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Nov 2000
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Muscle Ridge Archipelago -
A Wind Burst & Paddling with Seals

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By Charles Underwood

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Lobster Bay Camp on Waterman Beach to Mussel Ridge Islands

[Ed Note: This was not a NH AMC trip. It is included here as the author wishes to describe the area and to describe the potential problems one can get into when proper weather and safety precautions are not heeded.]

Background:

Named for its indigenous colonies of blue mussels, the islands of Muscle Ridge lie in a channel full of rocks, ledges and I first heard of them reading Sarah Meltzer’s tranquil summer day article. (See Atlantic Coastal Kayaker October ‘99” “Paradise found.”). Almost any canoeist would find that day delightful.

Sarah’s article focused on particularly the northern set of islands of the Muscle Ridge chain, beginning with Otter Island. This chain is an archipelago, thus defined as a set of 12 to 15 scattered little islands. The archipelago lies directly off Lobster Buoy campgrounds in south Thomaston, Maine. While Sarah’s article made for enjoyable reading of a hot summer trip on an idyllic hot day, but such days are rarely found in our New England waters.

I took a small group of New Hampshire kayakers there on a breezy October weekend. Myself and two others, met attending the New Hampshire Wednesday evening skills classes. It was free kayak class, which met every week at Glen Lake, Goffstown, and was organized by Jed Luby who will commence this treat again, May 2001. (Contact LedJude at aol.com). In no time at all, I had polished a “bomb proof roll,” and my companions were gaining competence as level II paddlers: braces, tandem & self rescues, minimal requirements for ocean paddling

Our overall experience was challenging and priceless. Conditions were raw and windy which necessitated a modified trip route of the southern islands. We ended up exploring the south end archipelago, now my favorite, and that is the subject of this article. In fact, the route most directly across from Lobster Buoy campsite, was found to be impracticable due to strong cross winds and currents. Yet, by doing a little navigation taking into consideration wind and current, we had a similarly great trip, and explored even more of paradise. At the end of the day we also came away with an awesome appreciation of a gorgeous paddle among this pearl necklace of islands.

General Area Info:

The South Thomaston coast of Maine, three hours from Portsmouth, NH, is a seasonal fishing area. In the fall one will find it rather remote and quiet. Restaurants and stores close after Labor Day. The tourist traffic, if any, will be down the peninsula at Port Clyde and Marshall lighthouse. Better yet, boat traffic will be light on the water.

With no hassles from crowds these circumstances are to be considered ideal for exploring, on and off the water. Directly across from Waterman Beach lies the Muscle Ridge Islands. About Three miles out, they are both very prominent and inviting to the hungry kayaker. Set in pristine clear water, they are a joy for any recreational kayaker, though sea canoes have found equal pleasure if paddled on a calm day.

Accommodations:

Our original intent was to kayak camp on an Island in the Muscle Ridge chain. The Maine Island trail handbook (2000) put out by the MITA organization, indicates no overnight camping within the Muscle Ridge chain. Although camping is permitted on nearby Spaulding Island, it is in a cove that is inaccessible at the bottom third of the tide making launching restrictive.

These factors led a group of three of us to make reservations and camp at Lobster Buoy Campground on Waterman Beach, South Thomason. Campground telephone number is 207-594-7546. Other than hot showers, the camp has few amenities at this time of year, except for the most important ones: solitude and unrestricted panoramic views. Lobster Buoy campground served as a more than adequate base. We had the whole place to ourselves. O ur site was in the far right section, steps off the beach.

The Trip:

We arrived late Friday afternoon on a cold autumn day: 42degrees. The wind was 18 knots with some white caps forming. Ugh! In fact, windy was the weather for the entire 3-day weekend. Seldom were winds below 12 knots due to a weather depression that socked in the entire northern Maine. Here strong winds blew up from Port Clyde and gained strength as they dashed up the coast to Owls Head. Muscle Ridge lies between the two. Having previously paddled to nearby Port Clyde and Muscongus Bay to the South, I fully realized what I was in for. Those trips gave me much respect for the region's strong and unpredictable winds.

