Moving to the Sea

This time of year I trade  my downriver kayak for a sea kayak.  Rather than a wing paddle, a flat-bladed Euro paddle occupies a place in the backseat of my car.  Instead of monitoring stream flow data, I keep an eye on the tide charts.  The bays and islands, not the rivers, become the target of my afternoon and weekend plans.

River paddling is linear.  We drive upriver and then make the trip down, sometimes repeating the trip on the same day.  The days are still short.  Daylight is at a premium.  We look at our watches and paddle harder to make sure we can get to the take-out by sundown.  The river itself is a line, albeit a living and moving one.  In sections where rocks interrupt the river’s smooth surface, we seek to run the ideal lines, following the current, avoiding the rocks and holes.  As spring advances, we move from the first rivers to ice out to the ones that hold their level longer, due to upstream dams or large watersheds.  This migration, too, is a line, a sequenced progression repeated from one year to the next.

Ocean paddling is more about arcs and circles.  The days are longer and warmer and we shed the sense of urgency that kept us in continuous movement.  We linger in quiet coves or pause for a moment to bob in the  waves.  The number of put-ins and take-outs is almost infinite — as are the routes between them.  Getting from point A to point B is about possibilities.  The tide rises and falls.  The winds swing from north to south and back again.  We skirt shorelines and trace the gentle arcs of pocket beaches.  We circumnavigate islands for the sake of doing so.  Destination becomes less important.  There is no end to get to.  Just a vast sea to experience and appreciate.

It’s a very human thing to resist change and to mourn it.  The time to ride the rivers on the flood of snowmelt and spring runoff is always abbreviated.  The brief season of running rivers is one of thrill and urgency and a little bit of danger.  And then the rains slow and the rivers subside, and we make the transition back to the sea.  We go reluctantly at first, but then, after arriving, we are glad to feel waves rise underneath us, glad for the early light and the islands, glad for the seal pups and eider chicks, glad for the island blueberries and wild roses, whose own time is even now growing closer.

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Downriver with a Twist: An Initiation into Slalom Kayaking

Slalom, a race over a winding or zigzag course, isn’t just for skiers anymore. Canoers and kayakers get to slalom too. And they did — last Sunday in the annual slalom races at the Kenduskeag Stream Park in Bangor.

Below the Harlow Street Bridge in Bangor, the Kenduskeag Stream enters a picturesque steep-sided valley.  Between the bridge and and the Shopping Cart Drop,  the stream is narrow, the currents are strong; and there are two Class II-III drops — drops that have claimed more than a few boats during the 16-mile Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.  For the downriver racer, the goal is to keep your boat upright, keep your bow downstream, have the right line and cruise right through this area, spending as little time as possible in it, never looking back.

Last weekend’s slalom race brought a whole new perspective to this part of the river, as the slalom required us to go sideways to the current, turn our bows into the biggest waves, reverse direction and go back upstream, take the drops at an angle and eddy out below, and even negotiate some of it going backward.

A good slalom racer, as I was to find, needs endurance to paddle hard for 3 minutes, power to turn a boat and accelerate upriver against the current, and the chutzpah to pull off tricky maneuvers in moving water.  More than anything, slalom racing requires boat control and precise paddle strokes.  As with many sports, those who are good at it make it look easy.

It’s not easy, however.  Even for those with a lot of experience in other genres of paddling. On Saturday, the day before the competition, after getting some tips and little coaching from experienced slalom paddlers, I took my first run at the quarter mile slalom course. The first gate was straight across the river from the starting point and below a drop.   Because of the strong current, I wasn’t sure if I could get there without embarrassing myself, so I skipped it, telling myself I’d work on that one on my next run.  Gate number 2 looked easy enough, but slightly submerged rocks immediately upstream of the gate blocked my intended line.  I missed it.  Gate 3 had some really fast current going through it — I made it through cleanly.  That gate, however, was offset from Gate 4 which was only eight feet downstream.  The current swept me slightly sideways and I battered the pole with my helmet.  A 50 second penalty during a race.  Gates 5 and 6 were relatively easy and I passed through them cleanly, building up speed as I went.  Gate 7, an upstream gate, was far over on river right and above a drop.  I approached it too fast, swung far too far past it, and then had to work really hard to get back upstream.  Gate 8, another upstream gate, was below the drop.  Again, I  was moving too fast and settled for just making it through the drop. I skipped it.  I was not yet halfway through the course.  There were still another eleven more gates to go.  You get the idea.

With an afternoon of practice, I was able to at least attempt most of the gates.  By race time, the next morning, I was able to get through most of the gates most of the time, but I didn’t always get through cleanly, and it wasn’t always pretty.  Meanwhile, more experienced slalom racers in both kayaks and canoes carved their way through the gates with precision and style, never seeming to hurry, never seeming to lose control.

Slalom, then, is a mental challenge as well as a physical one.  From what I can see, slalom requires linking the gates and linking strokes.  In other words, you need to go through each gate already lined up for the next few gates.  If you don’t think about the next gate until after you’ve completed the previous one, it’s too late.  The current will carry you downstream and you will miss it.  Thinking several moves ahead and initiating moves early is key.

