. . .
"I’d stood by the window during idle moments, gazing out at the archipelago, imagining a trip such as this: two warm months with nothing to do but roam the Maine coast in our sea kayaks, camping on the islands."
. . .
Long before Maine stamped “Vacationland” on its license plates, schooner captains sailed up the coast from Boston with the prevailing winds, heading down-wind and east, or down-east, a term that has since become synonymous with both a place and a direction of travel. My wife, Rebecca, and I began our summer-long sea kayak excursion heading the opposite direction, paddling west and mostly up-wind, or up-west, thus creating a hashtag-worthy phrase that hasn’t exactly caught-on.
Whatever direction you go, the Maine coast is vaster and more diverse than most people know, with contorted tidal rivers reaching far inland and archipelagoes of glacial islands— more than 3,000 in all—sprinkled around its bays like stepping-stones. Altogether, the coast encompasses over 6,000 miles of shoreline. While more than half a million people live in Portland’s metropolitan area, much of the coast sees little traffic, especially the sparsely populated Bold Coast, near the Canadian border. These places are all part of the Maine Island Trail, a waterway linked by over 230 islands and mainland sites that enable day use or camping, making the Maine coast truly a dream destination for sea kayakers.
For a dozen years, we lived within sight of the Stonington archipelago, one of the densest concentrations of islands along the coast. We learned to paddle sea kayaks, all the while dreaming of taking a season off from our usual lives to live out of our kayaks among the islands. Finally, after giving up our business and home, that’s what we did. This is the story of a summer-long excursion, twice paddling the stretch of coast between Portland and the Canadian border. More than covering miles, though, the journey was the fulfillment of a fantasy, years in the making, to live a simpler existence for a while, to make the most of the moment and the place, and to think about what really mattered. —Michael Daugherty
Copyright © 2020 by Michael Daugherty
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher at the address below.
Michael Daugherty, PO Box 740, Stonington, ME 04681
Printed in the United States of America
Publisher’s Cataloging-in-Publication data
Upwest & Downeast: Meandering the Maine Coast by Sea Kayak / Michael Daugherty
1. Nonfiction > Sports & Recreation > Kayaking. 2. Nonfiction > Travel > United States > Northeast > New England.
First Pre-publication Edition
14 13 12 11 10 / 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
1: Greenlaw Cove
STANDING CALF-DEEP IN THE WATER, I straddled the cockpit, and dropped into the seat, pushing off from shore. The muddy bottom lay only inches beneath my hull, but I was finally floating. A few feet away, Rebecca did the same. I pulled my legs inside and pressed my feet against the foot pegs. Devra stood on the lawn below the cabin, watching us. It seemed a minor miracle that we’d made it this far, that we were finally launching, and a dim nugget of worry still lurked at edge of my thoughts. Something could still get in the way of our trip, some overlooked detail: a forgotten bill or a last-minute call with bad news.
So I focused on my actions, stretching the elastic rim of the spray skirt around the cockpit coaming, tight as a drumhead. I took a couple of shallow reverse strokes, coasting into deeper water and pivoted the boat away from shore. The kayak felt weighty, sluggish, low in the water with the weight it carried.
It was a poor time to be setting-out on a trip. The cove lay beneath a dense layer of fog, the water surface speckled with raindrops, and it was nearly dark, the wind in our faces. The overnight forecast called for thirty-knot gusts. We’d told ourselves countless times to not begin a trip this way, the deck stacked against us, but we were floating. We were on the water, finally set free from the shore with a summer ahead of us. Rebecca and I shared a glance and she nodded. We looked over our shoulders. The cabin was already half-swallowed in fog. Devra, a small woman with long, gray hair in a braid, stood on the lawn below it, holding her phone up for a photo. We shouted our thanks and began paddling.
Like any journey beginning with a single step, ours began with a single, self-consciously intentional paddle stroke, but the next quickly fell into place, soon attaining a familiar rhythm. The cabin dissolved behind us into the gloom. Ahead in the dusk, fog lay so thick that we couldn’t see the island we’d gazed at all winter, but we soon turned away from the shore, took a bearing on our compasses, and headed into the whiteness.