After pitching tent, we reluctantly declined a late afternoon paddle and instead did sightseeing of the area locating launch sites, sites of interest and restaurants that were still open. It was cool that afternoon. The windy conditions didn’t help. The temperature dropped to 29 degrees by nightfall making for a cold night in the tent. At high tide, 1:30AM, I awoke hearing surf right at door of tent. Actually, while the sound was rather deafening, it was at least 30 feet, away. The sounds of the surf crashing on the beach a few yards from my tent nonetheless caused me to have a restless night.

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The tents pitched next to the beach

Saturday morning felt like winter as I crawled out of the sack. Due to the frost, the portable stove failed to light on the first try and we unanimously voted for a breakfast sandwich at Off Island General Store at nearby Spruce Head marine. This is the shortest of Short-Order places: Breakfast sandwich, subs and hot coffee and also some accurate marine weather reports can be acquired. In fact, upon seeing my kayak, the counter person repeated the daily report in a traditional downeast slang “Ya can’t be paddling outside today! Its 15 to 20 knots and a bit too gusty- they’ll be 4 to 6 footers.” Outside meant out to the Muscle Ridge Islands. Her advice was correct and well heeded.

I had previously planned Tenants Harbor as an alternative paddle for my group and that was accepted. (Another protected “put-in” was at the Spruce head bridge. Nearby are the islands of Rackliff, Norton and Whitehead, and Seal Harbor.) The fact that I was elected trip lead was probably more by default than by virtue of having the chart and GPS and some tidbits of ocean knowledge. My companions were two very strong paddlers - tri-athletes, who had placed within the top finishers in the 2000 Sea to Summit Race; (their names withheld per request). Most know of that grueling race, consisting of swimming, kayaking, and finally biking up Mountain Washington. (whew! I thought kayakers were obsessed souls!) During the Kayaking leg of the event my companions averaged 6 mph, up the mouth of the current prone Portsmouth Harbor. So on any day they would leave me far in their wake.

While obviously strong paddlers, they claimed to lack “real ocean experience,” only venturing out seaward during training for the race and thus handed the reins over to me to decide on the kayak day trips.

At the launch time of 9:15 a.m. on Tenants Harbor, winds were a steady 12kts to 14kts. It’s a pleasant paddle down the long harbor. Few other vessels were underway, of course. Other than a lobster boat or two; the sole pleasure boat was a 25 foot daysailer that caught my eye as it failed to negotiate under sail into the harbor, then heeled over, and nearly dunked his mast in a blow down!

Undaunted, out into the mouth of the harbor we ventured. On the South side lies Hart’s Point. Three to four foot swells were cresting (but not breaking) around Hart’s rocky point. It looked worst further out, so we stayed here. Turning about, I signaled to my companions and we thus took advantage of the swells, testing our skills on these moderate waves. The strong winds created quick and pronounced waves. To catch one was a pretty simple technique - paddle like hell! Keep the kayak perpendicular to the oncoming wave. Then, lean back and enjoy. The surge of the wave really propelled your boat, making for a pretty long ride. Misjudgment of the technique or a poor brace usually meant a harmless broach or two and nothing more. By trail and error and after three practice runs, success was realized. Soon cheers of “Awesome!” resounded from my paddling partners. This feat of surfing proved to be a good confidence builder for what was to come.

After the “skills session,” we headed north, downwind. My plan was to stay along the coast and play it safe in small following seas toward Long Cove, Clark Island and Spruce Head. We paddled past Southern, Northern and High Islands.

Our trip downwind was speedy and wild but initially uneventful. The wind was now a steady 15kts, and higher. As we neared the vicinity of Clark Point, without warning a burst of wind rose and zapped us, violently. As if we’d entered an instant squall, the wind nearly lifted my rear quarter rail off the water. I saw the paddler to my left going over but at the nick of time employed a slick offside brace, preventing a capsize. That burst had to be about 35 knots, a new record for me, I thought!

