Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Paddle Trip: Choate Island and Crane Beach (Essex Bay)

Recently, my paddling co-conspirator Tim (see my post An Unexpected Adventure) and I enjoyed a leisurely 3 hour tour around Choate Island (formerly known as Hog Island) in Essex Bay (see my post Essex Bay - A Northeast Massachusetts Gem). This is an area I revisit regularly due to its shear beauty and kayak friendly (aside from parking options) conditions. You'd be hard pressed to locate a better kayak touring location than this area. It's big enough to offer wide ranging trip options, has plenty of protected back waters to keep you out of the power boat lanes, is abundant with wildlife, and has a few spots to stop and stretch your legs. Every time I paddle here, I seem to encounter something new, and this paddle trip was no exception.
Long Island, Essex view
Looking East toward Crane Beach from Long Island 

We left from Conomo Point in Essex as we typically do. The tide was low, but inbound. This rendered the beach, from where we often launch, far from any water - other than small creeks formed in the muddy bottom. We opted to try another launch point over the hill near Clammer's Beach that was closer to the water with more gravel than mud. The few parking spots there are designated for resident sticker parking, but one spot was available to temporarily park and offload the boats. Tim stayed with them while I drove my truck back to park beyond the "resident sticker only" parking sign on Conomo Point Road. I jogged the 1/4 mile back to the beach, and we were able to get on the water by about 10:00am. The morning breeze was off the ocean, and felt cool and refreshing as we paddled around the south side of Dilly Island, and angled toward deeper waters. We hit a shallow patch, and had to drag the 'yaks 30 feet or so, but found water deep enough for our paddles as we headed east along Dilly Island and into the deeper channel that clammers use for powering their outboards out to the clam flats. We saw 2 clammers raking hard, nearly knee deep in the mud wearing their rubber boots and with backs bent to drag clam rakes. A white, long legged wading bird, which I took to be some king of heron, and may have been, more specifically, a Great Egret, stalked through the shallows to our left eyeing minnows for breakfast.

Deeper water increased our paddling speed, and we rapidly left Dilly Island behind, proceeding to the back side (west side) of Crane Beach. At full low tide, which this was approximately, the deep water is confined to a channel running parallel to Crane Beach, which descends steeply into the water here, contrasted to the gradual grade decline on the ocean side. The currents can be strong in this channel, and a paddler should pay attention. A couple of power boats were carrying a few fishermen each, who were casting for stripers in the deeper water. We kept to the shallower side of the channel, and paddled among some pleasure boats that were anchored in what I guessed was about 10'-12' of depth. 2 guys in waders were hip deep in water closer to the nearby island, and looked like they were fly casting. Soon after we passed them, we made our way to the gravel beach next to the dock on Long Island - which runs adjacent to Choate Island. I have heard the dock was upgraded (around 1995) for delivering equipment and personnel used to film the movie The Crucible. Now, the islands (dock included) are the property of the the non-profit Trustees of Reservations, who's mission is to "care for more than 100 special places - nearly 25,000 acres - all around Massachusetts" 

Dock at Choate Island
The dock at Long Island

After a brief respite on the beach near the dock - to take some pictures and stretch our legs, we climbed back into the 'yaks and paddled across the channel again to the Crane Beach side - to check out the dock there, and saw another heron - this time a Great Blue Heron, stroking its huge wings along the shore in seemingly slow motion. The blue color of its wing feathers was striking. We crossed the channel one more time, and headed toward the west side of Choate Island. The tide was well inbound now, and the marsh creeks behind the island were deep enough to afford smooth paddling for the most part. I noticed a platform installed to encourage the nesting of Osprey. This one had a nest on it (the birds come back to the same nest location year after year, but a nest does not necessarily mean birds are currently using it). A few minutes later, I heard the telltale call of an an Osprey, and saw one land to roost in a tall pine tree on the hill near the west side of the island. I always enjoy seeing these raptors - it's a good sign of the overall health of the local environment; they survive on fish as their primary food source.  

