Monday, July 21, 2014

Biking Back to Mid-Coast Maine: New Meadows and Boothbay

Except for a day in Old Orchard Beach and a ride the next day up through Portland to Freeport, we've mostly been travelling inland through southern Maine.  Two weeks into the trip we finally came to the Coast of Maine to stay for a while -- 7 weeks in fact, during which we will be spending every night just yards from tidewater, with a canoe or kayaks always at hand.

Six of these seven weeks will be in week-long stays at cabins, but our return to the coast began with a 2-night stay at the New Meadows River Cottages and another grand adventure by canoe. 

The New Meadows is quite a small river, when it is just a river -- less than five miles of it fresh water.  It then broadens to a 3-mile-long brackish salt pond behind a reversing falls.  Maine has many of these, most of them natural but many man-made, where a constriction causes the incoming tide to look like a waterfall flowing upstream, only to reverse and flow seaward as the tide ebbs.  Here is a photo of one we passed two years ago on our prior bike trip along the Maine coast.

Our expedition down the New Meadows began just below the reversing falls, at Seaspray Kayaking across the street from our cabin, a place that rents canoes (our preference) as well as kayaks.  When he planned the stay, Jeff originally thought we would spend the day in an easy paddle on the salt pond, but 3 circumstances arose to change our plans.  First, there was not any easy portage path.  Second, the wind and tide were both headed downstream.  The third and decisive point was that we had gained strength and confidence in our occasional paddling over the past two weeks.  We convinced the rental shop owner that we had the skills and equipment to do it (in particular, nautical charts of the whole route printed out before we left Seattle, a waterproof map case, and dry bags for spare clothes should we get a dunking), and he sent us off on a12-mile seaward expedition to the Sebasco Harbor Resort, where Seaspray has a satellite operation.  This is almost always a guided tour for multiple boats for them, so we must have been pretty convincing.

Forget what you think a "river" is when you get to Mid-Coast Maine.  The last fifteen miles of the New Meadows, and of many others, is actually a tidal estuary, long and sometimes quite wide.  It started easily enough, the first two miles in a channel generally two to three times the width of Seattle's Ship Canal and with a 6 knot wind at our backs.  Without great effort we moved along at 4 knots.  Hey, this is going to be easy!  The river then widened to a half-mile across but navigation was easy by simply following one shore.  At the half-way point the New Meadows widened to a mile across, but we found a pocket beach on an island right in the center and pulled up to enjoy the picnic Louise had packed.  Jeff even took some time to do one of his beloved sudokus.

As we continued, the course of the "river" was less and less obvious without those nautical charts and the knowledge Jeff had acquired this past Spring of how to fully interpret them.  It was also reassuring that we had a compass if the landmarks or channel buoys became unclear.

At last we came to Winnegance Bay, which brought, as they say, good news and bad news.  To the good was the first appearance, in the photo just above, of the outlet to the open ocean.  Way-finding would now be much clearer.  The ledger was balanced, however, further to the bad news side.  As we got closer to the ocean, a quarter mile past that last photo, the north wind that had pushed us along was overcome by an onshore wind generated locally by air over the cold ocean rushing inland to supplant air warmed by the mid-day sun on the dark green landscape around us.  Winnegance Bay itself is a mile and a half long and the same wide, and the only logical way across was through the center, far, far from land.  Furthermore, the channel deepened to over 100' in places, and the deep ebbing tide and inflowing air created quite a bit of chop.  It took an hour to cross, during which we had our hands full keeping forward progress. 

But cross it we did, and at last found calmer water near the shore where we could safely take the camera out of its dry bag to capture more of the approaching ocean and the receding land, now reduced to small offshore islands. 

As we got closer to our destination the paddling got better still as we took a narrow channel behind the shelter of several oblong islands.  The return to shallower and calmer water also brought the colorful and helpful company of lobster buoys, such as these near the small lobstering community of Sebasco.  We've become quite attached to their place in the Maine coastal landscape, both for their bright cheerfulness and for their reassurance of forward progress as we paddle along, something we found so hard to measure when we were far from shore in the middle of Winnegance Bay. 