Having experienced some years in the field of aviation, my background told me we had been hit by a sudden wind-burst. In effect, my kayak had shook and then vibrated a few seconds under a double dose of wind. While never in any danger, seeing the underside of a friend’s hull (kayak) caused a bit of a concerned at the time. But almost, a moment later as if nothing happened, everyone gave a “thumb’s up” sign of “OK. ”

We came about and smartly made a beeline nearer the shore none too soon as one more burst exploded upon us. Now fully prepared it failed to have the effect or the percussion of the first. We headed for shelter, anyway. Back in the protection of a coastal eddy, my companions were all smiles. I heard utters like “simply wicked, simply wicked!” True to the spirit of a trained athlete my friends were in zone of excitement and loved it. This relieved my concern about the group’s abilities. Nonetheless we steered a tight shoreline, the rest of the return trip. Hugging sheltered rocks and ledges back in the direction of the harbor.

Where we could, we eddied up the coast. On one such pause, we saw the road on the shoreline filled with bikers dodging wind as they sheltered behind a shack. They, too, were having a time of it. Thus, we crawled back to the harbor against a mounting chop the return leg took, twice as much time as the outgoing paddle.

At we turned into Tenants Harbor, out seaward whitecaps painted the sea like whitewash; small craft advisory conditions were very evident. Upon landing the weather radio confirmed the worsening conditions as well as a road biker who had noted our progress. He had left his group and followed us back to the launch. He had a wind meter which registered a gust of 37kts.

In short, we all agreed then and later that it was no afternoon for any self-propelled vessel, on land or on the sea. Small Craft advisories were now the prediction for the rest of the weekend. Ugh!

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Swells and Whitecaps in Tenants Harbor

Just a word or two more about Tenant’s Harbor--A very quaint and friendly town with a couple nice looking restaurants now closed for the season. Thewse include Cod ‘s End at the public launch, or Farmers, up the street to the left a block is an all round family style restaurant. Hall’s, the general store, is up another block. That Saturday night we attended a free concert at the Odd Fellows Hall. Wearrived late with no idea of what type of concert to expect. The classical 30 piece brass concert started late. It was a great way to spend a Saturday evening, especially when the alternative was getting into the tiny tent in the cold ocean air.

Owls Head:

After the boats were secured on the cars, we found ways to fill the afternoon by sightseeing to Owls Head Light about 25 minutes North. En route at the small bridge at Balllyhec Cove, we couldn’t help but noticed five kayaker’s wind-stranded along a “protected portion” of the river. They appeared to be a class or with a guide, thank goodness, but at first they made no progress at all. They were paddling tiredly and that caused alarm. Finally, the instructor got them safely to shore. So our action was not needed and we drove on.

At Owls Head State beach, the surf was crashing on a shore break. Perhaps in more moderate conditions this point would be useful for practice surf entries or exits.

At Owls Head Harbor, we met two kayaker’s just pulling out after staying the night at Monroe Island (MITA). One introduced herself as a Kayak instructor working for LL. Bean. They were knowledgeable about the area and passed on advice about Muscle Ridge. They had just landed after an unsuccessful attempt at a seven-mile crossing to Vinalhaven. Their goal was to camp a night on Green Island. But early into their crossing they were forced to turn back upon encountering large swells and strong winds. Smart decision, I thought.

We finally mae it to The Lighthouse. It was indeed a spectacular finish to a good day. The Owlshead light lies high on a cliff with panoramic views of Vinalhaven Isle far across the channel.

Sunday morning started sunny with only a gentle breeze about 7 or 8 knots. The marine forecast called for increased winds by noon of 10 to 20 knots with gusts. With our luck the 20 knots figure was more likely to occur. I quickly had flashbacks of the turbulence experienced yesterday. This greatly influenced the direction of our intended course. Navigation not only means knowing where you are but also choosing a safe, efficient route to your destination. Under these circumstances, the key was to plot a course that factored in current, tide and wind force.

As smartly as possible we launched at 9:00 from our campsite, but only after a delicious breakfast at “Farmers” restaurant at Tenants Harbor. We knew where our priorities lie- our stomachs. I can still taste those fantastic Belgium waffles!

After a beach launch we first passed nearby Tommy Island on a course that took us along the coast. On the rocks just beyond Tommy two harbor seals were already out sunning. We moved calmly around and on toward Spruce Head, down the coast to the south, thus positioning for the expected channel currents or strong winds. We crossed the channel just south of the No.7 Channel Buoy, approximately a ¼ mile off Spruce Head Point, against a very gentle two-foot swell. We picked up only a small chop passing Hurricane Ledge and headed mid-point to Graffam Island. As a bonus the selected route also kept our kayaks pointing into oncoming waves as well thus compensating for expected tides and conditions.

