With a few nights in the low 20s this week, it's finally time for me to admit that it's not "late summer" anymore. The wood pile is covered, and smoke is hanging below the chimney every morning now. Still, this is my favorite season to paddle. The warmth of summer lingers in the water, the sun shines more crisply through the dry atmosphere, tidal ranges are bigger than usual, and though you might need to avoid some windy days, there's a little more swell to play with.
Recently a friend and I stole a day from our other responsibilities, and headed out to paddle one of my favorite shorelines in the area - the south-eastern shore of Mount Desert Island. Here the steepest terrain of Acadia National Park descends in great cliffs to meet the predominant southeasterly swell that rolls uninterrupted across the Gulf of Maine. At the water line, the russet cliffs are cleaved into deep kayak-wide fissures, hollowed out into caves the size of rooms, and occasionally interrupted by miniature popplestone beaches, invisible to the park visitors passing just 50 feet above.
Paddling out of Otter Cove, we reveled in the perfect weather, knowing that these days were numbered. Soon the water will grow too cold to paddle without gloves, and getting doused by a wave will seem much less tempting. Jeff, my companion for the day, manages kayak operations for an outfitting company in Bar Harbor. His season of work nearly complete, he was glad to have one more day of ocean paddling before heading west for the winter to various land-locked states. As we rounded the prominent headland to our east, the spaces between cliffs and ledges swirled white with each swell, providing excellent spots to ride the surge over submerged rocks, and surf through gaps between the granite features.
Progress was slow for the first couple miles since every play spot where we lingered was immediately followed by another, and the best features always required "just one more ride" before moving on. Eventually we worked our way past a railing-bound platform extending to the water's edge. From inside their pen, a dozen or so tourists peered over the stainless guardrail into the water - wondering, I imagine, who gave this quietly gurgling slot in the rocks a big name like "Thunder Hole". On this benign fall day, it's hard to imagine that this partially submerged cavern could ever send water shooting high above the rock spire that shadows the spectators' platform, with a boom you can feel in your chest. And I doubt any of the on-lookers that day would guess that storm-driven swell here occasionally tosses 100 pound rocks onto the roadway 40 feet above us.
Leaving the tourists, we turned to land on a steep cobble beach, just large enough to perch our boats on as we ate lunch. Against the concave cliffs, we were hidden from the road above and from the families of hikers exploring the rocks on either side of us. Compared to most of the paddling in our area, where people are rarely encountered on shore, this scenic stretch of the national park has a populated feel. Yet even here, within hundreds of yards of many other visitors, we've landed on a beach that feels entirely uninhabited. All we hear and see from our natural stone alcove is ocean, sky, and rock.
After lunch Jeff and I continued exploring along the variegated cliffs, playing as we went, and rediscovering a large sea cave, where Jeff did a little cliff diving. Soon, however, we admitted that if we were going to complete our one-way route to Bar Harbor, as planned, we would need to quit dawdling. We grudgingly let the cliffs pass by on our left, and bent our minds and muscles towards our destination. As we churned on, I enjoyed the sensations of exertion, and the silent meditation of one stroke followed by another. We passed low coves, and elaborate summer homes high on the east-facing precipices, each of us working hard to keep up with the other.
Approaching Bar Harbor, the Thrumcap, a low grassy islet favored by nesting gulls, drifted by just to our east, and we passed through the breakwater that protects Bar Harbor from the ocean's swell. Along the last half-mile of our route, the bustle of a tourist town in autumn increased on the adjacent shoreline, until finally we landed in the middle of it, on the town beach.
Our trip included all the elements that make this my favorite paddling season, and reminded me that such perfect days are numbered this time of year. But rather than bidding farewell to fall - digging out neoprene gloves, and looking for the conservative routes better-suited to winters in Maine - I left the water eager to check the calendar, and the weather, to see when I could squeeze in a little more fall paddling.