Thursday, August 14, 2014

Our Final Weeks in Mid-Coast Maine

As you can see from the map, this 50-mile-wide section of the coast of Maine has an amazing network of rivers, bays, estuaries and more, perfect for exploring by canoe or kayak.  We've described 4 1/2 weeks there in our last three blog entries.  We'll wrap up our adventures over the next 2 1/2 weeks in today's posting: a week in Harpswell (#6 on the map), a return to Back River Bend for a second week there (#7), and 3 nights in a different part of Harpswell (#8a).  We had plans to stay in the area two more nights (#8b), but a huge rainstorm was headed our way, so we cancelled that booking, took off early for Portland, and beat the rain by a few hours.  We'll save Portland for our next blog entry.

Picking places to stay from internet write-ups and photos is always a hit-or-miss proposition.  The photos and descriptions are usually accurate enough.  It's what isn't pictured or discussed, or that you didn't know about, that catches you.  Our next place actually surprised us as being more attractive than the photos on  It was quite charming.

But once again, we didn't ask how one launches the canoe or kayaks that come with the place.  And once again, it was from the shore, not from a dock (the dock pictured below is the next door neighbor's, and actually even he has a problem at low tide).  At least this time, we only had to avoid two hours either side of low tide.

We only got in the canoe twice in our week in Harpswell, partly because of the mud flats at low tide, but even more due to bad luck with winds.  It's those darned afternoon onshore winds we've mentioned a few times in recent posts.  When the wind blows at 7-10 mph out of the south almost every afternoon, it's hard to think of going anywhere other than south in the morning, when the winds are lighter (and occasionally even out of the north). 

On our first day there, the wind was so strong we biked south to Cundy's Harbor and the scenic old Holbrook's Store, then canoed there the next day when the winds were kinder.  It's a nice run, and the afternoon tailwind from the SW back was pleasant.

However, there was a large area to the north we wanted to explore.  We got there easily enough and poked around some attractive side channels, passed the longest staircase we've seen yet this summer,  and floated by a long-lost boat and some long-lost duck decoys.  But the trip back against an 8 mph wind was harder than we expected, so hard that we went through scenarios in our heads about waiting 'til near sunset (when the wind usually calms down), or flagging down a passing motor boat.  But we both put our all into the paddling, the canoe kept moving forward (slowly, oh so slowly), and eventually we were back.  With the wind scheduled to be more of the same the next day, we opted for a bike ride.

We actually got in two longer rides that week (the ride to Cundy's Harbor was only 10 miles r/t so hardly counts as 'long,' though at 25 and 28 miles the two we're going to describe aren't exactly killer distances.  Such is cycling in your late 60s . . . ).  Jeff had broken off a piece of a tooth several days earlier (such is chewing in your late 60s . . ), so we biked a dozen miles into the larger city of Brunswick to get it attended to, plus took care of our mutual need for haircuts as well.  Before hitting the supermarket for another 40 pounds of food to haul back to our cottage, we swung over to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.  It's a beautiful building, but way too many of the galleries were filled with weird contemporary art.  The museum owns several excellent Winslow Homers and other works that would have warmed our 19th century hearts, but they're put away at the moment.  We settled for an exhibit about James Bowdoin III, the founder of the college.  They had several Gilbert Stuart portraits -- yes, the fellow whose portrait of Geo. Washington is on the $1 bill.  The first is of Bowdoin himself, the second of James Madison, who sent Bowdoin to Spain as the American ambassador.  The curator's commentary was insightful:  "Rather than focusing on the coded attitudes and paraphernalia of hereditary nobility, [Stuart's portraits] celebrate inner strength.  Setting aside the outward trappings of monarchy, they emphasize dignity and thoughtful intensity as the chief qualifications for rulership."

Our other ride took us down long thin necks of land to see two of Harpswell's sights, the Cribstone Bridge and the Giant's Staircase.  The bridge is one-of-a-kind, designed to let lots of water pass through the bridge as well as under the main opening, as tides can be strong in this channel.  Without the cribbing, water would pile up against a traditional embankment and make the current too fast in the channel for boats to negotiate.  A restaurant next to the bridge served us a wonderful lobster salad and fried oysters to enjoy while watching the boat traffic pass under the bridge. 

The Giant's Staircase is yet another bold outcropping of rock along the shore.  We've seen lots and lots of rugged, rocky coastline from our canoes, so the main distinction of this one really seems to be its easy access from a walking path.  We've put Louise's shoe in there to help illustrate the fine design in the rock.

14 miles from our cabin, we came to Land's End.  Inside the Land's End Gift Shop, there's no end of ticky-tacky, such as the lobster squeeze toy and snow globes with the chief icons of the state.  It was tough, but we resisted.  So often in Maine, land's end isn't really the end of land, just the end of road-connected portions of it, for there always seems to be another island out there.  We keep wondering what the people who have houses on these islands do when the seas are rough when it's time to go to or leave from these islands. 