Slalom is a specialized sport with a relatively small following.  This is a shame.  One of the best parts of slalom is the camaraderie among the participants — some of whom travel throughout New England to participate in the slalom series.  The atmosphere among participants is friendly and very welcoming.   The difficulty level for these regional races, while challenging, is not overwhelming for intermediate paddlers.

Even if you never get serious about it and join the circuit, slalom is bound to make you a better paddler.  Many aspects of river and ocean paddling get easier once you’ve practiced getting through narrow gates. Slalom is also an Olympic sport, one I will take new interest in and pay more attention to, now that I have taken a crack at it myself.


New England Slalom Series (official website)
Maine Canoe & Kayak Racing Association
Canoe Slalom Technique Library

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A Kenduskeag Like No Other: This Year’s Race Will Present New Challenges

Navigating between the rocks on the Marsh Stream, April 2012.

Some of us have literally spent weeks worrying about low water.  No sense worrying any more or complaining about it any longer because it sure looks like that’s what we’re going to get.   The hoped for rain simply isn’t going to come in time for the race. The river is not just low; it’s dramatically and historically low.  It’s lower than it was on race day two years ago, which itself was the lowest anyone could remember — and it’s lower than that by a lot.

Want numbers?  The stream gauge at Six Mile Falls reports a depth of  3.8 feet and a flow of a 144 cubic feet per second.   This time of year, the flow generally averages 1,000 cfs.  Two years ago, the low year, when the Bangor Daily News headline following the race read “What a Slog,” the gauge read  4.4 feet and 300 cfs.

This year’s Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race is sure to be unlike any other.  And that is one reason to participate.  Accept the low water.  Embrace it even.  The best strategy may be to stop thinking of it as a canoe race and think of it as one of those adventure races that have become all the rage.

Read about Tough Mudder, for example, and a low-water Kenduskeag suddenly seems a little more do-able.   There will be more shallows than usual, no doubt — and some of it is likely to be REALLY shallow.  More rocks to navigate around.  Some of them you might have to haul your boat over.  But it still won’t be the Tough Mudder.  No one will have to run 12 miles (half of it up a mountain).   There will be no fire rings to leap through. No belly-crawling, wall-climbing, ice-water dunking,  monkey-bar traversing. or mud-slogging.  Well, maybe some mud-slogging.

I’ve stayed up a few nights scouring the web for the secrets of paddling in shallow water.  I’ve looked at kayaking, canoeing, rowing, and yachting sites.  I even checked out some sites for pilots of large boats.  Sorry to say, but there aren’t any secrets.  Shallow water is shallow water — and, as is explained below, when you are trying to maintain the speed of your canoe or kayak in these areas, the shallow water literally sucks.

The technical term for this is shallow water drag.  As one site states, referring to the work of David Burch, when your boat enters water that is 12 inches deep while paddling at a speed of 3 knots, the resistance increases 90%.  That’s nine zero, ninety.  Basically it doubles.  Another source, also referring to Burch, states that hull speed is reduced by 50% when paddling a kayak or canoe in water that is 2 feet deep.

The loss of speed is due, at least in part, to the increased resistance of the bow wave.  In shallow areas, the water can’t move away from the boat as easily and therefore piles up at the bow.  For the paddler, this creates the unwelcome sensation that you are paddling uphill.

As if things aren’t bad enough already,  shallows can cause your boat to actually sink lower in the water, thus creating even more drag.  This is due to the Venturi effect, (told you I had been up late reading) which holds that differences in the speed that water moves creates differences in pressure.  In shallow water, the water that passes under your hull has fewer places to go and thus must move at a higher speed, which in turn creates an area of relatively lower pressure, which results in your boat sinking deeper.  The faster you go, the more your stern will sink or squat down into the water.  Isn’t that just great!

Still another factor, one that you can actually do something about, is called bank suction.  I’m not making this up.  According to the article at Don Fleming Yacht Services, “Bank suction starts when a vessel strays too close to a bank, restricting the water flow on its bank side.  The water-flow velocity increases, causing the water between the vessel and the bank to squeeze out of the area faster than it can flow back in. This causes the water level to drop between the vessel and the bank, and consequently the vessel is pulled sideways into the low-water area.”  Unfortunately, it doesn’t just affect large vessels.  Watch for this, especially when rounding a bend in shallows.  I’ve felt the stern of my kayak being pulled toward the bank just as is described above.

A few suggestions for this year’s Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race:
(1) Seek deeper water, even if you have to paddle out of your way to find it.
(2) Back off your pace a bit as you approach a portage or a shallow area that you plan to haul over.  The time you will lose by doing this is generally less than what you would lose by arriving already out of breath at the portage.
(3) Don’t expend too much energy in shallow areas.  The laws of physics will prevent your boat from gaining much speed there, no matter how hard you paddle.
(4) When approaching shallow areas that are followed by deep water, you may want to try increasing your speed enough to “pop” your hull ahead of your own bow wave.   Experienced racers talk about this, but I’ve never yet seen it done.
(5) Attach a rope to your bow that can be used to pull your boat through areas that are too shallow to paddle through.
(6) Don’t try to pass another boat by going through the shallows on the the outside of a turn.  See the description of bank suck above.– only imagine it being amplified by the effect of the other boat.
(7) Flip flops won’t make it.  Wear something sturdy on your feet and consider something that will protect your legs as well. Shin guards (no joke) would probably work pretty well for reducing the rock-inflicted bruising you might get when walking or running through shallows.
(8) Leave your watch at home.  No records will be set this year.  Not the kind you want to set, anyway.