WE HAD WATCHED THE COVE through the seasons: the late autumn duck hunters in camouflaged skiffs and later, the massive ice slabs heaped upon the shores. When the cove froze, we put on snowshoes and walked across it. In milder weather we donned our dry suits and, launching from the shore below the cabin, paddled our kayaks out along Stinson Neck or into the east end of Eggemoggin Reach. If we paused on one of the islands, we kept our breaks short to prevent getting chilled. We gazed at our surroundings, those winter months, and commented that while it was nice, it would probably be really nice in the summer.
It was a joke that had begun as an obvious observation when we paddled during winter months. We’d lived in Maine for nearly fifteen years, and yet our summers – those warm, idyllic months that drew most visitors to our coast – were consumed by work, entertaining, in some form or another, those summer visitors.
Often, over the last nine months, we had been content to merely look at this borrowed view: a cove sheltered by meandering peninsulas and wooded islands, beyond which rose the low mountains of Mount Desert Island. It gave us the sense our fortunes were good. It was easier somehow to be satisfied when you had a view of the ocean. Even if you were in an out-of-the-way nook, the changing tides were a constant reminder of the world beyond, the places where the water went when the tide receded, or from whence it came when it rose. Living by the water made it easier to be content with staying put. Why go anywhere else? It was a little view of the action: maybe just enough to feel like you’re not missing much in the rest of the world, at least for a little while. Of course we were house-sitting, so we had to leave when the owners returned for the summer.
A house has a way of exerting its hold upon you though, and the longer you stay, the more comfortable you become. You unpack and get settled, acquiring belongings and growing accustomed to the quirks of the place or the way the cove looks with the sunrise as you drink your morning coffee. You may tell yourself every day that it’s only temporary. We did. We were always telling ourselves, these past couple of years, that every aspect of our lives was temporary.
We had been cleaning the house for days. We’d wake every morning thinking this might be our last time waking in this bed, that maybe, finally, we’d get our kayaks packed, get the last of our stuff out of the house and wipe our tracks behind us as we stepped out the door the last time. We’d made trips to the dump and then final dump runs, and then additional final trips to the dump when we created more garbage by staying just a little longer in order to clean the house more. We took final showers and wiped clean the drain, making sure there were no fingerprints on the chrome shower handle. Every time we used the stove or the toaster we had to clean. We had to leave the house cleaner than we’d found it. The floor was scoured and swept again. We returned the owners’ canned goods to the shelves, trying to remember how they’d been arranged.
For weeks we’d tried to winnow our belongings to what would go in the kayaks with us, moving the rest to Rebecca’s studio, a space in the basement of the old school building in Stonington. She’d obsessed over what art materials she would bring, finally fitting them into a dry bag the size of a toaster oven that dominated her kayak’s stern hatch. Finally, that afternoon, the first day of July, we’d piled the gear around our boats on the lawn. It took hours to figure out how to pack it all, but there was always a piece or two that didn’t fit.
We almost had it figured out when Devra arrived. We helped her unload her Subaru, carrying her belongings into the house we’d just vacated. We showed her the work that had been done, and the new alarm system, and this all probably took another hour as the high tide shrunk away from our heavy, loaded boats amid the thickening fog. It began to rain. Devra suggested we spend the night, and it would have been easy to just stay, smarter really, but our departure had been delayed too many times. We were ready to go.
FROM OUT OF THE FOG came the shape of the island, vague at first so we weren’t even sure it was there, then definite, familiar. We followed the shore to the campsite: a twenty-minute paddle for the first day of our journey. It began to rain harder, so we quickly unloaded the tent and set it up amid the trees up on the point. And though it seemed a lot of work, especially with the rain beginning, we dug out the cooking gear and heated a packet of pre-cooked Indian food and a packet of pre-cooked rice and ate quickly.
The campsite was somewhat sheltered until the wind shifted to the southwest, bending the hissing treetops above, and the rain became a downpour. Then the tent bore the brunt of the gusts from the side, morphing into a misshapen blob. Because it was difficult for us both to be in the two-person tent, blowing-up air mattresses and un-stuffing sleeping bags, Rebecca went in first while I tied additional guy lines to strengthen the pitch and keep the fly from blowing against the inner mesh. The fog dispersed, revealing the lights of houses on nearby shores, including the cabin where we’d house-sat for the winter, brightly lit, as if to remind us of the comfort we’d left.
