us Great Lakes paddlers. We wanted to use the tidal currents like conveyor belts to assist us on our way. Paddling against a tidal current is a recipe for slow progress and frustration. It is wise to study Sea Kayak Navigation, by Franco Ferro, or the Fundamental of Kayak Navigation, by David Burch before taking this trip, or any ocean trip for that matter.
Mike McDonald is from Canada. We had noticed how his Canadian accent deepened as we had paddled closer to Canada from Jonesport. By the time we were ready to depart from Lubec he could hardly get a sentence out without the obligatory "Ja" or "Eh" and common words like route took on a whole new pronunciation. Mike's happy expression in the Canadian Customs Office, where he spread his charm on the office staff especially thickly, speaks volumes about the pleasure of being home.
Mark and Aaron did a great job navigating that day and the weather cooperated with light winds and sunny skies. It was superb paddling. As we paddled away from East Quoddy Head the whole sweep of the west coast of Grand Manan was ahead of us.
Grand Manan Island a Distant Line in the Distance
The west coast of Grand Manan has high cliffs that rear up at the southern tip of the island.
There were plenty of big rocks that had fallen off the cliffs. As we had time to spare, waiting for the tide to turn in our favor, we were able to play around and slither though the tight passages created by these rocks.
The slight swell posed relatively little risk, although we all tried to follow Tom Bergh's injunction to "keep your eyes on the sea." A boat wake or a rouge wave set is always possible, even in the calmest of conditions. As the tides change so quickly in this region, things can abruptly change for the worse even when conditions overall seem relatively moderate.
We rounded Southern Head and took advantage of the changing tide to paddle into Seal Cove, a small and somewhat bedraggled settlement, where we landed right next to the McLaughlin's Wharf Inn, our home for the next two nights.
The food at the Inn was spectacular and the staff was friendly. After four days of paddling our bodies craved calories. Mark showed his resourcefulness in this regard by downing as many butter packets as our very patient waitress was kind enough to supply. I opted for an extra large slice of coconut cream pie. There is much to be said for inn-based kayaking trips.
The next day we split up. Mark, Aaron and Chris went with Ryan to work on ACA training, which consisted as I understand of showing graceful technique while bashing boats and bodies.
Poor Mike was stuck with the supervising the “kids,” Tom and I, and could hardly conceal his disappointment at the time. However, by successfully putting up with us for a day Mike no doubt passed the toughest test on his way to his Level 5 Instructor certification.
Tom and I had a great day with Mike poking around South Head at low tide. It was a great introduction to rock gardening and Tom and I appreciated Mike's patient tutelage as we decorated the rocks with paint and gel coat.
The southern tip of Grand Manan is a wonderful mixture of cliffs, interesting rock formations, and a large tidal zone that is alternatively covered and exposed very six hours. Nothing ever stays the same.
When we broke for lunch our conversation turned to our children. Mike proclaimed from this perch how he had diligently warned his son about the dangers of rock climbing.
Dang Kids and Their Rockclimbing--Mike McDonald
The next day we awoke to rain and fog. Our intention was to paddle against the ebb to the North Head of Grand Manan, take a break, and then ride the flood tide the eight miles out through whale-filled waters of the Bay of Fundy to the Wolves, the set of uninhabited islands in the middle of the Bay of Fundy. Given the conditions, we did not see much of the east side of Grand Manan.
I did learn something about perception despite the fog. It turns out that there was a significant difference between my chart, which I had ordered in hard copy from a reputable map dealer, and Ryan's chart, which he had printed off from the Web. My chart did not show that a significant piece of land was covered during high tide. Ryan's chart showed in green that the area over which we were paddling was covered at high tide. Both official charts. Both allegedly current. But real differences between them.
We arrived at North Head town about lunchtime. The local cafe offered hot coffee and, of course, coconut cream pie, which were welcome supplements to the standard lunch fare of cheese and crackers. Mike talked conditions with the folks in the ferry terminal and they practically begged him not to have us kayak to the Wolves in these foggy conditions. If our navigational calculations were off there was a real chance of missing the islands in the fog, not a good spot to be in miles from the mainland. In addition, there is substantial ferry and other boat traffic in the Bay of Fundy.
The locals, as they were throughout our visit to Grand Manan, were very helpful. One even scrounged up a radar reflector that might have caused our group to have a radar signature in the heavily trafficked waters. Mark attached the reflector to the back of his PFD and cut a most stylist pose.
Mark "Radar" Anderson
There are simply more navigational challenges in the ocean than in the Great Lakes. In addition to wind and waves, tides and tidal currents add both opportunity and uncertainty. After some discussion of all these variables and the risks inherent in trying to cross shipping lanes to reach small islands 8 miles away in the fog we reached a consensus to stay put for the night and make for the Wolves the next morning. This meant schlepping tents and gear to the local campground, but sleeping on ground after a hot shower sure beat a night on the water in the fog.
The next morning was sunny with favorable winds. We got up early and caught the sunrise near the Swallow Tail Lighthouse when we departed.
Mike McDonald, our Navigator that morning, pointed us in the right direction and after about two hours of paddling the Wolves drew near.
One impact of tidal currents is that in order to reach your intended destination you typically have to paddle in a different direction, in order to compensate for the drift. This holds true to a certain extent on the Great Lakes in order to compensate for the effects of the wind. However, the penalty you pay for not holding to a range or miscalculating the speed and/or timing of the tidal currents is much greater in the ocean. We encountered tidal currents of two miles an hour or so on this trip. You can image how such currents can affect you over the course of crossing that lasts several hours.