Hilltop on Choate Island
The hilltop on Choate Island

We paddled through the marsh creek west of Choate Island and back south toward the Essex River mouth. It was here that we had the most unusual encounter of the day. As we moved along the shore of Corn Island and Dilly Island (this time on its north side), I heard a splash to my left and caught the last of some white water out of the corner of my eye. At first, I thought it had been some kind of a wave, but I quickly realized the minimal wind chop was not nearly big enough to break, and it had to be something else. Then, I thought something must have breached the water. What I had seen out of the corner of my eye, though, made too big of a splash to be a striped bass. I asked Tim if he saw anything, but he hadn't. Just then, as I looked past Tim farther into the river, I saw the shiny black head of a seal. "It must have been that seal", I said, pointing Tim's gaze in its direction. We watched the seal as it watched us back. Then, its shiny head slipped under the surface. Half a minute later, Tim and I both saw another splash - this time an explosion of fish leaping free of the water to escape the pursuing seal. I had never seen a seal feeding like this, and it was a revelation. Tim glided over to the area where the fish had leaped into the air, and soon after, another watery explosion of fish happened not more than 12 feet from him. This repeated a couple more times until a motor boat approached and the seal spooked. This was a surprising highlight of our paddle, and another example of how nature can show you something new every time you look. 

By the time we got back to Conomo Point, the tide had risen sufficiently to land at the usual beach spot on the south side of the point - which made for a slightly shorter walk back to my truck. This paddle was everything a relaxed kayaking trip should be: fresh air, beautiful surroundings, and a nature show to cap it off.

I still think the town of Essex is missing an economic opportunity by not having easier kayaking access to Essex Bay, but maybe that's what keeps it so special. I, for one, will continue putting in the work to get in the water there, and to enjoy all that it has to offer.

- TB on the Water                                        

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Surf: NH Summer Surfing Redeemed (sort of)

OK, so anyone who read my rant Why New Hampshire Summer Surfing Sucks knows that in June I swore I wouldn't hit the waves again until the fall. Well, I caved (what can I say? My wave jones got the better of me 😏). I recently took a couple of cracks at catching some waves, with mixed results. My first try (about a week ago) was on a sunny day with plenty of bathers in the water, lots of board surfers (many of whom do not practice surf etiquette - even among themselves), and various other yahoos playing in the surf (I actually saw one guy trying to ride waves with a giant inflatable lobster 😒). I was careful to stay out of the "no surfing" zone, which has been made much more identifiable at my local break by signs with arrows designating where the surfers are not allowed (this was probably done more for the benefit of non-surfers, as surfers usually understand the flags alone). Of course, this doesn't mean any non-surfers are going to pay attention to the signs.They're not excluded, by any means, from the "surfing allowed" areas, but they should be aware of the risks. From my observations, they typically aren't. I had to pull off many waves to avoid running into bather's heads bobbing in the water. That said, I knew ahead of time this would be the scenario, so I made the best of it, and managed to catch a few decent shore break waves.

Walden Milo waveski
The author surfing his Walden "Milo" earlier in the season

My second attempt was much more successful. Conditions were aligned such that everything was in the surfer's favor. The tide was inbound at dawn, with a few hours left before high tide. The skies were overcast, so beach attendance was minimal - especially that early in the morning. The waves were a little better than typical for this time of year, and some were bigger than had been forecast. I wore my full 3|2 wetsuit, which would have been too hot if the sun was out, but was perfection with the low 60's F water temperature. The water was at that perfectly refreshing temperature that makes you glad to be alive, and glad to be in the waves. The only down side relative to fall conditions was that it was a Saturday, and the waves were crowded. They will be much less crowded as water temperatures cool in October and November. In the section I was surfing, though, everybody seemed to click in that wordless understanding that allows surfers to share waves and not hurt each other. Etiquette was mostly followed, and over the hours, we each got the feel for what the strange but increasingly familiar faces gliding past would do. It's also good to re-establish my waveski (see my post What's That Thing Called?) in the lineup and to show fellow surfers that I generally know what I'm doing, and that I belong there. By about 10:00, though, I was ready to call it quits as the late risers paddled out, and I felt like I was practically rubbing shoulders with the "boardies".  

I caught a bunch of decent shore breakers that day, both lefts and rights. The rides weren't exceptionally long, as the waves were closing out faster than I would have liked. It took a little while for them to clean up too. They were pretty choppy and difficult to position at first. They cleaned up a bit as the tide rolled in and the light came up, which was welcome. I was particularly happy with a left where I was barely hanging on to the steep face, and actually found myself in a mini-curl before it closed out. I was sure I was headed for a tumble as I held my rail edge just onto the wave face, but I managed to hold it together and slide out the end and over the shoulder. A waveski can be a lot like riding in a go-cart; you're so close to the surface, it increases your perception of the speed you're going. I mentioned this to a friendly dread-locked board surfer who asked me about the 'ski - I get a lot of interest in the busier warm water months. Some of these surfers haven't seen me before. During the cold water months, I get a lot of "hello"s from more hard core surfers who recognize me.  

