CIRCUMNAVIGATING
DEER ISLE & ISLE AU HAUT, MAINE


by Reinhard Zollitsch

MAINE'S MOST POPULAR AREA FOR SEA KAYAKERS

For over ten years I have heeded MITA's (Maine Island Trail Association - see end notes) warning about the area around these two magnificent Maine islands, saying that "this area is extremely popular with all kinds of boaters during the busy summer season". The guidebook repeatedly points out that it might be difficult to find an empty camping spot on most of the islands in Merchant Row. And since I could not see myself shopping/hopping around from island to island to find a free site for my little Eureka tent, I have avoided this area or sped through it on my solo trips from Cape Porpoise (or Portland) to Machias.

I have to admit, though, that I would have liked to stop over at Hell's Half Acre, Harbor or Kimball Island, just to mention a few. I had sailed through this area many times and knew how truly spectacular this island world off Stonington was – when the sun is out, that is, because only too often fog hangs around here longer than in other areas of the Maine coast.

But this non-assertive compliance of mine was going to change this year, I decided. I was determined to find out how crowded this area really was, and why not check it out during the height of the Maine summer season, in July and August.

map
(Click on map for larger image)

THE PLAN

Since I am not a drifty day tripper or weekender, I had to come up with a plan - I needed a real goal, a trip. A circumnavigation of the two islands was the first thing that popped into my mind, not just because I like circumnavigations, but also because one could do those trips alone without a big car shuttle involving other people. Being a compass-oriented person, always thinking in compass terms, I would start and finish at the most northern tip of Little Deer Isle and round both Deer Isle and Isle Au Haut in a counter-clockwise direction, in about a week or 8 days. Isle au Haut, by the way, means "The High Island" and was named by Samuel de Champlain in 1604, along with Mount Desert Island, "The Bare (granite- topped) Island".

put in
Put-in near Pumpkin Island Light

My put-in was to be a little cobble ramp across from the picturesque Pumpkin Island Light at the NW entrance to Eggemoggin Reach. I knew there even was limited parking along shore, but leaving my car there for 8 days did not seem advisable or kind to other boaters launching their boats for day trips or weekends, especially since Nancy kindly agreed to car shuttle me to, and at the end of my trip from, this place. Thanks my dear, I really appreciate it! By the way, it is a very pleasant drive from my place in Orono to Bucksport, Blue Hill and Sedgwick, through boulder-strewn blueberry fields, reminding me of Robert McCloskey's book Blueberries for Sal, one of our kids' (and my) favorites, as well as the world depicted in his One Morning in Maine and Time of Wonder. Finally we drove across the tall, swoopy and extremely narrow Deer Isle suspension bridge onto the island. The trip had started.

BUTTER ISLAND ARCHIPELAGO

My first overnight was to be on Butter I., because I wanted to look around the many islands in that group in Penobscot Bay to the west of Deer Isle, but also to find out whether I could get a reservation by phone in advance, which was said to be impossible. I had no problem. "Which of the sites do you want?", the caretaker asked. "Which would you recommend?", I asked back. "In my opinion, Nubble Beach is the most beautiful campsite in the world, but you can have either one you want" was her answer. How can you beat that? I booked two nights at no cost whatsoever, and couldn't wait to get there.

getting ready
Author getting ready to go

The drive to the put-in on July 26 was smooth; so was the put-in itself. There was nobody at the ramp, so I could take my time setting up my boat with spray skirt, chart, compass and stopwatch (no, still no GPS), with radar reflector and wiggle stick with orange flag mounted on my rear deck, for enhanced visibility in all conditions in the often crowded areas I was to travel in. A quick mental check to make sure I had everything packed, a hug and a kiss, a wave with my paddle, and I was off.

I'm off!
I'm off!

Little Pumpkin Island, guarding the NW entrance to Eggemoggin Reach, was an absolute delight and made me smile as I rounded the corner of Little Deer Isle. At that point I had to ready myself for the jump across to Pickering, to Bradbury and Butter Island eventually. Visibility was such that I could make out at least the first island and from there the next, so no problem. Waves were beginning to break, but all seemed very regular and predictable - again, no problem. The fact that the wind came more or less from the south, over my left bow, only meant I had to pull a bit harder, but the distances between those islands were mercifully short this first day – a total of only 7 miles.

