I was fortunate, as I entered my 40s, to live and work just across the street from the harbor in Stonington, Maine. On other counts, most wouldn’t have considered themselves lucky to be in my shoes, running a seasonal gallery the income from which I augmented through winters with odd jobs, often courting debt and financial uncertainty. Our apartment was cramped—so stuffed with belongings that my wife, Rebecca, and I were embarrassed to entertain guests. But our windows looked over the harbor, busy with lobster boats, and behind it an archipelago thick with spruce-crowned granite islands, stretching away to the hilly backdrop of Isle au Haut. At any time of the day, all year long, we looked out at that view and felt glad to be there.
It wasn’t just a pretty scene; we looked out at the stretch of ocean where we were learning to paddle sea kayaks. We needed only to walk down to the public ramp where we stored our boats, and in minutes we could be out among those islands. The proximity of one island to the next inspires a “just one more” momentum that draws you along, new vistas constantly revealed with each curve of the shore. The islands provide a buffer from bigger conditions in flanking bays and places to shelter when the wind picks up or the fog rolls in. The shores are jagged with rocks, but between them the dropping tide reveals “pocket beaches” of crushed shells and pebbles, overlooked by idyllic campsites.
The sea kayak seemed an obvious vehicle to get out there. Main Street was busy with cars bearing sleek, bright kayaks upon their roof racks. Cheaper than bigger boats, they were also easier to transport and store. Not only that, but a sea kayak could easily float through the intertidal zone and land on rough or rocky shores—places bigger boats avoided. You could disembark in the shallows and carry your boat above the high tide line, along with more camping gear than you could carry in a backpack. And a proper sea kayak, if you knew what you were doing, could thrive in rough conditions that kept other boats on their moorings.
My first kayak was a sporty secondhand model in yellow fiberglass, chosen mostly because it was pretty. I began paddling often with a friend who had worked as a guide and, since my summers were busy with work, I bought a dry suit and began paddling year-round. We took classes, learning not only how to be safe out there—how to recover after a capsize or other eventualities—but also how to maneuver well. Without knowing any better, I’d bought a kayak with a lot of rocker—slightly banana-shaped—which sacrificed a little speed for excellent maneuverability. We practiced making precise turns by weaving in and out of shoreside rocks, challenging ourselves to improve. I learned to shift my weight to turn
the boat on its edge and pivot around obstacles, augmented by precise paddle strokes.
A sporty boat made it easier to fall in love with the feeling of paddling as much as the ability to get places. By getting into a kayak and launching on the ocean, I’d entered an alien environment. As a two-legged, oxygen-breathing human, I wasn’t meant to thrive in the intertidal zone, especially when waves came washing through, pounding upon the rocky shores. But in a sea kayak, I began to welcome the incoming swell—the way it lifted me, propelled me, allowed me to drift among the flowing seaweed like a newly evolved amphibious creature. My kayak became an extension of my body, edging and turning when I’d hardly had a conscious thought to do so. Practiced enough, these maneuvers became like musical scales, executed with unconscious impulses so transparent and quick that you might wonder how you’d done it, as if you’d been guided by an invisible force.
Rebecca soon recognized the need to join me in her own vessel, so she set up a workshop in our gallery and spent a winter building a wooden kayak from a kit. It’s difficult to imagine how our marriage might have gone had she not done this, since we then began paddling with even more intention and focus, and our closest friends were those with whom we paddled. I learned to roll (capsizing and then returning to the upright position without exiting the boat) on a nearby pond but we started attending pool sessions every weekend through the winters, and our skills and confidence improved exponentially. At some point, I stopped drinking alcohol—a needed change—and, surprised by a sudden excess energy, expended it in my sea kayak, discovering a new sense of focus that I might not have had without this discipline to harness it.
Sometimes after a long day in the gallery I’d head out alone, paddling as fast I could away from town, until I paused some three miles out where I could feel the ocean swell roll in and buoy me, up and down, and I began to feel calmed. I’d turn back to see the evening lights start to come on in our adopted town, and paddle slowly back.
Sea kayakers often describe their relationship with the sport in either religious or romantic terms. Stonington is a paddling mecca. A Facebook group calls itself The Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle and spouses (usually men) joke about concealing the extent of their immersion from non-paddling partners as they would a romantic affair. To the nonbeliever it may seem strange or a contrived attempt to claim an identity, but it’s a sport that changes people, that reframes the context of their experience. Paddlers face their fears, going into a vast, sometimes scary ocean in a craft not much bigger than themselves. They learn not only how to survive, but to thrive, to have fun; they not only contend with waves, they surf on them.
I’d bought my first kayak wanting only a vessel to convey me to some nearby islands, but instead I found I had invested in a practice that would carry us through changes and into other phases of our lives. Paddling has remained a constant. For the moment, we’re back on that same Main Street with a similar view out to those islands. The boat ramp is only a short walk away, but I need only glance out at the sea to know that feeling I get out there: the gentle rising of a swell, the taste of salt in the air and the satisfaction of a well-placed paddle stroke.
Maine view?When it’s not socked-in by fog, Ram Island in Machias Bay takes in a broad stretch of the coast: the lighthouse on Mistake Island near Jonesport, the thousand-foot high VLF radio towers in Cutler, and on a clear day, Grand Manan Island in Canada. Nearby there’s the Libby Island lighthouse, and even in the fog, the island itself is a sublime tapestry of rocks and wild grasses.
Drink? Royal Tar coffee from 44 North in Deer Isle.
Maine restaurant? I seldom eat in restaurants. I would rather eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a remote island.
Guilty pleasure? Chocolate, dipped in crunchy peanut butter.
Shoes? Astral water shoes.
Way to relax? Taking a long walk.