All in all, I felt much better about summertime conditions in the local waves - but again, this was a specific and unusual situation. For there to be little in the way of beach attendance on a Saturday in August is a happenstance that is few and far between in these parts.

I'm still looking forward to watching ducks fly south as I wait for the next set, but for now, I feel better about New Hampshire summer surfing (except for the inflatable lobster - really? 🙈).

- TB on the Water



Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Travel: Bar Harbor - Gateway to Outdoor Adventure

Bar Harbor, Maine and the surrounding geography are too big of a subject for one post, so I will likely revisit this subject again in the future. For now, I'd like to focus on the town of Bar Harbor itself, and the many opportunities it presents for folks wanting to kayak the pristine waters of Frenchman Bay or other nearby waters, or to hike, bike, fish, rockclimb, ride on horseback...a near endless list of outdoor activities. 
Bar Harbor, Frenchman Bay, and the Porcupine Islands
Bar Harbor and Frenchman Bay 

Bar Harbor is the largest town (or village, as the case may be) on Mt. Desert (pron. DEsert or deSERT - either way is acceptable) Island. Mt. Desert Island is home to Acadia National Park, the oldest national park east of the Mississippi. There are several areas that permit boating within the park, which should include kayaking. However, these same areas do not necessarily permit paddle boarding, kite surfing, etc. - so double check with park officials before planning an in-park kayaking trip. You will probably want a wheeled kayak cart with all terrain tires to get your 'yak to the launch point, as parking lots are often not immediately adjacent to the water's edge. You may have to travel via a short trail to get to the water. I personally have not yet paddled within park boundaries, but my inclination is that places like Long Pond and Echo Lake would be prime candidates. Outside the park and surrounding Mt. Desert Island are ocean waters including Frenchman Bay, Eastern Bay, and Somes Sound (once considered a fjord, but now called a fjard). These areas offer a multitude of kayaking trip possibilities, from beginner to advanced - so plan your trip relative to your experience level (see my post Where Should I Paddle? - advice on planning your adventure), or consider joining one of the tours offered by the local kayaking tour businesses. 

The town of Bar Harbor, as the largest populated area on the island, is a hub for all island activities. It's a great place to start when planning a trip. Some of the island locals will lament the summertime influx of tourists that can cause traffic back-ups in town and a less than sedate atmosphere. However, they also bring a lot of commerce with them that supports local retail, restaurants, and recreation opportunities. If a touristy atmosphere drives you crazy, consider visiting in the spring, or better yet, the fall - when the town is a bit quieter than during the height of summer. Alternatively, you can stay outside of Bar Harbor and head in to town to join a kayaking tour, hop on a boat, rent bikes, etc. The Island Explorer bus line offers shuttle routes to many areas on the island. Accommodations range from campgrounds to cabins to hotels, and sometimes come with package deals that include recreational activities. Food offerings range from local markets and lobster pounds where you can find excellent products to cook yourself, to roadside casual spots, and all the way to upscale dining. 

The best aspect of Bar Harbor and Mt. Desert Island is the huge variety of things to do, especially in regards to recreation and the outdoors, within a fairly compact geographical area. You can drive across the island in 30-45 minutes, depending on which route you take. The worst part is how long it can take to get there. From my home in northeastern Massachusetts, it's a 6 hour drive if I stick to Rt.95 north to Augusta, then drive east on Rt.3 to Belfast, then coastal Rt.1 north to Ellsworth, then Rt.3 again - this time southeast onto the island. Alternatively, Rt.1 can be driven for a longer stretch with stops available in several of the mid-coast Maine towns like Rockland and Camden. There is an airport, the Hancock County - Bar Harbor Airport, that offers flights via Cape Air, Pen Air, and Jet Blue. I've never used these carriers, so make sure to research flight options thoroughly if this interests you. A location that requires a bit of a journey, even for New Englanders like myself, can be a good thing. It forces you to leave your day to day life behind and encourages you to optimize your visit once you get there. This can result in a memorable trip. Do your research, plan thoroughly, leave some space and time for spontaneous trip alterations, have back-ups in case of inclement weather, give yourself plenty of time to get there...then enjoy. If you haven't been there before, I guarantee you will want to go back. If you have, then you know what I mean. 

