When sea kayakers talk about paddling the coast of Maine, they talk about Deer Isle, they talk about Acadia, they talk about Muscongus Bay. Not so often do they talk about the Muscle Ridge Archipelago which, to my mind, offers some of the best paddling on the midcoast.
The Muscle Ridge Archipelago is a wildlife-rich group of islands and ledges on the western end of Penobscot Bay, about 2 miles offshore from South Thomaston. Muscle Ridge was apparently named for the blue mussels which can be found there in great numbers — and not for the pecs of the thousands of workman who quarried granite from those islands in the late 1800’s nor for those of the lobstermen who fish those waters today.
We paddled out of Birch Point Beach State Park (another under-appreciated Maine treasure — link here for map), circled Ash Island, and then headed across the Muscle Ridge Channel toward Otter Island. Early on the 1 mile crossing, we were treated to the site of 4 harbor porpoises surfacing about 50 yards in front of our kayak. This was only the first of several wildlife sightings on the day. We also saw osprey, eagles, eiders, harbor seals, guillemots, cormorants, and three somewhat bemused island sheep.
The wildlife is one thing that keeps bringing me back to Muscle Ridge. An incredible 10 percent of Maine’s seal population is whelped amongst this relatively tiny cluster of islands. Eiders and other ducks can usually be seen by the hundreds, if not thousands.
Once you reach the archipelago, it is possible to paddle in relatively protected waters, but the channel itself often offers challenging conditions including a 1 – 2 knot tidal current, wind, and steep chop, if not swells. Conditions can also change very quickly. For these reasons, paddling out to Muscle Ridge is not recommended for beginners, or for those without adequate safety gear and rescue skills.
Conditions improved as we crossed to the archipelago: the patches of fog moved out and were replaced by blue skies and brilliant sunshine. We paddled alongside High Island with its stacks of squared-off granite as remnants of it’s history as a quarry. Then we continued south around the southern side of Andrews Island, with its high pink granite cliffs and pounding surf.
From there, are route took us west to Yellow Ledge and then back north through the split in Hewitt Island before tracing our way past Flag Island and Bar Island.
We savored the late summer afternoon light and waited as long as we could before turning our kayak north past the Clam Ledges where we sighted dozens more seals. With the sun sinking below the horizon, we recrossed the Muscle Ridge Channel, and then pulled back ashore in the deepening dusk at Birch Point Beach.