Kayaking in the Maine Coves and Rivers
A Novice's Tale
The Coves: Some years ago I adventured in a kayak into the coves near Harpswell, Maine. A few weeks later I kayaked along one of Maine’s most beautiful rivers, a contrasting experience. The Saco River trip (Saco is pronounced socko) was as peaceful as the Harpswell Cove trip was wild.
Here’s what happened. A small group of friends in single and double kayaks pushed off from a South Harpswell point and paddled up island and through a narrow neck into a secluded area. We crossed the sheltered cove and beached on a pebbly shore where we ate a pleasant lunch. We enjoyed the dip and swing of seagulls, who begged for a share. We saw dark long-necked cormorants and a couple of ducks. We examined granite in colors ranging from dark gray to almost white. We picked up stones of dark basalt, bright quartz, and yellow feldspar. As we headed back, nothing in the cloudless sky gave us reason to prepare for trouble.
I was riding front in Michael’s kayak, proud that I had learned to coordinate my strokes with his. If you don’t get it right, the paddles clash. I had my routine down and began to think kayaking a great sport. We caught the outgoing tide, moving along in rhythm, the rest of the crew in three more kayaks behind us. In the summer quiet, we pointed out a blaze of crimson blueberry bushes on a nearby island and talked about the strong muscles paddling would give us.
Then we hit the narrow neck between islands, riding the outgoing tide. New to seagoing hazards, I did not at first see any difficulty. I noticed with wonder that the water was standing onto the ledges in a smooth upward curve that placed the edges two to three feet higher than the trough where we were. Foolishly, I stopped paddling to exclaim in awe at the sight of so much water sweeping the ledges.
“Don’t stop!” yelled Michael. “Paddle!”
Alarmed, I tried to get my paddle going again, but couldn’t find my rhythm.
“Trish, paddle! We've got to keep to the middle, out of the whirlpool.”
The water rushing past the point on our right was whirling back vigorously. I could see the center of the whirlpool! Yes, it did seem capable of pulling a small boat down—or at least of capsizing one. I didn’t know how to look back and set my paddle into the water at the right moment not to interfere with Michael’s paddle. So I just started paddling. For the next couple of strokes our paddles clashed. Michael, upon whom our stability depended, had to pause to make the adjustment. For a split eternity our kayak was without forward thrust, just as we rounded the point and came abreast of the whirlpool. The kayak veered toward the whirlpool. I was now paddling madly, using all my strength and more, hoping to make up for my lapse. Michael put the next stroke in well ahead and gave a mighty heave. I felt the kayak turn to the left. We slid by the whirlpool into calmer waters.
“Stay in the middle here!” he yelled back at the others. “There’s a whirlpool!”
Everyone came through safely. In another hour we were back at camp, preparing our evening meal, and telling the story of how the outgoing tide stood up against the ledges, creating a trough and, just beyond, a whirlpool. A story to tell our grandchildren, we said.
Michel was understandably peeved at me. In my innocence, I had been a liability.
“I know,” I said. “I blew it! Thanks for getting us through.”
“Yeah, well, you put us in danger!”
“I know. I’m sorry. I promise to do better.” (That was the day I learned to observe, be alert, be ready to act quickly.)
The River: We planned another trip, this time over Labor Day weekend. We decided to kayak the Saco River from near the New Hampshire line down through Maine to the dam. We unloaded the kayaks up river and shuffled one car down to the dam to ferry the drivers back to the start. On a warm dry end-of-summer day we started down the river, I again in Michael’s double kayak. What a day! It was as if the world was made for us, so sweet and inviting we couldn’t think why people build houses.
The river at start of the trip was only a few yards across. And shallow. Maybe waist deep. We kayaked along the smooth flow, rocks easily visible below. Always the front paddler adds rock alert to paddling.
We journeyed around bends following a pattern of oxbows where the outer bank was a few feet high and the inner bank a low beach. It was easy to pull the kayaks out of the water for lunch and, later, to camp. We spent the first night on a sandy beach over which tiny two-leaved maple trees in their first year spread a crimson carpet. A bullfrog leapt from the shallows into a quiet oxbow pond, left behind as the force of the springtime river carved its way further west. In the river, several brown trout held themselves in place with lazy movements, heads against the current. For our tents we chose a spot not already taken up by baby maples, commenting that we could have done without tents on such a night. We unzipped the flaps and poked our heads out to watch the stars, millions visible here away from city lights. A hooting owl only made us feel more comfortable. As I was nodding off I heard a whip-poor-will and thought of my childhood. In the farmhouse on Oak Hill in Sabbattus, Maine, there was an attic room where on summer nights we slept with the windows open and listened to the whip-poor-wills sing the song for which they were named.
Morning came early, cool but not cold, with eggs and pan-fried toast and a pot of hot water for coffee or tea. Soon we had stowed the tents and supplies in the nose and rear of each kayak and were pushing off into the friendly river. Our quiet passage didn’t disturb the regular residents. It was a day to remember for birdsongs, for watching a fat raccoon waddle between ferns, and for maples turning peach and gold in the slanting rays of the autumn sun. It was warm enough for shorts and T-shirts. At noon we lunched on a wide sandbar with a small fire for cooking. Well fed and lazy as brown trout, we sank into the warm sand and fell asleep, every one of us, without plan.
“Wow! We all fell asleep,” I heard someone say. I came back into awareness of the sandbar, the embers of the dying fire, and the arms of nature at her most accommodating.
At noon of the third day we arrived at our destination and sent the drivers to fetch the vehicles. The rest of us waited without tension, lolling against the furniture nature provided, a tree trunk and some boulders. I had needed a trip to make me unafraid and eager to kayak again. This weekend had given me that and more. I was ready now to go back to the ocean coves with proper respect. Further, I was ready to be an asset to any crew.