For kayak tours (which I recommend for the less experienced - one of my earliest paddles was on one of these) you can find Acadia Kayak ToursCoastal Kayaking Tours, and Aquaterra Adventures right in Bar Harbor. There are additional kayak touring companies located elsewhere on the island. If you want to paddle independently, you can rent a kayak which can be dropped at a launch point by the rental company. If you bring your own kayak, make sure you have it fully secured for the long drive, that you will be able to park your vehicle comfortably with your kayak(s) loaded, and that you have fully researched the local paddling conditions. Paddling independently in a strange area can be more risky than going on a tour, so talk to the local experts at the rental companies and ask as many questions as you can. Buy a map, if they have one, to compensate them for their advice. Remember, Maine waters are c-c-cold , so wear appropriate clothing (see my post 8 Tips for Dressing Right for Your Kayaking Adventure).

Sand Beach, Acadia National Park
Sand Beach, Acadia from a mountain top

Whether you plan on lazily relaxing in Bar Harbor, paddling the local waters, or climbing a mountain, you will enjoy your visit and marvel at the natural beauty of the place. Acadia National Park is diminutive by the standards of the vast parks of the West, but it is nonetheless remarkable. This area showcases coastal Maine in all its glory, and gives visitors the opportunity to explore its natural wonders, its fresh seafood, its history, and its hospitality - and I haven't yet mentioned the fresh local beer for aficionados (like myself 😋), with brewers like Atlantic Brewing, and Jack Russell's Steak House & Brewery  located right on the island. A cold local beer and some fresh shucked oysters are my little piece of heaven when I'm there.  

Do yourself a favor, if you haven't visited Bar Harbor and Mt. Desert Island, do so as soon as possible. If you have, go back for more. You'll thank me.  

- TB on the Water   





Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Advice: Please, Stop the Kayaking Deaths! (proper risk management)

I have written about safety previously in my post Safety is a Mindset, but I will continue to revisit this topic, as I consider any kayaking related death a tragedy, and possibly preventable. The kayak news feeds I follow are filled with stories of deaths, rescues, injuries, etc. I know, some of this is the nature of "news" itself - if it bleeds, it leads. People are attracted to stories of kayaking deaths the same way we like to read about shark attacks. We can afford to be frightened from a safe distance. That said, there are some trends occurring that I believe could increase the risk of more deaths and injuries. According to a 2016 report from the market research firm NPD, recreational kayak sales increased by double digit percentages during the period of 2014-2016. I wrote about the increasing sale of cheaply made and designed "discount" kayaks in my post The "Kmart Kayaker" - Why More People Are Dying from Paddle Sports . Put these trends together: more kayaks sold, more cheap kayaks purchased - you can postulate a reasonable assumption that many of these kayaks are purchased by inexperienced, possibly out of shape, and possibly uneducated kayakers. 

Experienced kayakers are not immune to risk either, and that is why I wanted to speak more philosophically about the concept of risk assessment, management and mitigation. I am in the process of reading (for the second time - and well worth it) a book entitled Antifragile written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb., formerly a derivatives trader and risk analysis professional on Wall Street. I encourage anyone to read this book. It is dense and sometimes confounding, but challenging to one's view of risk and the benefits of taking risks. Taleb describes a good risk as being one where the downside is known and limited, but the upside is unknown and unlimited. When I read stories of kayaking deaths and injuries, I often identify the opposite. Folks seem to take enormous risks with their safety for what is probably a limited upside. Granted, you may meet the love of your life on a paddle trip, or the physical activity might have a ripple affect on your health and fitness practices and stave off a chronic disease, both of which have an enormous potential upside. Let's face it, though - most kayak trips are meant to provide exercise, enjoyment, exploration, and possibly adventure. While the amounts of each available on a given trip would be hard to quantify, it is not unrealistic to say they are somewhat known and limited. The downside to an improperly planned trip is unlimited - it's death, and all of the heartache, disruption, and pain that it could bring to your loved ones.
USCG rescue
Don't be the guy getting dragged

So, what to do - avoid kayaking? Stay out of the water? Not for me. As the saying goes "I could get hit by a bus tomorrow". Random events are just that - random, and all risk cannot (and should not, in my opinion) be avoided. However, risk can be assessed and mitigated. Is it really worth the experience of solo paddling to that offshore island in February to risk dying? Apparently, for one New Hampshire kayaker it was: story here . For me, it wouldn't be. Look, people are going to die kayaking. They're also going to die falling down a flight of stairs. Not to linger too long on a morbid subject, but I'd rather die in the midst of a supreme adventure then waste away in a nursing home. That said, the upside to that adventure better have damn well been worth it. Because the suffering of my loved ones would be the cost. 

Read every kayak safety article you can. Take a water rescue class. Make sure you have the right equipment - and possibly more than one of everything. Think of the Navy Seal mantra "two is one and one is none" - those guys know how to mitigate risk. Research where you paddle. Read Safety is a Mindset. Wear your PFD. Look at my About me page - I wear a PFD always when paddling my kayak, and a helmet when surfing my waveski. Be honest with yourself about your fitness and experience level.