Right from the beginning, I had told myself that this trip was to be a see-and-enjoy type of trip, no mile-gobbler from point A to B, as I mostly do, at a pace of 25 miles per day on average.

Butter Island finally appeared out of the dense haze, and Nubble Beach at the SE corner looked just right. There were camping spots up in the woods, but I preferred a more level spot right on the seawall, where I was still shaded by the tall trees behind me. A mid-morning coffee amidst the mist-covered island solitude, with nobody around, tasted real good - no noise other than the wind in the tree tops, the waves breaking on the long crescent pebble beach and a distant foghorn.

tent view
My view from Nubble Beach, Butter Island, towards Blue Hill

After a busy early summer, it seemed I finally had found some leisure to read, and even write notes in my trip log. After a 5-week trans-Atlantic sail with 5 other crew and skipper (late April and all of May) on a classic German 60 foot racing yawl from Antigua/Caribbean to the Azores and on to Hamburg, Germany, it felt real good getting back in my little 17'2" Verlen Kruger Sea Wind sea canoe, alone and totally in control of my destiny.

Next day started sunny, and the wind was light (5-10 knots) – what more can one ask. I had planned a 12-mile day trip around most of the islands in this part of Penobscot Bay. I counted at least 15. I first headed north to see one of my favorite sailboat anchorages between the Barred Islands. From there I rounded Great and Little Spruce Island, then headed SW to round far-out Compass I., swinging SE towards the northern tip of North Haven, where I rounded Oak and Burnt Island. By then the tide was running out strong, and I had to crab my way sideways via Flint I. back to Butter. The wind had also freshened, up to 15 knots. Eagle l. and the Porcupines, I decided, had to wait for another trip. Tide and headwind together were simply too strong to make this extra loop fun.

eagle island
Eagle Island Light

The stretch from Butter to Eagle I. and across to Sheephead and Weir Island I had done before, on my MITA trip from Cape Porpoise to Machias in 2006. Weir l. at the entrance to the Deer Isle Thorofare was just as cute as ever. It is a perfect viewing point of all the boats entering or exiting this very popular shortcut from Penobscot to Blue Hill Bay and Mount Desert Island eventually. Again, I had the island all to myself, as well as the lovely low-tide beach in the SE corner.

weir island
View from Weir Island towards Deer Isle Thorofare/Stonington

BUSY MERCHANT ROW

The wind sprang up early the next morning from the south, my direction of travel. My goal was to traverse Merchant Row, while checking out as many MITA islands as possible along the way. I hoped to end up on the NE corner of Kimball I. at the entrance of the Isle au Haut Thorofare. Well, I got there fine, but it took a little more brawn and was a little wetter than anticipated. At first I ducked behind Crotch I., admiring the old cranes and derricks from the granite cutting days. The piles of granite cut-offs, imperfections, culls along this and the Green Island shore just a stone's throw to the east, were awesome and would have made great breakwaters in some harbor or helped towns in their shore erosion abatement programs.

granite derrick
Granite loading derricks on Crotch Island off Stonington

Anyway, I then used Rock I. as my next wind break. The beach and grassy field at the north end looked like a promising MITA site. Again, it was unoccupied, and I did not see any other kayak out all day either. Where is everybody, I was wondering. This is the height of summer boating, and the weather is fine, for Maine standards even excellent. Only the lobstermen were out, often speeding from one of their lobster buoys to the next, their mighty, throaty diesel engines roaring above the wind and wave noises. These are the big boys, mind you, not the little bay put-puts. Watch out, they are coming fast and mean business, lobstering that is, and (many of them) do not look kindly on pleasure boating, I hear. I felt good, though, making myself at least as visible as possible with my orange flag on a six-foot wiggle stick and my high-tech radar reflector, but more importantly, anticipating their moves and staying out of their way.