We'll close with a shot from the shore of Sebasco Harbor Resort's lighthouse-like lodge looking out to the sea.  We started our expedition at high tide, and as you can see it's now close to low.  We have another stay at the New Meadows River Cottages coming up in August, coinciding with an incoming tide.  Hopefully wind will join tide on that occasion to give us an easier opportunity of doing this trip northward and up the river, with a car shuttle at the start rather than the end of the day.  Stay tuned.

To reach our next destination we had to cycle across the wide Kennebec River at Bath.  As we rode our tandem  across on a wide bike path, we noticed something odd on the nearby railroad bridge, odd that is in addition to the fact that the roadway that once formed the upper level of the bridge had been disconnected at both ends when our own bridge was built.  If you look closely at the upper left-hand side of the bridge, can you see it?  It's an osprey nest, perhaps the only one in the world that moves up and down through the day!  The bridge was up when first we saw it and put the camera on telephoto, but just before we moved on the bridge came down and we had the rare chance to look down on an osprey nest!  During the whole time we were there, by the way, the dutiful spouse stood guard from a nearby bridge cable.

One more stop was necessary, at Red's Lobster Shack in Wiscasset.  Of the several dozen establishments that all offer, with absolute assurance, "the best lobster roll in Maine," Red's wins more Google hits than most.  But really, how do you rank-order versions of a menu item with so few variables: fresh lobster, a lightly grilled bun, and just a touch if either butter or mayonnaise?  Well, as PT Barnum discovered to his pleasure and profit, if you form a line people will assume it's worth getting on it, and so we stood for 45 minutes for the privilege of saying we had a lobster roll at the famed Red's.  We can assure you that Red is right to claim that "there's more than one lobster in every lobster roll" at his establishment.

At last we reached our first week-long cabin, and what a cabin it was!  Built many decades ago for a Wall Steet lawyer and owned now for over three decades by a retired Ohio lawyer and his wife, "Moot Point" is a treasure.  It's fifty yards down a hill on a footpath, however, and the owners (who are a good bit older than us) were lucky enough a few years back to purchase a house across the street that offers easy access and more modern amenities.  They now rent out Moot Point for most of the summer, save the weeks when members of the next two generations come for a week or two.  That, indeed, is the situation at most if not all the cottages we will be staying at, luckily for us and other visitors to Maine.  There are several resorts and timeshare communities along the Maine coast, but the vast majority of those who like us come for more than a few nights rent cabins during the brief High Season of late June to Labor Day or so, with the owners using them just before or after the rush.

Moot Point is another fifty yards uphill from the water, but there is a floating dock down there that we could pull the canoe onto when we weren't out boating.  When we first arrived the canoe was up in the owner's garage, but he very kindly offered to put it in the back of his Honda Odyssey, the lift gate open, and to drive us a mile to an easy put-in, where Louise is tying down our dry bags before we launch.  At the end of the week we reversed the process, except to be dropped off that time at little Appalachee Pond where most of his renters go paddling with it.  It's a gorgeous little pond but tiny, fully explored in under half an hour, after which we portaged the lightweight canoe 200 yards back to the garage.

Each Saturday this summer we bike from cabin to cabin, giving us up to six days for canoeing.  At Moot Point we got out five times on saltwater before dipping the canoe in Appalachee Pond at the end of the week.  The cabin was near the back portion of Linekin Bay, an oval roughly a mile wide and three miles long that opens to the Atlantic at the SW end.  We tried three times to paddle out beyond that opening, but never made it.  Two things stopped us.  First was the prevailing wind, which we discovered is from the SW.  Linekin Bay and virtually every other bay and riverine estuary in Mid-Coast Maine is lined up NE-SW!  In short, no matter where you are, the wind is likely to come at you if you head seaward.  The second issue was related -- if you succeed in making progress seaward, there are fewer and fewer islands and peninsulas ahead of you breaking up wind and waves, so both become stronger.  Push on a bit more, and you start to get sea swell, raising and lowering your boat significantly.  Any time there was wind there was chop, those little waves that are about a foot apart from crest to crest.  Sea swell crests are several yards apart, and you have to be on or near the ocean generally to encounter it.  On the high seas, swell can be high enough to intimidate large ships.  Suffice it to say that in a canoe, anything much beyond two feet up and down is moving the needle well beyond "amusing" and even "exciting" to a zone we're not interested in.

