” . . A smidgen of ledge and sand that lies between Inner and Outer Sands Islands. But it’s a beautiful smidgen,with Petit Manan Point in the distance to the west and Great Wass Island a looming presence to the east . . . It is open to any weather, and the highest tides sweep right over the island. It’s a nice place to visit when the seas are calm. –Dorcas Miller, Kayaking the Maine Coast
The Sands is an enchanting place, little more than a sand bar, about 10 miles south-southwest of Jonesport, Maine. It’s a Bureau of Public Lands island visited by seals, seabirds, the occasional plucky kayaker and not much else. The panoramic views. The openness to the sky. The fineness of the sand. The spectacular remote location with Inner and Outer Sands islands nearby and the mountains of Acadia and the Camden Hills visible in the distance. The closeness (and vulnerability) of the island to the tides — all make it unique, and endearing. I have visited The Sands a half dozen times over the last half-dozen years and have had it in the back of my mind that one day I would camp there.
In mid-August, a span of 4 days off, settled weather, light winds and an enthusiastic paddling partner each pushed the window of opportunity open a bit further. A little voice spoke to us, and the voice said, “Go for it.” A pre-trip examination of tide tables showed that we were due for some of the highest tides of the year, which would make camping on The Sands even more dramatic — and, if the seas were not calm, foolhardy.
According to the charts, we were due for the highest tides of the month, perhaps the highest of the year. (See this link for an explanation of why some tides are higher than others). The height of the tide in Jonesport on August 20th was forecast at 14.3 feet , at least 2 feet above the average. The forecast called for continuing settled whether, a clear night, and nearly windless conditions, which would be ideal — and necessary — for camping on The Sands.
We put our fully loaded kayaks in at Indian River at the top of the tide and rode the retreating tide south out along the eastern shore of Crowley Island, much of which is owned by the Pleasant River Wildlife Foundation. Our route then carried us past the Goose Islands, Duck Ledges, Hardwood Island, Stevens Island, Drisko, and Inner Sands.
On Stevens Island, we saw (and smelled) the decaying carcass of a 30 to 40 foot whale . Comments in the Stevens Island logbook (Stevens is a BPL Island and part of the Maine Island Trail) identified the carcass as that of a right whale and indicated it had been the for more than a month. Later I read online that right whales are a precariously endangered species — as stated by RightWhale.org “the world’s rarest, large whale, continues to face many problems on its slow road to recovery.”
Arriving on The Sands at around 4:00 PM, just after absolute low tide, we trekked up the intertidal zone to the highest point on the island — a vertical rise of approximately 16 feet. There we examined the rings of seaweed that served as footprints of recent high tides. If they proved to be an accurate indicator, our island would shrink to little more than 45 feet x 15 feet at the time of high tide, about a half hour before midnight that evening.
The weather was calm and the sunset was spectacular. This was reassuring. I will admit to feeling a tad anxious as the moonless night deepened and the dark ocean drew closer. Before zipping myself into the tent, I re-checked the kayaks. Earlier I had secured the hatches and cockpit openings, made sure paddling paddling gear was ready for use, and tied the kayaks to our tent. If the wind picked up or the tides were higher than predicted, it might mean abandoning the tent and sleeping bags — and making a midnight headlamp-illuminated paddle to nearby Inner Sands Island. The bouldered shoreline there would make for a difficult landing, especially in the dark, but that was the fallback plan.
We retreated to our tent by 10:30 PM or so — and listened, as only one on such a small island can listen, as the tide crept closer and the constant cacophony of gentle surf approached from all sides. We were still awake at midnight when the surf began to slip back, away from us. We did not look out but slept assured that we had remained dry through the advance of the tide and that our island was now growing larger again.
We woke to thick fog. The forecast of increasing winds and unsettled conditions meant our hope to spend more time on The Sands — and to explore the islands to the south and southeast would have to wait for another time. (As it happened the first waves from Hurricane Bill would reach that area in less than two days.) After packing the boats, we island-hopped our way back to Crowley Island, navigating largely by compass, as visibility in the fog was less than 1/4 mile. We returned up the west side of Crowley Island, which is largely privately owned and rockier than the eastern shore.
The trip was — through both conscious effort and fortunate happenstance — carried out in a happy harmony with the tides. We put in at the top of the tide and rode the retreating tide south to The Sands. We set up camp and cooked dinner and then retreated to our tent just as our island shrunk to it’s smallest dimensions. We woke the next morning to an expanded island, breakfasted in the same “kitchen” that had been washed clean by the last night’s waves, and then launched as the tide reached within a dozen feet of our kayaks. Our trip north through the fog was slowed by the dropping tide. We reached the bridge to Crowley Island just in time to avoid becoming hopelessly marooned in a sea of brown mud.
Some would undoubtedly think such a trip needless at best and foolishly dangerous at worst. Why do it then? A place like that certainly opens up your senses. Perhaps also because the experience of sleeping on a sand bar just a few feet above the tide puts us back in touch with the truth that our survival does depend on the fine balances in nature. The reality is that in our lives as individuals and in our survival as species, we live daily on the brink of survival and on the brink of calamity. That brink, that edge where the tide comes in and engulfs dry land, can be a frightening place — but also a beautiful one.