If you can’t paddle, run.  If you can’t run, walk.  Don’t stop until you get to the tent with the food in it.  That appears to be a winning strategy for this year’s race. The 2012 Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race:  it will be an adventure.

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Seasonal Paddling — Part II

The following is part two of a two (or three) part guest blog by Leslie Gregory of Swanville, Maine.   Paddling with Leslie, I am frequently reminded that when seeking adventure or beauty, it is not always necessary to look far from home.
October 26   I brought River Runner back from the lake to venture down for autumn’s waning afternoons.  I launched from the dam and noticed the river wasn’t as low as last spring.  But as I rounded the bend and came upon an 8 ft beaver dam, I was stunned at how severe a drop had been created; the water was low and sluggish; easy to spot small trickles I hoped would keep me buoyant.

All week I couldn’t wait to get out of school and hurry home to take advantage of the warm and sunny afternoons.  Daylight savings was yet to come, and I wanted to weave the golden reflections into my thoughts, offer optimism and ponder beauty.  I knew I was a  ridiculous sight, biking across the street, wearing my life preserver and spray skirt, but the bike ride let me maximize the daylight when minutes counted.

Below, the river widened and deepened a bit with familiar long lengths of skyway, and I’d feel my boat drift sideways around the turns to enter into another stretch.  I noticed slender pickets of sticks planted in the edge of the river banks, tagged with neon orange.  Signs of trapping.  The beaver dams and lodges are up above; here where the river widens out there are muskrat and otters as well.

    I love getting out to the pond to feel the magic of the afternoon light.  The new moon lingers in the western sky. There’s a turtle basking on a rock in the pickerel weeds.  There’s peace in the valley until a dog up on the hill senses my presence and starts barking.  Reluctantly I paddle home, breathing in the deepening purple shadows, grateful I can enjoy such tranquil moments.

Nov 6   Today we started from where the lake empties into the river with the determination to paddle all the way down until we got to the ocean. It’s been unseasonably warm and I was in a t shirt all afternoon.  The river meanders for miles, drops into subsequent ponds and then meets a series of dams, aka portages.  We worked our way over shallow rapids, climbed over stone walls and found ourselves in a golden sunbathed afternoon, the light low and intense. We had to give up because the water got so low, but spring will find me exploring this part of the river.  We walked along a gorge between two falls.  Maybe this is where the class 2 & 3 whitewater is.  I can’t wait to find out!

Nov 15  Took the canoe out of the river today.  I’d been planning it for weeks: rather than drive across the street w/ a trailer, I was going to shuttle to Smart Road, leave my car and trailer, bike home, run across the street and paddle down.  It was going to have to be a school day, so I kept conniving til I finally picked the day, hurried home and changed up, but still it was 3:30 before I launched.

    Canoeing is different than kayaking.  Handling a T paddle can be mastered but it is a different motion and much slower.  To keep a canoe tracking properly is a challenge when you’re solo.  Suffice it to say, I took out in the dark.  But on the way!  The afternoon light spilled golden on the river grass, the calm waters reflecting skyfuls of trees, long highway of woods and sparkle. . .   I kept scaring out a bunch of ducks, they’d fly downriver 200 yards only to sound their alarm again as I approached.Some otters swam in front of me, having survived the traps that had been laid out for them.   There are plenty of beaver dams and lodges on this river.  There is a dam up near the lake that is quite steep and 6- 8 feet out of the water when it’s low water.  I think trapping a few beaver is probably okay.  But it pains me to see traps set within 6 feet of the beaver lodges.  It makes me root for the beavers.

The day’s light gave way to darkened smudges of purple streaks, the water took on a lustrous white in the rising moonlight.  In a kayak I could have paddled the 6 miles in less than an hour but it took me all of two hours in the canoe, with hard paddling.  I snuck up on the take out in the dark, savoring the waning light and deepening shadows.