We wondered what our return to Back River Bend would be like, this time without our friends Louise and Masaharu.  Would it be a week of "been there, done that"?  As it turned out, not at all.  The week in Harpswell had seen our least helpful winds.  This week made up for it in spades, and we ended up canoeing an amazing 72 miles!

For the first three days, we had light winds each morning, and those afternoon onshore winds topped out at only 6-8 mph.  Since low tide was at roughly 11 am, noon and 1pm those three days, we had the absolutely perfect conditions for paddling south each morning down the Back River and then further down the Kennebec.  At first our goal was simply to reach Perkins Island, whose lighthouse we had seen in the distance the week before.  When we reached the Kennebec, the current was 2-3 knots heading down to the ocean, and the water was remarkably calm.  Before we knew it, Perkins Island was behind us and the enormous Civil War fortress of Fort Popham was in sight.  It was on the opposite side of the half-mile-wide and powerful river, but by starting our crossing early we easily made it.  WOW!  7 1/2 miles, and relatively easy thanks to the light winds and the tidal currents.

We enjoyed our picnic lunches and explored the fort, which was built out of concern the Confederate Navy would attack the major shipbuilding city of Bath, ten miles upstream.  As with so many military projects, it was waaaay more than was needed, and in any event we doubt a Confederate boat ever got within 100 miles of the place.  It was never completed, even though it also saw some service in the First World War.  In the view from the roof, you can see Perkins Island in the distance, two miles upstream.

Day two was more of the same, but this time we brought our wallet and had lunch at a restaurant right next to the beach, plus did a long walk along the beach.  There is an island just offshore that you can walk, or more precisely wade to, at low tide.  The tide had just turned, and folks were streaming back.  Across the mouth of the Kennebec was Georgetown and a handsome collection of homes.

On the way back upstream we floated close to the Perkins Island lighthouse.  Built in 1898, it and the keeper's house have been vacant since 1959, when the light was automated.

Day three was yet another trip down to Popham Beach.  Since low tide was 2 hours later than on day one, we were finally early enough on the way downriver to make it down a side channel of the Kennebec that becomes a mud flat at low tide.  Our reward was a spectacular osprey's nest smack in the middle of the channel.  The ospreys took off when our canoe got 100 yards away, but it was nice to know it's an active nest.  While heading back, we also noticed what appears to be another nest on top of a navigational buoy!

On this third and final float to Popham, we brought a picnic that we carried in a backpack on a 2-mile hike to Fox Island.  This impressive rock rises 60 or 70 feet above the beach and becomes an island when the tide is very high. 

We made it out two more times in the canoe, once to explore more of the side channels of the Back River, once up to Hockomock Bay to the north.  For both trips, we mostly gave the camera a rest, though we did have to unsheath it for a photo of our first wild turkey of the season.

Our return to Back River Bend was a success.  We enjoyed a slightly different view of the salt marshes nearby, and lucked out with the weather to do the most intensive canoeing we've ever done.  This may just be the week that moves us to make a return trip to the coast of Maine sooner rather than later.  Check back with us in a year!

We'll finish up with our return to Harpswell, though to a very different part of it.  On the way there we crossed the Kennebec at Bath, past that osprey nest we showed you 3 blog posts ago, the one that goes up and down on a railroad drawbridge.  The baby was now an adolescent in bird years, and showed it by taking a mid-day nap.  He straightened out the plastic bag he seems to have made into his mattress pad, and caught 40 winks.

Our final mid-coast destination was the Quahog Bay Inn.  It started life as a group of apartments for folks working at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, ten miles away.  After that closed a few years ago, the owners remodeled it into vacation apartments.  It was an attractive, spacious place where we could eat our meals overlooking Quahog Bay.  The owner is also a lobsterman, and you can tell the office what size lobster you want, and it's delivered to you at 5 pm, cooked!

Our luck with the weather continued.  We were near the open ocean, so tidal currents were a minor issue.  The two mornings of our stay, we had light winds early, and modest 7-8 mph onshore winds predicted for the afternoons.  So, we headed for the ocean.  As we noted earlier, whenever you think you've reached the end of land, there always seems to be another island or two out there.  It was no different here, but we could see places between those islands where there was nothing beyond but the open ocean for thousands of miles until one hits South America, or Africa, maybe even Antarctica if you aim it just right.  It's a pretty awesome feeling to be on the edge of this in a tiny open canoe!

On day one we found a perfect little pocket beach on a publicly owned island where we had our picnic lunch.  It was so perfect, we found ourselves back there at lunchtime the next day.  That night was the Super Moon, the full moon that coincided with the lunar perigee, or closest distance from earth for 2014.  Can't say that we could tell it was noticeably larger than other full moons we've seen, but there are few that have charmed us so much with their setting.

As noted above, our weather luck was about to run out, and we scooted off to Portland two days early to avoid a major rainstorm.  We'll tell you what happened in our next entry.  Stay tuned!