The power of these tidal currents on a nice day are not immediately apparent as there are no crashing waves. However, as you paddle you notice weird boils followed by strange patches of unusually calm water. My sense is that these are the effects of the tidal currents in the vertical dimension as the water flows up and down over obstructions on the bottom. In the horizontal plane sometimes you see lines, as if there are tectonic plates of water grinding against one another. The forces at work are truly immense, especially in places like the Bay of Fundy that have unusually high tides.
The Wolves were picture-perfect islands that we had to ourselves, except for two young fishermen. Unfortunately, in order to catch the ebb tide we only had time for lunch and a quick circumnavigation of the west island.
Chris took over Navigator duties from Mike in the afternoon and guided us back to the mainland. Our goal was again East Quoddy Head and our destination for the day was Lubec, which we planned to approach up the west side of Campobello Island, as we had a few days before. The wind shifted against us midway through the crossing, however, and we found ourselves battling a southwest headwind and rising seas. Consequently, we shifted our course to head north, along the east side of Campobello Island. This allowed us several miles of following seas and opportunities for surfing. After we rounded the Head Harbor lighthouse on the north tip of Campebello Island we had a long slog into Lubec.
Head Harbor Lighthouse, Campobello Island
Here we found ourselves, after a day that had started before dawn and had covered about 30 miles, cold, wet and tired as the sun went down. We had no place to stay and no place lined up to eat.
Fortunately, Mike and Mark were able to scrounge up both lodging and a restauranteur willing to accomodate us while the rest of the group checked in at U.S. Customs. They are experienced and very capable scroungers, a great talent to have as trip leaders. It was a tired, but satisfied, group, that turned in about 11 p.m. that night.
The next day’s destination was the reversing falls in Cobscook Bay, about 10 miles paddling from Lubec. To get to the falls in time for the height of the flood tide we had to get up about 3:30 a.m. and be on the water before dawn. Ryan, Aaron, Mark and I, who shared the living room in the cottage, made it out the door on time. The rest of the group was able to sleep in and recharge their batteries for the evening flood tide session.
We left Lubec at first light. It was a peaceful paddle from Lubec to the reversing falls. We arrived at the falls--really just rapids created as the advancing (or retreating) tide rushes through a narrows--as the flow was building to the peak. As I’d only had three days of whitewater experience in my life this was intimidating stuff. Nevertheless, with the encouragement and examples of the others I was able to start playing around in the rapids and even began to lose that terror driven tunnel vision that sometimes afflicts us in difficult paddling conditions.
Cobscook Bay Reversing Falls
This was big water, with strong currents, rugged eddy lines, and genuine whirlpools that would open up and send your boat swirling. Tom Heineman captured some of the action on his camera, although the view from shore is not nearing as exciting as the view from one's boat:
The rest of the group showed up soon after the rapids peaked and played around. We then paddled to the nearby campsite, set up our tents, and rested until the end of the afternoon. In the early evening we were out in the rapids again, working on our skills and just having fun. Darkness seemed to descend suddenly and we found ourselves having to paddle through the rapids and the whirlpools in the dark, a challenging experience to say the least.
Cobscook Bay Campground
Our last night was another short one because we had to distribute folks to airports the next day. We were up before dawn and hit the road. On our way back to Bangor, Maine we caught glimpses of the water, some were stretches that we had paddled and some were stretches that many of us would like to paddle again.
This bland recitation doesn’t do justice to the trip. First, this 150 mile trip was demanding, seemingly deserving of its level four ranking. We paddled hard on some days and sometimes didn’t get a full night’s rest. The tidal range meant extra exertion. Landing at low tide sometimes meant pulling your boat over many yards of slippery rocks, while landing at high tide sometimes meant dragging your boat over a long stretch of slippery rocks to the rapidly descending water's edge.
The stops at inns, however, softened these rigors and we were generally lucky with the weather. The trip left us spent, but hardly dangerously exhausted.
Second, we had a good group. Mark’s sardonic commentary kept us laughing while Mike’s Yoda-like pronouncements and childlike joy in trekking inspired us. Chris kept us focused on the meaning of the life and Tom H.’s stoic self-deprecation and Aaron’s helpful nature provided good examples for how to approach that question each day. Ryan’s Socratic method--e.g., “where are we now” or “why is it that you keep your grab loop inside your cockpit”--helped inspire us to do better with our navigation and our paddling to avoid being exposed as complete knuckleheads. Ryan and Tom Bergh set a high standard of hard work and dedication. In the end, we made the right decisions as a group when it mattered and made it back with boats and bodies pretty much intact.
I personally had mixed feelings about trip before it began, having had a string of five great summers of ad hoc paddling adventures in the Great Lakes. However, I ended the trip gratified that I had broken out of a comfortable rut and worked on new paddling skills in a different and challenging environment. The amount of effort Ryan and GKC put into organizing and conducting the trip was amazing, the intensity of my paddling partners was inspiring, and the simple joy of ocean paddling with a talented and trustworthy group is something I’ll carry with me for a long time.
I believe GKC is planning on offering this trip in the summer of 2012. You might block out ten days for a challenging and interesting trip in a great ocean environment.