Nov 22  Today I was given the gift of time and found myself on the river by 1:30.  A forecast for rain and snow always makes me anxious of how many times I have left to paddle.  I mostly say I’ll paddle through the 2nd snowstorm of the season, thus promising myself the thrill of paddling along snow lined banks, the trees lined with white filligree.  But today it was all of 40 degrees, and the sunlight was dazzling.  I heard hissing and cracking which I discovered was the movement from my boat pushing thin sheets of ice further into the muddy banks.  I made a game of it, rounding corners to push the ice out further and then herding the big sheets to the side.  The ice is a reminder that the water is freezing.  A capsize here might only land me in a few feet of water, but extracting myself from the mud and grasslands would be arduous and dangerous.  No worries, the river is smooth as glass with 6 foot grasses towering over me and standing tall in reflection, and there is no reason to capsize..  The most dangerous part of the endeavor is getting in the boat with the mud all around and trying to rinse my feet off . As I push off the mud ridden bank with my paddle, my boat rocks a bit, but I ride the rolling motions and launch, smiling that I am on an adventure less than a half mile from home.  My thoughts on the river are clear and unfettered, taking in only the pristine and simple beauty of the long grasses, the satin  gloss of water, the crack of the ice gathering in the shadow of the timothy and cattails.  The pond is lined with silver sumac, having been the first to parade and then shed their scarlet  leaves 6 weeks ago  Where the water is most shallow, ice has formed, and I find myself riding and crashing across a sheet of thin glass to get on the pond.  A breeze stirs gently, pushing from the north.  The silhouettes of geese point south.  The air is brisk, still unseasonably warm, but just a day and 30 degrees away from impending winter.  Soon the ice will block my passage onto the pond.  Today is a gift.  I know how to savor these moments, and when the geese return in the spring, I’ll be down here to welcome them.

Nov 25  Thanksgiving was a frenetic blur of housecleaning, cooking, hugging and ping pong.  We had 6-7 inches dumped in the river valley, and Bax took the snowmobile across  the field for a spin.  I tried skiing but the snow was wet and heavy, and I couldn’t help but think how lovely the river would be with its  muddy banks snow capped and close.  We finally relaxed on Friday and slid down the snowy bank into the river.  What a launch!  The contrast of the tall grasses and the snow was lovely.  We paddled fast around the bends, our kayaks drifting sideways as we rounded the corners.  The ice was forming in thick bands along the edges, and we had to carve our turns wider.  There was the temptation of riding up on the ice and coming down on it ice-breaker style, trying to maintain balance on the round rocker of the kayaks.

As we approached the pond, the ice closed in on top of the sallow grasses.  The pond appeared to be a solid glass surface, frozen solid.  I tasted reluctance, not wanting to let the seasons change.  We had to turn back and head up river.  The warmth of the sun gave little comfort as I contemplated our afternoon sojourn cut short.   I cheered up immensely when my paddling partner said, “Well, we can always do it again.”  Yes indeed. As we passed the put in, the river got narrower, shallower, and eventually impassable, so we turned and headed back down, languishing in the afternoon light.  When we got to the ice dam before the pond, the wind picked up.  Suddenly we could see that the pond was not frozen some 40 yards out.  There were some fissures in the ice, so we probed them, lining our boats up, riding up on the ice and pushing huge sheets apart with our hands, pushing ourselves out into the ice and moving it until we finally made it to the chill waters of the pond.  I breathed in the waning afternoon light and spotted a sliver of moon in the western sky.  Suddenly we were crossing the pond and heading a few stretches more downriver.

The days of paddling in 2011 are numbered, but we made it last a little longer!

Dec 05   Turns out the ice melted and the river rose.  It’s two weeks later and I’m back to early sunsets on the pond.  I’d write more but Goose River is calling me.

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The Walruses Have Landed — Walrus Kayaks Come to Maine

The Walrus Jaeger in Belfast Harbor at sunset.

One of the best things about owning a small kayak shop (besides scouting out new sections of the Maine coast as potential tour destinations) is having the opportunity to paddle new models of kayaks.

I’ve had that opportunity recently, as we’ve “taken in” a few Walrus Kayaks built by a small company of the same name in Winooski, Vermont.  This is something to like about the kayak industry — that even though you have the relative giants like Current Designs and Old Town, you have plenty of small companies that you might not have heard of building quality. innovative boats.  More than 50 kayak manufacturers are listed in the Canoe & Kayak Annual Boat Book. My guess is that there are at least 50 more small companies that are not listed, Walrus Kayaks being one of them.

It must have taken a bit of chutzpah to start a kayak company in the midst of a bad economy, and — at a time when many other builders are moving their manufacturing operations to China — to insist on building them in small town USA.  It must have taken a bit more chutzpah to choose uncompromising designs and high end materials as central to your business model, but that’s just what Walrus Kayaks did.

Mark, the Chief Operating Officer of Walrus Kayaks is the guy who most often answers the phone and responds to emails.  He arrived after a snowstorm several weeks ago with a truck loaded with 5 kayaks and a black lab as co-pilot.  We donned dry suits and then drove down to Belfast Harbor to test paddle the boats.  Temperatures were only in the 20’s, but we mostly forget about that as we took turns trying the Griffin and the Jaeger, the first two Walrus models to have gone into production.  (Walrus is now in the process of adding two more models).

Mark returned to Vermont with just two kayaks on his truck.  Happy ending.  The other three stayed with us.  We’ve been enjoying testing them out in different conditions and locations.

One who doesn’t understand kayaking might find it odd that someone who already has more than 25 kayaks at his disposal could get so excited about a new kayak.  But every kayak has its own personality.  And, ideally, a kayak is something you “wear” more than just sit it.  The Jaeger and Griffin are two exceptionally designed kayaks that have quickly become favorites.