By the time I climbed inside, the interior felt damp, and the wind flattened the vestibule on one side. The night had the potential to be a long one. But as I climbed into my sleeping bag, I felt an immense sense of relief. It was a good sleeping bag, warmer than I needed, filled with treated, water-resistant down, floating upon a comfortable air mattress, inside a tent that had served me well through other storms and which I’d now taken the extra steps of further battening down. We might have had a long night ahead of us, but we were ready for it – and tired enough to sleep through a storm. I listened to the taut fly, rustling like a well-trimmed sail, aware of Rebecca beside me, doing the same, and hoped she felt as content as I did.
WE POINTED OFFSHORE into a wall of fog, following a compass bearing until a scene emerged before us, an illustration for a haiku rendered with a few deft strokes: a steep hump of granite, rising from the foggy sea, topped with spindly spruce. Pulling our kayaks onto the sand between the smallest islands, we carried our food bags up onto a slab of granite for lunch. The fog lay dense enough that we couldn’t see beyond the ledges just offshore, but we could feel the sun on our skin. As we ate, the chug of a motor slowly approached and a man’s voice floated in the fog, vaguely familiar, tinny with amplification, describing the remains of a prehistoric village somewhere beneath the boat.
“Sounds like Garrett,” Rebecca said, and I recognized the mild accent, the cheerful, curious inflection of the mail boat captain with whom we’d often played pickleball over the last winter.
I said, “Guess we’re all missing pickleball today.”
“Summer.” Rebecca spread hummus on a cracker. “No one has time.” Normally we wouldn’t have had time either. We’d had an art gallery downtown for a dozen years, and I’d stood by the window during idle moments, gazing out at the archipelago, imagining a trip such as this: two warm months with nothing to do but roam the Maine coast in our sea kayaks, camping on the islands.
The boat passed unseen, the amplified voice overwhelmed by the motor until we could no longer hear it. Rebecca lay back against the granite. “I’d be happy to stay here tonight.”
“We could,” I said, but I wanted to go farther still. We hoped to meet friends on a different island.
The fog finally dissolved, and the islands ahead were revealed like stepping stones, rounded peaks of a mountain range poking above the clouds. We launched before the fog could return.
IT FELT CALM in the lee where the four of us sat on the beach, while a hundred yards out, the water surface ruffled with wind that hissed through the treetops. We sipped hot tea and identified the lights that had come on: the Hockamock Head lighthouse over on Swans Island, the blinking lights on buoys out in Jericho Bay, and the occasional flash of car headlights high upon Cadillac Mountain. Fireworks exploded low in the sky, here and there, but mostly the horizon was dark. The others were talking.
I’d zoned out, watching the low blooms of colored sparks, and now someone wondered where the fireworks were taking place.
“Bass Harbor,” I said. “Looks like it anyway.”
A plume of colored sparks rained down on the horizon and we all made an involuntary sound. It turned quiet again, except for the wind in the treetops.
Gordo said, “It’s cool that you guys are doing this trip. Just, you know. Take a breather. Do something for yourselves.”
“It still feels unreal,” Rebecca said.
We had known Gordo and Lisa a couple of years. They’d been clients on a trip I’d guided, and since then, Gordo had obsessively gone about acquiring kayaking skills. Despite his background as a nuclear engineer, he’d enjoyed taking on a new part-time livelihood, guiding and then teaching kayaking.
I had followed a similar progression (minus the nuclear engineering bit).
A dozen years earlier I’d bought my first kayak and it had quickly grown into an obsession, then something I did as a second job, and for the past couple of years, as my only job. I’d seen others follow the same pattern, even when they had far more lucrative and stable employment, sacrificing leisure time for work they hoped would be perhaps more meaningful or at least interesting, maybe fun.
When I started kayaking, I came out here a lot, right after work – my way of blowing off steam at the end of the day. I could still see it, the dimming evening light as I charged breathlessly away from town, out to the edge
of the islands where suddenly I felt the swell from the open ocean begin
to buoy me, up and down and I’d stop there and take it in. I’d circle the island then, my urgency to escape replaced by a satisfied calm, and head back toward town as the evening light faded. It often felt like I carried
that calm with me into the next day, making it easier to face whatever came next.