Do yourself, your loved ones, emergency rescue personnel, and the kayaking community a favor. Properly consider, assess, and mitigate your risk. That way, you'll enjoy kayaking for a long time to come.

- TB on the Water



Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Story: Why I Love the Ocean (a remembrance)

Recently, I went to the beach with my wife and her friend, and spent a few hours lounging on the sand and, primarily, swimming in the relatively warm (65° F is warm for these parts) late July water.There were actually waves big enough to surf, but I'm taking a break from surfing (see my post Why New Hampshire Summer Surfing Sucks) for a bit, and it was fun just to play in the waves and body surf like I did when I was a kid, while my wife and her friend waded in the shallows and talked. I was feeling quite nostalgic as I plunged under the white foam, and tried to catch waves for a ride. I was in the water for a long time, and my mind wandered back to summer days of my youth when I would spend seemingly endless hours in the water at beaches just south of where we currently were. On the drive home, I had a clear vision of a memory that has surfaced from time to time of my sister Debbie, and the summer of 1973.

In the summer of 1973, my father rented an apartment for a week in a ramshackle cottage close to the sand at Salisbury Beach , Massachusetts - just south of the New Hampshire border. It was a new adventure for us. I was 7 years old at the time, and hadn't yet started 2nd grade. I'm sure I had visited the beach at some point on a day trip with my mother, but this was certainly the first time we would be there for days at a stretch. The cottage had a resident basset hound who, although harmless, would howl into the air at us every time we entered the yard through its rickety gate, his clownish ears nearly touching the ground. We showered in a wooden shed fed by a sun warmed water tank on its roof - meant for washing off beach sand, but my parents had us use it even in the cold mornings. I remember the crickets that lived under its wood slat floor. For the week, I was in another world. I played in the sand, splashed in the ocean, ate Kentucky Fried Chicken (a lavish treat for us in those days), and a couple of times was allowed to play at the carnival-like Salisbury center - a few streets populated with arcades, pin ball machines, skee ball, an old wooden roller coaster, and a beach side ferris wheel. When I was tired of the beach, I would chase grass hoppers in the dune grass of the yard.

I wasn't fully aware of the reason my father rented that cottage apartment, but I knew it had something to do with my sister Debbie, who suffered from cystic fibrosis - a genetically inherited disease that attacks and degrades the lungs, pancreas, and other organs. Debbie had wanted to be at the beach. She probably didn't count on getting stuck at the top of the ferris wheel for 20 minutes, which happened once. She might not have counted on, although I would imagine she had some notion, this being her one and only stay at the beach. She died the following winter in February of 1974 at the age of 17. We were at this ramshackle cottage in this run down beach side town, because it was all my father could afford - his being awash in medical bills and the costs of raising 4 other children. He must have known this was the time to do what he could to make his daughter happy, because time was running out.

The memory I have of Debbie from that week, aside from the ferris wheel incident, that stays with me the longest, and resurfaces in dreams and on days like my recent beach visit, is of me and her in the water together. This was unusual, because Debbie wore a  trach (pronounced "trake") - a tube that was inserted through a hole in her throat to assist with breathing. This made water perilous, because any water that entered through this tube would drain straight into her lungs. A year before our beach trip, my father had installed a small above ground pool in our backyard that Debbie loved to go in. She had to stay above water, and if I was in the pool with her, I was admonished not to splash. This was the ocean, though, and we were in it together - Debbie leading me into water deeper than where my feet could touch the bottom. I remember it being the morning, because it was quiet. I remember the water was calm, with gently rolling swells Debbie lifted me over as they passed us. I remember being afraid at first to be in water deeper than I could stand in (I was only 7) but I also remember trusting my sister to keep me safe. The morning sun shimmered on the calm water, and I was in my sister's arms. 

I have never lived more than an hour's drive from the ocean. Even when I lived for a brief period in southern California, and climbed on a surf board for the first time at Doheny State Beach, it was only a short ride back to Mission Viejo, my temporary home. The ocean has always been somehow in my veins. You could trace that back to the yearly cottage rentals that became a tradition for our family after the first stay with Debbie. You could trace it back to the hours I spent frolicking in the surf or hunting for crabs at low tide. Later, when I took up kayaking and waveski surfing, I had even more reason to to be near, and in, the ocean.

I trace it back to the memory of the calm water, the shining sun, and my sister's arms holding me tight.

- TB on the Water