The Jaeger especially has found favor with me.  At 17’4” in length and 22” in beam, the Jaeger fits the mold of a fully capable, full size touring and expedition kayak.  While not the very fastest kayak in our fleet (it’s not a specialty racing boat), the Jaeger is plenty fast enough for fitness paddling and long distance touring and, as a fast kayak, has the distinction of also being a great rough water boat.  The v hull of the Jaeger gives it a lively, playful feel on the water, yet it feels very secure even turned sideways to oncoming seas.

Overall, I’m increasingly feeling that if I was limited to only one boat, the Jaeger would be it — and that’s a pretty high compliment to pay any kayak.

Add to that the excellent and comfortable cockpit and meticulous build quality, and you have one great boat.

The Griffin, as the name suggests, is a bird of a different feather — though built with the same attention to quality as the Jaeger.  Efficiency, playfulness, a light weight (as little as 31 pounds), easy acceleration, and compact size are some of its best attributes.  Most designers add width when they build a shorter kayak, but with its beam of under 22 inches, the Griffin is a sleek little kayak truly designed with the needs of the smaller paddler in mind.  At the same time, the Griffin is just big enough that a medium size paddler (up to 6 feet and 180 lbs.) can fit in it comfortably.  For this size paddler, the Griffin is a great boat for playing in waves and surf and for day trips.

We’ve begun adding  information about Walrus Kayaks to our website and will continue to do so.  You can read also read more about Walrus Kayaks at

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Seasonal Paddling

The following is part one of a two-part guest blog by Leslie Gregory of Swanville, Maine.   Paddling with Leslie, I am frequently reminded that when seeking adventure or beauty, it is not always necessary to look far from home.
2/28    A  few miles north of town, there flows a river.  It drops out of a lake and winds exhaustingly around muddy bends, startling out pairs of ducks and groupings of geese.  Other days, the river is frozen, and on a good year offers a week of skating for miles and miles.  Some years, I can ski on snow along the river’s edge that reminds me of confectioner’s sugar.  The river runs parallel to a road, and while the length of the road is 7.3 miles, there are dozens of miles of kayaking and canoeing, hunting, fishing, skiing, snowmobiling, biking, ATVing and hiking within a few miles of the river’s edge.    The word paradise comes to mind.

I only made it up to Sugarloaf once last year for its epic winter of downhill skiing.  But at least 50 times in the 2011 winter, I put on my skis and journeyed out my back door for another adventure.  Depending on the wind and conditions of trails, I would ski on the river’s edge or find vantage points to visit.  Then came the ice. That’s when the groomed snowmobile trails really came in handy.

My son spent many Saturdays zipping over to the pond on his snowmobile, dragging the jet sled behind, loaded up with a tent, heater, sandwiches and iced tea.  I’d ski over to say hi and check on them, then follow the river’s curves south. He almost always got a fish or at least a flag, and in the spring, he’ll be back in his canoe, bobbing for bass.

4/8  Whitewater has had my attention these last few weeks which has kept me out of the hood, but it’s time to run across the street and check on my kayak, and see if the river is open at my neighbor’s put in. No whitewater here, though I’ve seen this river billed as class 2 or 3.  Only if you count the drops over the beaver dams!   I know there are a few lingering ice shelves, but it won’t be long til I can run down my neighbor’s driveway and launch my kayak for a quick sunset paddle.  The geese will be there, the ducks will be hiding in the grass.

4/14  Sure enough I did go for a paddle this afternoon.  The days are getting longer so I was out before sunset.  The river is flooded, the grass and cattails a study in muddy banks.  I’ve been out a few times a week to see the different stages of spring.  Eagles and osprey fish from tall pines, and the geese and ducks rise off the water, always startled and vigilant.  The river is narrow and wooded in parts but opens into floodplains and ponds.  It is wetlands along much of its shore, so a tumble into the water could result in some pretty nasty recovery work.  Mud mud mud — I’ve felt it claim my neoprene boots, sucking and schlucking me deeper.  The river was carved out in its banks and very full today.  It made me feel full in my chest, happy, delighted.

   I paddled with the wind and current til I got to the gusting pond, circled around and paddled up against the wind and current, both of which were thankfully mild.  Over the scattered beaver dams, a few weeks ago I couldn’t get through without portaging.  I could come here every day, and it would be different each day.  Some days are still and cold, others raucous and windy.  The sky is ever changing, a marmalade of blue and white, greys and purples.  In a few months, the river will be overgrown at my put in and difficult to navigate.  Then it will rain a few days, and it will be brimming, nudging at my kayak to launch.

6/7   When approached from the shore, the river is uninviting, and inaccessible, a small ribbon of wet amongst blowdowns and grass clods.  But there is something compelling about it.  I’ll think of it as one might a dear friend, “I wonder how so and so is doing?”  My thoughts are punctuated by musings of how the river is doing, is it full and flooded, can you see the huge clumps of mud, are the redwinged blackbirds back?