That said, there was plenty to see in Linekin Bay.  As the proud owners of the Little Red Tandem, we were very pleased to meet its second cousin once removed, "Little Red Boat."

We saw many other boats, but 95% of the ones in motion were lobster boats.  At almost any hour of daylight from dawn to late afternoon, there was at least one boat checking and/or setting traps in this one bay.  Some captains throw the used bait overboard and replace it with fresh as they check and reset traps -- you can identify those boats from the flocks of eager gulls in constant motion around them.

The process is fairly simple, and we'll let the Robin Lyn show us.  First, the captain finds one of his distinctively colored lobster buoys (we've added a shot of Little Red posing with a few to illustrate just a few possible color schemes).  He grabs the line with a gaff, then throws the line onto a winch, hits "up," and soon the trap is next to his gunwale.  As the shot of the Danny & Chad II illustrates, the winch is always on the starboard side, with a side panel on the port side to give a little wind protection when the weather gets "heavy."  Back on the Robin Lyn, they've opened the trap and probably tossed the majority of its critters back in the ocean: crabs and lobsters that are below minimum size, and females that are egg-bearing (side-note: the first lobsterman who finds a female with eggs cuts a notch in the tail so that she will be easily recognized as not a "keeper" for the rest of her life -- (pretty good life insurance, eh?)). 

Many of the hauls yield nothing, so we were surprised one day when Jeff watched a lobsterman with our binoculars and saw him toss four "keepers" into the day's catch, all from one trap.  The trap is then re-baited and dropped overboard.  It will generally sit there 3-4 days before it is checked again.

Though far less numerous than lobstermen, we were also intrigued by another group of residents, ospreys.  We saw two nests, one built by ospreys on top of a platform meant to attract them to do so, and another in an old snag.  They truly are beautiful birds to watch in flight.  And when we had oohed and aahed at all the attractive seaside houses, impressive staircases or unusual viewing platforms, well there was always seaweed to admire!  With a tide range in this area of 8-11 feet from low to high, there can be pretty impressive displays at low tide!

Moot Point is closer to town than any of our other cottages this summer, 2 miles from the quaint town of Boothbay Harbor and 2 1/2 from a large supermarket.  The area is one of the more scenic and (not surprisingly) wealthier areas on the Maine coast, and local benefactors have established over a dozen nature preserves in the area.  We got out for three 20-mile bike rides, and checked out two of the preserves on the third ride.  These were good rides to do with no luggage on the bike.  This area is hilly!  But there were enough places where the road brought you some great views that it was certainly worth the effort. 

At the south end of Southport Island we photographed a small island reached only by boat.  The owner of Moot Point told us that the charming red house there was built for the Wicked Witch of the West -- or more precisely, for the actress who portrayed her.  Even further offshore was Cuckold's Light, which just opened as a B&B.  It sounded like an interesting story might be lurking there, but it turns out it is convoluted.  The short version is that the lighthouse borrowed its name from a nearby shoal which borrowed its name from a place in England, and that place (down the Thames a ways from London) was named for a chap who was indeed cuckolded, by King John no less.

The two nature preserves were also worth the stops.  At one we picnicked on a bench facing a quiet side channel, at another to views across the wide Sheepscot River.  We also looked across a small channel to a very grand but motionless sailing vessel, and then out on the Sheepscot to a more modest one that was doing rather well with just his jibs'l out.  Many thanks to the BRLT, the Boothbay Region Land Trust, for acquiring these grand properties and maintaining these scenic trails.

We had a close call with a weather disaster at the end of the week.  Hurricane Arthur headed up the East Coast, with Maine as a possible stop along the way.  Unrelated to Arthur, a serious rainstorm moved in from the west.  Arthur stayed well offshore as it headed to Nova Scotia, but it merged with the other storm near the end, and between them it rained buckets, starting at noon Friday. 

We read our library books on our Kindle (Louise) and iPad (Jeff), interspersed with nervous glances at all day and all evening, but sure enough the rain stopped at 10 a.m. Saturday, exactly as predicted, and with the owners' approval for a slightly delayed start, we were on the road at 11 a.m. for our 41-mile DRY ride to South Cushing.  We'll save that story for the next blog entry!

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