Approaching Graffam’s shoreline there is a distinct “gut” resembling a “V” from a distance. This is on the middle portion of the island and it is a noticeably convenient landmark to take a good bearing. Two Bush Lighthouse is seen through the far side of the gut. Two Bush Island was in the distance a mile or so Southeast, and in the morning haze and resembled a gray cathedral. I could not resist a wonderful photo opt.

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The Passage and Two Bush Islands

The Stunning Southern Islands.

As stated we arrived at the “V” and explored first the southern tip of the large island called Graffam. We then returned to our bearing and proceded to go between this gut after waiting a few minutes for the incoming tide. We made our way through the passage which is accessible only by kayak just past mid-tide. Like Alice in Wonderland, the passage lead to a large channel heading South toward Pleasant Island. Now three beautiful spruce islands were in our immediate view.

We pulled in for a break on a sandy beach and looked over the scenery. The lay of these three pretty islands reminded me of a triangle consisting of connecting islands at each point. Graffam was the first point in a triangle, Hewett Island the second to the left and Pleasant Island to the front (south). We spent a delightful hour playing about and darting among these pearls. The views were splendid. It may be the best scenery I’ve experienced in Maine. We were in paradise?

We slalomed our kayaks like skiers going through ledges and outcrops. We saw fine sandy beaches and neat pocket coves and kept repeating “No boat traffic! No boat traffic! We were breathless among this natural beauty.

With an urge to explore we reluctantly left this appealing area and paddled through another gut, the one between Flag and Hewett Islands. While in this passage, five adorable seals were seen swimming in the very clear water. Icing on the cake, we thought! Shortly it would get even better with act two.

We paddled up the shoreline (North) staying east of Flag Island due to several of many ledges. The coastline of South Thomaston was in the distance. Off the rocks, out in the water an interesting flock of black and white stocky ducks floated. Were they Puffins? I quickly remembered my paddle out to see the Puffins’ of Eastern Egg Rock, only a month or so before. False alarm. Yes, these birds had a few similarities including the black and white plumage and orange beaks, but on closer inspection we found these colorful ducks to be the King or Common Eider.

Around noon we paddled to an area called the Clam Ledges. The ledges here resemble a long curve like a crescent moon. Dix Island was in the back ground to the north. It was at this location, I first encountered the seals. I first saw their little black heads in the middle of a bay. I slowly allowed my kayak to drift.

I prefer to drift toward seals and diligently follow MITA advice regarding distance and the need to remain calm. MITA recommends remaining about 100 feet away. I drifted near the pack as they just looked at me from a distance of about 80 feet off. The group slowly began to disperse but did not act as if disturbed. Within seconds they formed a large semicircle in front of my kayak. I knew to drift no further. I heard their breathing and saw their whiskers. I did not wish to appear threatening so I made no sudden motion. I got out my camera and took the rest of my roll of film. Elated, it was a pure joy to have them nearby pleasantly swimming. So close that in fact, the clicking of the camera and the rewinding of the film was definitely intriguing to the seals. While they did not swim right up one ventured about 30 feet making a cameo shot as if to greet me. Of course, I was out of film by then. Later, the other photos weren’t half -bad, though.

This tack took us to the passage between Hewett and Andrews Island. Now two-thirds up Muscle Ridge Isles, North were the Islands of Dix, High, and Andrews. I decided to leave those islands for another day as winds were starting to misbehave. Further, a distinct current was creating a northern drift off course. Realizing what the situation could become, if winds really rose, we promptly but reluctantly again, reversed and back-paddled toward our bearing point in front of Hewett Island. It was a smart move.

In minutes the winds rose. We again crossed using the proximity of marker buoy #7, and again took waves beating at our bow. The current drifted our little boats clearly ¾ of a mile north. We had adjusted well and steered just past Tommy Island.

Winds were breezy, whitecaps forming as we approached the shore of Watermen Beach or the campsite to end our trip. What a hoot of a paddle, I thought!

I can not wait to return to this paradise. Just remember, for an enjoyable trip if winds are breezy, check the currents and plan on a coastal run against the wind, before selecting your desired crossing. Fair paddling!

 


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