I rode my bike across the street just to check.  The level was going down fast.  My feet were caked with mud getting in the boat.  The ducks harbored in the deep grass, the males darted out to divert my attention from their young, switchbacking around curves until they skimmed across the water’s surface, launched into a golden afternoon, and then circled back around. Mayflies lifted on a curl of breeze, and the mosquitoes gathered in the cooling afternoon.   Rippling a glass surface, bass and pickerel surfaced on the sunlit pond for feeding.

June 18  Here’s one of my favorite little workouts in the summertime:  we drive down to the lake to my folks’ house where Baxter will mow the lawn.  I hop in River Runner, my whitewater kayak, and charge the stiffening southwest breeze, paddle nonstop 3 miles to the dam, portage the dam to the river on the other side, and ride the twisting shallow waters, swatting at horseflies, mosquitoes and swampbrush.  I navigate the beaver dams, sometimes portaging, sometimes directing my boat off to the side with my hands grabbing at branches and sometimes just riding my boat over the neatly woven branches that further diminish the flow of water below. I arrive, bugbitten and briar scratched, take out at my normal put-in, run the long driveway and up the hill to my house, take 5 minutes to drink water and regroup, hop on my bike and head back to the lake, where Bax is just popping open an iced tea on the deck to take in the view.  A few days later, I do it in reverse, leaving my house to go up river, ride the southwest breeze down the lake, rejuvenate on the deck and then bike home.  Life is good in the summertime.

July 26  The summer days have been filled with lake paddling and ocean ventures.  This afternoon I helped with a tour on the bay, and we paddled up to the mouth of Goose River where the dam holds back a lovely pool of green sparkles.  The rising moon was almost full as it played hide and seek with the horse tail clouds.  I contemplated the up-river –how it is overgrown and shambling over dead branches and muddy compost, alongside balled clumps of tall rivergrass.  It’s been awhile since I’ve biked across the street, and my river kayak is enjoying early retirement at the lake.   It’s nice to see the river spilling over the mossy green rocks here, splashing white moonlight into a waning sunset.  I always think of the river winding aimlessly through woodlands and grasslands, rarely do I see this convergence where the eels and seaweed rush in with the rising tide.  I linger in this zenith, holding the moment.

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Source to the Sea — A Goose River Journey

Many people have put in at the boat landing on Swan Lake Avenue and paddled Upper Mason Pond.  Some  have followed the winding course of Goose River south from Swan Lake.  Others have kayaked to the dam on Goose River at the place where it spills into Belfast Harbor, looked upstream, and wondered.  We had done all these things. Many times.  A curiosity about connecting the dots, an ethic of “paddle lots, drive little,” and a penchant  to spend the good part of the day on the water were all part of our decision-making.  A November day of sunshine and temperatures in the fifties sealed the deal.

Could we paddle Goose River from Swan Lake to the sea?  The question was there.  The idea of a backyard-style expedition was born.

It was a somewhat outlandish proposition.  After eight miles of mind-numbing meandering, we would face five dams in the space of the last two miles, and a portage around each. We had never heard of anyone running the lower section and had never scouted it from its banks.  Why would anyone attempt to run  it, we conjectured, unless it was part of a bigger trip. The idea seemed just crazy enough to give it a try.

After planting a car at the far end, within sight of the ocean, we put in just below the dam at the south end of Swan Lake and paddled 50 yards north through the culvert to get as close as we could to the lake.  Then we turned south toward the sun and the sea and headed south.

Ahead of us, though we didn’t fully appreciate it yet, were ten or more miles of river.  Roads cross or touch the river only a half dozen times in those ten miles.  For the vast majority of the distance, Goose River is hidden away in a private valley, visible only to those moving along it.  Along the way, we would sight muskrat, eagle, ducks, and heron.  And for the first eight miles, at least, not any people.

The ten miles of river have three distinct personalities.  From Swan Lake to Smith Pond, the river is shallow, muddy, and rife with beaver activity.  It winds through alder thickets and has a closed in feeling.  South of Smith Pond to Upper Mason Pond, the river deepens and and weaves through a broad grassland.   It becomes a home for geese, duck and muskrats.  The forest shrinks back, and the sky opens up,   The next stretch, from Upper Mason Pond to the sea alternates between flat reservoir and pitched stream, with each of the reservoirs being held back by a dam.

As we had anticipated, the water level upper section of Goose River was low, and the flow was minimal.  This section of the river is best paddled in the spring or early summer — or after a period of heavy rainfall. The river here meanders without much sense of direction.  We pushed over a beaver dam that held back about three feet of water.  Below that, the river depth was shallower still.  We paddled hard to keep some momentum through the many turns, well aware of the miles still ahead.

The deeper water of Smith Pond was a welcome relief.  We shared an energy bar there and pushed on.

The river meanders interminably between Smith Pond and the Smart Road — and even more so after that.  We had paddled this section many times and in many seasons.   On this day, the bright sunshine and the subtle hues of the grasses and distant hillsides created a quiet kind of beauty.

By the time we reached Upper Mason Pond, the sun was moving with purpose toward the horizon.  It hastened our purpose as well.   We portaged the first dam, got back in our kayaks, and paddled the narrow channel that opens into Lower Mason Pond, which was still lit with golden sunlight.