Rebecca’s head lolled forward and snapped back as she struggled to stay awake. I felt sleepy too. Another brilliant shower of sparks erupted on the horizon. I wondered, was this trip a way for us to find that calm, to recharge before we returned to something else? Were we hoping to find a new home? Or maybe we were we just trying to live in this dream world out here as much as we could.
WE CROSSED EAST PENOBSCOT BAY on the Fourth of July, a summer day about as perfect as they come, fair weather cumuli mirrored on the glassy swells. Deer Isle lay behind us as we paddled four miles of open water toward the islands near North Haven. Rebecca paddled a kayak that she’d built one winter from a plywood kit: perfect for this trip, with a little more volume than my fiberglass model. While camped off of Stonington, we’d spent a morning thinning our gear to make packing easier, but our boats still performed with a weighty momentum – a little lower in the water and slower to turn than usual. Once in motion though, they took on an inertia that made the miles go by quickly.
After dinner, we sat on a ledge as the sky grew dark, gazing over the bay we’d just crossed. Deer Isle was barely discernible from the dense archipelago of smaller islands that lay just south of Stonington, which lay at the southern end of Deer Isle. One landmass merged with the next, a dark shape on the horizon, but one – Crotch Island – stood-out from the others, with a tall crane rising from its shaved-off flanks. The island had been quarried since the mid-1800s, a process that gradually hollowed its interior and left piles of angular, cast-off granite along its shores. By the end of the 1800s Stonington was a boomtown of five-thousand residents, and it probably felt like the boom would go on forever, at least for the centuries it would take to ravage the islands down to the waterline. But concrete put an end to the granite boom, and most of the town’s population drifted elsewhere.
These days the year-round residents in Stonington hovered at a little over a thousand. The town had survived a number of booms and busts, but now it was inhabited mostly by fishermen and those employed peripherally in the fishing industry. There were also plenty of retirees, some who’d even begun to stick-around through the winter, and there were quite a few transplants like us: ‘people from away,’ who’d carved some sort of niche for themselves there, often dependent upon tourism. It had been home for more than a dozen years, and at times I’d felt like I’d somehow landed in the right place, among the right people, and I felt fortunate. After closing the gallery though, I wasn’t quite sure we belonged anymore.
I thought about this as we sat on the rocks on Calderwood Island, looking back over East Penobscot Bay at the town where we’d spent so much time, and it made me wonder if our time there was done, if maybe we’d find a new town where we didn’t have a history. The previous day, after culling our gear on the beach, we’d paddled into Stonington to drop-off extra gear and top-off water containers. Downtown had been packed, the sidewalks jammed with holiday visitors, and we’d run into a few people who hadn’t seen us in a while and we’d had some of those familiar conversations. And maybe I didn’t mind. Maybe it was better simply to be recognized by someone than not. From the sidewalk, I’d found myself gazing down Main Street at the big yellow building, now a real estate agency, where we’d lived and toiled, and I half-expected that I’d see myself there like a ghost, still sweeping the sidewalk in front of the shop, or washing the big windows, or just standing there as I sometimes did during those years, watching the town go by.
The darkness grew, and a lone firework suddenly lit the sky on the horizon, followed half a minute later by the report, from this distance hardly louder than a firecracker in a mailbox. “Maybe we should have camped over there for the fireworks,” Rebecca pondered. “It’s kind of far.”
Another firework exploded, a red magenta chrysanthemum, and then another. “No,” I said. “This is good.” I liked the perspective, like I could finally see the life we’d lived in that town, but I missed it too: the sweaty hordes flowing down Main Street, following the scent of beer and deep-fried food, while I kept the gallery open, hoping for one more sale.
The finale reflected over the bay: a half-minute of bright, explosive chaos, muffled thunder reaching us after the last explosion faded. Rebecca sighed. I lay back and felt the warmth of the granite ledge beneath me. The stars shone crisply. I thought of the scene in town now, the bleary-eyed exodus beneath a smoky haze down litter-strewn Main Street, toting coolers and lawn chairs, the kids wondering if that was it, another spent holiday. Ours though, was just beginning.
. . .
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