Potato, George Head and Steves I. gave me some wind protection next, but then I had to slug it out to Harbor I. and from there to my next overnight spot on the NE corner of Kimball near Point Lookout - another well-set-up MITA site, and it too was unoccupied.

merchant row
Merchant Row Islands as seen from Kimball Island

Swimming off its rock beach in the lee of the relatively high island was great, even though a tad on the cold side. But remember, these are Maine, not Florida, waters, but they are still distinctly warmer than what I swam in along Nova Scotia and Newfoundland shores. This is summer in Maine; this is as warm as it gets around Penobscot Bay, I had to tell myself.

Each time I land on a site, I press my SPOT satellite locator beacon, a tiny cell-phone-sized affair, to let Nancy and family know about my safe arrival. They can then see my exact location from space via Google Earth on their computers. And at 5:00 p.m. each afternoon, I make a short satellite phone call to Nancy, the high point of each day for me. It of course also is a necessary safety precaution for a person traveling alone on the ocean, as I see it.

ROUNDING ISLE AU HAUT

The marine weather report for the next day, which I can get on my VHF radio telephone, sounded OK. The wind was light (NW 5-10 knots), but there still were a lot of old swells coming in from the SSW, and I knew I had to tiptoe around the many rocks and ledges off the southern tip of Isle au Haut. I once hiked on the island with my son Mark. We got as far as Duck Harbor and saw the ocean roll in over the jagged outlying Haddock Ledges and other rocks. It looked awesome, but also very intimidating, and we both decided not to sail around the island, but prudently head back from the Thorofare, where we were anchored, to Stonington and Winter Harbor eventually.

Well, after a very rainy night I was off at the usual 7:20 a.m. As I paddled down the Thorofare towards the light on Robinson Point, I knew that this was going to be the hardest and most exposed part of my trip. I had studied the chart very carefully and looked at all the off-lying rocks where swells could and would break; in other words, I was all eyes and ears, constantly checking my chart against the real scenery.

As anticipated, things got much dicier around Duck Harbor, and from there to the Western Ear, a small island almost attached to the SW corner of Isle Au Haut, even more so. Studying the waves and the present state of tide carefully, I decided I could go inside of Western Ear and even inside of Eastern Ear, at the SE corner, right over the 5-foot bar. (Yes, the southern tip of Isle au Haut has two cute islands almost attached to the main island, like little ears, plus a few more very nasty breaking ledges in between.)

I was glad to have made it safely to the Eastern Ear, when I noticed a big lobster boat bearing down on me from the north at full throttle. We met right on the 5-foot bar, his wake mixing with the swells rolling in from the south - and I was dancing and throwing a few quick braces with my paddle to stay upright - a brief but very tense and sweaty situation, if you know what I mean.

The rest of my rounding was a piece-o'-cake: going straight north in the lee of the tall island toward York I.. At its northern tip, just a tad to the NW, is the tiny barren island of Doliver, a rarely visited MITA site. I looked through the MITA log book and found out that I was the first camper here this year. The landing and later pushing off was a bit harder than usual, i.e. it necessitated carrying boat and gear over rocks - no smooth sand beach here, except at dead low tide.

isle au haut
Isle Au Haut as seen from Doliver Island

The afternoon there got very hot as the sun came out. I found only one little pine tree on the island, but it was still too small to shed any shade for the tired paddler. So I crouched behind a granite rock wall on my Crazy Creek chair and whiled away the afternoon with some easy Clive Cussler reading, interrupted only by brief swims and cups of coffee and cocoa. (Don't sneer; even retired professors like to read Dirk Pitt sea adventure stories.)

HELL'S HALF ACRE AND MANY MORE ISLANDS

I felt great having successfully circumnavigated formidable Isle au Haut. The rest of the trip was going to be frosting on the cake. Next morning I pushed off in a very good mood. The sun had also come out, and the sea was almost calm. I was looking for the most interesting passages through all those many islands. I touched on Burnt, went between Round and McGlathery as well as between Coombs and Spruce, only to end up north of Devil on Hell's Half Acre. It is without a doubt the most popular island of the entire archipelago between Deer Isle and Isle au Haut. You find it a tad NNW of Devil Island or between Camp and Bold. (The name itself also helps attract would-be macho boaters to stop over here, and it is very easy to get ashore on the gently sloping granite shelf on the north side of the island.)