We had hoped to eat a late lunch there along a sunny shoreline, but daylight was becoming a scarce commodity.  We paddled on through the pond, portaged the dam, and then bumped down the shallow stream to where it crosses Swan Lake Avenue near Goose River Grocery.

Two dams and two quick portages later put us again in the flat water of the reservoir above dam #6.

By this time, long shadows had crept over the water, though the sun still brilliant lit the the red and orange-leafed trees above us.  We took out at dam #6 and portaged around  it, and then along a wide, rock-filled stream — only to find that stream levels there were too low for paddling.

After walking down along the stream a few hundred yards to confirm that it wasn’t getting any deeper, we left the kayaks in the woods, bushwacked up to the road, and continued our southward journey on foot.   By then that the sun had set, and a chill filled the darkening air.  I jogged the last half mile in an attempt to warm up.  The car was parked down near the bay, and it was dark by the time I reached it.

Dry clothes, heated seats, and lunch were a welcome find  and helped ease the disappointment of not being  able to finish the journey by water.  But our path on and along the river had taken us places we had not been before.  Success is never guaranteed; adventures are only adventures because you don’t know the outcome.    And now we get to return and try again, to run the lower part of the river — maybe after a big November rain, or maybe in the spring.

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Life Jackets — One Size Doesn’t Fit All

A properly fitted, modern, sport-specific PFD is so comfortable, you might forget you are wearing it.

A middle-aged woman is relaxing in her kayak in a part of a lake that is only three feet deep. She closes her eyes and leans back, soaking in the summer sunlight. The fish aren’t biting and the day is hot. She unbuckles her PFD (personal flotation device), removes it, and then a minute later, slips off the kayak and into the lake. She has just broken a state law.

A Greenland rolling enthusiast who can perform more than 30 different types of Eskimo rolls has been traveling throughout the U.S., putting on rolling demonstrations. He uses a narrow wooden paddle, sits in a skin-on-frame kayak, and wears a tuilik, a traditional garment that serves as both spray deck and paddling jacket — and also provides flotation. He has traveled to Maine to demonstrate his skills in Rockland Harbor. Even though he will never be more than 20 feet from onlookers and the dock, even though the tuilik provides plenty of flotation, and even though wearing a PFD will actually reduce the flexibility of the tuilik and impair his freedom of movement, he is told he must wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD or he will be in violation of Maine law.

Three 20-something friends have gotten together for an summer afternoon at the pond. All three are previous competitive swimmers with WSI training. It is a hot day and they decide to race to the boat landing on the opposite shore, each using his preferred mode of travel. The first is given a head start and sets off swimming, wearing nothing but his speedo. The second stashes his PFD under his seat of his rowboat and sets off three minutes later. The third puts his PFD behind the seat of his kayak and sets off paddling one minute after that. The kayaker arrives first, winning the impromptu half-mile race, but the distinction he will remember is that, of the three, he is the only one to be fined for violation of Maine law.

The three scenarios above are aimed to point out some of the problems in logic that are inherent in the recently proposed bill that would require all Maine kayakers and canoeists to wear life jackets.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-life jacket. I wear a life jacket more than 99% of the time when paddling and routinely ask friends and guests to do the same. The questions, for me, are whether Maine needs to put a law on the books to tell us what we already know, whether increased education might be better than increased legislation, whether enforcement of this law will be a headache for Maine wardens, and whether the law will do any good.

I do see both sides of the issue. On one side is the argument that current law already requires paddlers to have a life jacket on board and in an accessible place. In a kayak, especially, securely stowing a life jacket on board is often more inconvenient than wearing it.

Anyone who has tried to pull on and fasten a PFD while in the water has an additional reason to believe that meeting the requirements of current law by stowing a life jacket on board is not a very practical, should you end up actually needing that life jacket.

Wearing a PFD is something you do for others, if not for yourself. Wearing it increases your chance of survival if you do capsize. If you need to be rescued, it increases the chances that you will be still alive when rescuers reach you. If you capsize and don’t survive, it shortens the amount of time that rescuers will spend looking for you. Search and rescue operations are expensive and sometimes dangerous — and, if they go on for days, all the more so.

That said, I am not fond of legislation that interferes with what should be a personal decision. Pass legislation mandating the wearing of PFDs, and you wouldn’t have to go far down the slippery slope to see laws requiring helmets for motorcyclists, bicyclists and skiers, personal locator beacons for back-country hikers, survival suits for winter boaters and ice fishermen . . . and the list could go on and on.

Some have suggested that by focusing narrowly on kayakers and canoeists, the law creates a double-standard and creates the impression that kayaks and canoes are inherently less safe than other types of watercraft. It seems important to state that in the right hands and in the right conditions, kayaks and canoes are very safe. It is the user — not the craft — that determines safety.

One concern about the proposed new law is that it is reactionary, resulting from a single constituent’s request to a legislator, which in turn followed a summer in which several paddlers died in Maine waters. Beyond that, the bill seems hastily put together and lacks in logic. Part of that lack in logic is the enforcement end of it. By all means, yes, put up signs at boat launches reminding paddlers to wear their life jackets. But don’t use taxpayer money to chase offenders. Don’t clog our courts prosecuting those who refuse to pay. Maine wardens are stretched thin as it is; the PFD-less paddler is not endangering anyone but himself. A warden’s time is better spent promoting safety, providing education, and protecting resources.

As the scenarios I opened with above illustrate, when it comes to life jackets, one size does not fit all. The vast majority of paddlers really ought to wear their life jackets the vast majority of the time, but there are exceptions. Wearing a life jacket should be an individual decision. At a time in which deregulation of everything from schools to businesses is so much the fashion, it is ironic that there is talk of attaching additional regulations to the simple act of slipping out onto a pond for a morning paddle.


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On the Water in Maine — Best of Summer 2011

As the waters cool, the days shorten, and my schedule transitions from guiding to teaching, my relationship with the water changes too. I look longingly over the bay as I cross the bridge to East Belfast on my morning commute. I hurriedly squeeze in an afternoon paddle between a meeting at school and picking up the kids. Paddling trips are shorter and closer to home. The place where I put in is more likely Belfast Harbor or Pitcher Pond rather than South Thomaston or Stonington. The equinox is a great time to reflect on the summer that was. Days like today give hope that there is a little more of it still left.

Summer started cool, with temperatures on June 24 topping out at 57 degrees. July made us believe in global warming all over again, with 12 days of temps above 80 degrees, and 25 days of at least partial sun. August was more of a mixed bag, but there were still a good number of sunny days and an influx of tourists. Suddenly everyone wanted to get out on the water — today!

Irene brought wind, waves, and rain — and hastened many to pull their boats out of the water. The nice thing about kayaks is that they’re easy to put back in.

Three kayakers lost their lives in Maine waters this summer. One was wearing a life jacket. Two were not. Thousands and thousands of others paddled Maine’s lakes, ponds, and rivers without mishap. Still, an emergency bill is being introduced in the Maine legislature that would make wearing (and not just having) a life jacket a requirement for all those kayaking and canoeing in Maine waters.

I’d rather see an effort to get more paddlers to wear their life jackets through education, not legislation. Do wear your life jacket and be mindful that waters are not as warm as they were a month ago. Paddle safe and enjoy!

Our end-of-summer slideshow has become, for us, a seasonal rite. We hope you enjoy it. A big thank you to all who joined us on our tours. And to those who didn’t, just remember, we can’t put your photo in the slideshow unless you come paddle with us.

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Dance Floor by the Sea: A Kayak Trip to Baker Island

If you were to view the Baker Island Dance Floor through the lens of a time-lapse camera, you would see that there is a dance going on — one that has taken place over centuries.

Calm bright summer days bring a relative flurry of activity. The dancers most often arrive quietly, in small groups. Mixed among them are those who will only sit. There are, however, usually a few who will dance. They feel the wind, scan the horizon, and listen to the waves breaking on the rocks — as if to internalize the rhythm; and then, although no band is playing, they pantomime a few steps. Sometimes it is a solitary person who rises and stands in the sunlight on that shelf of brilliant pink granite, at the brink of the broad Atlantic, who then steps out an impromptu waltz with the sea.

By the time you reach there, you have crossed  four miles of ocean.  Perhaps the seas have been rough.  Maybe your passage through the Cranberry Islands has been slowed by fog.  After landing your boat on the rocky shore and clambering up through the sea weed zone, you hike for twenty minutes —  up through the meadow, past the old farmhouse, to the lighthouse and then down a narrow trail that at times seems to go nowhere, and then you arrive at this place to which people have been coming for hundreds of years for picnics and dancing.

The dance floor is what you have come for.  Photos don’t do it justice.  You have come a long way for this and have probably been to many granite shorelines in your time, so you come with some skepticism that this will be anything special.  And then the trail opens out to the dance floor and you forget all of that.  It’s a lonely place, an awe-inspiring place, a wild place.  You feel like you are on the edge of something — and you are.  Sky, rock, and sea dwarf all that is human, including human thought.  You get pushed out of yourself.  It’s hard to know what to do.  At the dance floor, the suggested activity is to dance.

Some who arrive there do so as a result of being lured by the brief description under “Unique Natural Features” in the Delorme Atlas.  Some learn about it by reading kayaking or cruising books.  Others come via boat tours out of Northeast Harbor.  Still others come as part of organized groups.  Penobscot Paddles describes their own recent trip to the Baker Island Dance Floor in their blog here.  Ten years ago, a group of 26 social dancers gathered there for a dance that was recorded in a series of photos.   Read about it and view the photos at The 2001 event was a re-enactment of sorts of events in the 1800’s, when Cranberry Islanders first began using Baker Island for picnics and dancing.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Native Americans did some dancing there as well.

Baker Island is about four miles south of Mt. Desert Island and is the outermost of the five islands that make up the Cranberry Isles.  Settlers were living on the Cranberry Isles by the early 1760’s.  The island has a 43-foot lighthouse situated at its center that is now  nearly obscured by trees.

Resources: (Baker Island boat tour charter company)

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