Approaching Hell's Half Acre from the north, I had already prepared my mind to accept scooting over to Russ or Buckle, if the two tent platform sites there were taken. But to my surprise, nobody was camping here, and nobody else came by all afternoon to unpack their gear on the other tent platform. I could hardly believe my luck, and that on a Sunday, July 31! Only a few tired day paddlers stopped briefly for a water/granola or "P-stop" before most likely returning to the sea kayak rental and campground in Webb Cove, across from here to the north on Deer Isle.

mita site
MITA site on Hell's Half Acre

All afternoon all kinds of boats passed by my place to the north along the Deer Isle Thorofare, including the old three-masted schooner Victory Chimes, a significant sight in Maine waters. I still remember its old skipper Capt'n Guild ("Guild" pronounced as in "wild", he always said). What a guy! By sundown the bight between here and Camp I. was filled with 19 sailboats at anchor for the night, including the schooner Steven Taber. But nobody came ashore for a swim or beach play. Maybe the coffee, beer and food were too good on board. I couldn't tell, because I was not invited over :-(

victory chimes
Victory Chimes on Deer Isle Thorofare from Hell's Half Acre

Since the weather was so great, I instead decided to go for an afternoon jaunt around a few more islands: Camp, Russ, Scott, Green, Potato, Coombs, Ram, Spruce and Devil, 7 miles in 1.5 hrs - neat, fast and easy in an empty boat.

EGGEMOGGIN REACH IN THE FOG

After every great day there comes a pay-back. Thick fog greeted me the next morning, but my course was easy: from my place, past Bold and Grog I. to Buckmaster and Whitmere Neck on Deer Isle, and finally across to Stinson Neck. By then I paddled in pea-soup fog up north to "the other Sheep I." off Stinson Neck (there also is a Sheep and Little Sheep off Buckmaster Neck) to Potato Island. I have to admit, though, that I missed "the little potato" on my first try. It just wasn't there! I shook my head, retraced my steps, changing my course a bit more to the north, and voila, there it was suddenly. However, at that point I did not like it anymore because I had missed it on my first attempt and was still castigating myself. AND it was still much too early in the day to pull out, AND I had to make sure I would make my take-out tomorrow. So I figured the farther I got today, the better for tomorrow, and I pushed on to the western corner of Campbell Island.

I found it fine, but also a lot of blow-downs, trees uprooted or broken off "by the fierce Atlantic storms", I read, when in fact most of the trees were beyond maturity and were ready to go and topple over anyway to make room for nature's process of rejuvenation, as I see it. It was a shame to see all those big trees "go to waste", but this was just nature doing its thing, was my final assessment.

I ended my trip up Eggemoggin Reach in the thick of fog the next morning. I hugged the Deer Isle shore, noticing that the almost black spruce-clad island shores had suddenly changed to a typical "lake front" dominated by deciduous trees like maple, oak, birch and beech. I was suddenly in a completely different world.

The farther I got up the Reach, the more the fog turned into haze, allowing me to see the top spans of the tall Deer Isle suspension bridge peek over the lower water-bound fog layer. But the closer I got to the bridge, the better the visibility became.

deer isle bridge
The Deer Isle bridge

I took some pictures of the bridge. Suspension bridges are so photogenic. One has to take pictures of them; everybody does. And after a few more miles, the vegetation on shore changed back to black spruce, the wind picked up, and I saw three schooners with all sails set, including their top sails, nose their way out of Bucks Harbor towards the bridge. At that point Pumpkin Island light came back into view, and just before it, on the very tip of Little Deer Isle, my designated take-out ramp, my VW Golf and my happily waving sweetheart Nancy, cheerful as ever.

end of a trip
Happy pick-up

Again, nobody else was there, no crowds and tension as at the usual boat launching ramps. I could unload my boat at my pace, carry my gear up to my car and swing the 65-pound boat overhead to get it onto the roof rack of my little VW Golf. I was very glad Nancy did not bring our big van. Yes, I have to admit that swinging the boat onto my head like a clean-and-jerk weightlifter is getting harder for me with each passing year (72 right now). But I am confident I'll find a different way of getting it on top of the car when my legs begin to buckle in earnest.

happy pick up
End of a great trip

SUMMARY

A hug and a kiss and a quick bakery-fresh spinach quiche in Blue Hill, and we were home in no time. My dog Willoughby, a big, powerful 2-year old male yellow Lab, was ecstatic to see me back, immediately asking for all the things we usually do each day: walk in the woods, canoe and swim in the river behind our house...and get lots of TLC as well as a few dog biscuit treats.

My trip of 8 days covered about 80 leisurely miles, which comes to a paltry 10 miles per day. But covering long distances was not the purpose of the trip, as I mentioned before. The most surprising revelation of my trip, however, was that I did not encounter any crowding on the MITA islands or even the entire water world surrounding Deer Isle and Isle au Haut, Maine's prime sea kayaking area. As a matter of fact, I had each overnight spot I stopped at all to myself. I also did not meet any other paddlers other than a few local boaters dawdling around Weir Island and a few day trippers briefly landing on Hell's Half Acre. I did not get a chance to speak to any of them. Either I was lucky finding solitude, or the ocean with its often harsh conditions was winnowing out the chaff from the grain, thus taking care of overcrowding.

So if any of you readers out there is planning to paddle around "The High Island", Isle au Haut, I would suggest you carefully prepare for it and get ready, physically and mentally. It is a very formidable, hard, big rock of an island, sticking way out into Penobscot Bay and is surrounded by lots of off-shore ledges and pinnacle rocks where even old innocent looking swells could suddenly break, take you in their grip and send you through the wringer. Being in a "washing machine" with hard rocks below and a steep shore you can't climb out on, is no fun, folks, especially when you are alone.

But for the same reason, both these islands are truly beautiful, bordering on the spectacular, and present a real challenge for the intermediate to expert paddler. Sorry, no beginners at the southern tip of Isle Au Haut! Try Webb Cove to Hell's Half Acre instead. It sounds real tough, but is a cinch in halfway decent weather for any properly equipped person with basic skills and a good dose of determination and stamina. Unsure paddlers, whiners and complainers better stay off the ocean altogether. Sorry for the bluntness, but believe me, the Atlantic in Maine is harsh, cold, demanding and unforgiving. It can and will bite you if you do not watch out. But it can also present you with grand vistas and truly memorable experiences, like this trip through the island world of Deer Isle and Isle au Haut.

* * *

GEAR AND INFO

17'2" Verlen Kruger Sea Wind sea canoe with spray skirt and rudder, Kevlar, 65 lbs (www.krugercanoes.com)
10 oz. carbon fiber bent-shaft canoe racing paddle by Zaveral (www.zre.com)
4 lbs. Luneberg lensatic, passive radar reflector from West Marine (stern mounted)
6' bicycle wiggle stick with orange flag (stern mounted)
VHF radio telephone for weather reports and ship-to-ship/marina/locks
Iridium satellite phone (used for outgoing calls only: daily safety check-in with Nancy)
SPOT satellite locator beacon (to my computer at home and some family members)
regular camping gear with small propane stove; all food from home; two 2.5 gal. water tanks/bags by Dromedary
NOAA charts for Penobscot and Blue Hill Bay areas
Ritchie compass and stopwatch
Maine Island Trail 2011 Guide, Maine Island Trail Association (www.mita.org), 58 Fore Street, Suite 30-3, Portland, ME 04101
Bill Caldwell: Islands of Maine, Guy Gannett Publ. Co., Portland, Maine, 1981.
Roger Duncan: Coastal Maine, A Maritime History. Norton & Co, 1992.
Christina Tree & Nancy English: Maine Coast & Islands. The Countryman Press, Woodstock, VT, 2011.
Robert McCloskey: Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, Time of Wonder.
Fun reading: (supply your own! mine was a Dirk Pitt sea adventure story by Clive Cussler)

© Reinhard Zollitsch


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