Sunday, June 02, 2013

Maine: Cross Island

[Kyle]After being hunkered down inside our heated cabin all day while the wind howled and the rain slashed at the cabin top, we awoke to our second morning of thick fog. At least it had stopped raining. The cold sea made for cold fog. The forecast for the afternoon was for it to be the warmest day so far for the year. We were really looking forward to that.

We raised the anchor at low tide in order to catch a lift on the east-going flood. The water was very thin at this point, so we had to navigate carefully out of Head Harbor while the fog kept the nearby rocks in ominous silhouette.

A sedate foggy trip with light winds from astern allow us to make use of the spinnaker

One we were in the open ocean we found a residual swell mixing with erratic currents and making a very uncomfortable, lumpy sea. The wind was reduced to around five knots from directly behind making the relative wind aboard zero. Not wanting to motor all day (do we ever?), we decided it was a perfect opportunity to kill the motor and to air out our spinnaker, aka the Sail of Death, called this by my one time sailing instructor because spinnakers have a history of causing a capsizing racing boats in strong winds - an unwelcome manoeuvre we'd certainly like to avoid. For this reason, we deliberately underutilize the spinnaker by thinking of it as a light wind sail only, when it’s much easier to manage and can’t produce capsizing forces.

We shut down the engines, let the wind catch up to us, and unfurled the spinnaker, which put us almost back to our motoring speed, except with a lot less noise and a with a pretty sail to watch. We couldn’t see anything else. Maine was still invisible to us apart from the lobster pot floats defining the slalom run of our course.

Noon came and went. It was still foggy and very cold. We had optimistically under-bundled and were slowly getting colder and colder, holding out for the promised sun that constantly seemed just about to win and burn off the fog. As we passed along our route, the fog would start to thin, only to thicken again, and we constantly had our fog horn sounding.

About halfway to our planned anchorage, we passed close enough by Stone Island to hear and just make out the sight of the waves breaking on its jagged cliffs. What would have been a cool sight on a sunny day seemed a little too close in the dense fog.

We rounded the northern tip of Cross Island just as the fog finally started to break. We anchored in 11m water in the bay between Cross Island and smaller Mink Island. On the mainland opposite, the uncharacteristic sight of the Cutler Naval Radio Station’s 26 giant radio towers filled the distance. The station’s transmitters are likely the most powerful in the world and are used by the navy to communicate with submarines worldwide, both at the surface and submerged.

By the time we secured everything and completed our post sailing check-list, glorious sunlight was booming into the anchorage. It became just a touch too warm within our cockpit enclosure. That, and the early morning start were luring Maryanne into the idea of a nice, long nap in the warmth of the sun. Although I saw her point, I also didn’t want to waste any nice weather. Before I knew it, the dinghy was somehow deployed and ready to go to the island. Without any more excuses, she was right along with me, packing a bag for the trip ashore.

I had chosen Cross Island mainly for one reason: Maryanne has been disappointed for years since missing a bear in the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge that during a brief separation of paths, I spotted, and she missed, on one of my long runs. Cross Island is rumored to have “evidence of bears”. I thought it may be my chance to right things. {Maryanne: I was skeptical that such a small island would have a population of bears, but wary enough to keep an eye out nevertheless}.

We parked the dinghy at the old coastguard house - ready to investigate the interior of the island

My intent had been to go to the house at the old Coast Guard station, now used as a seasonal base for the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, and have a quick orientation. I was hoping there would be a trail map posted somewhere outside. There wasn’t, and the house looked like it hadn’t been used since at least the previous year. We poked around for a bit and found a couple of different trailheads disappearing into the forest. Even though we knew we would have all day the next day, which was also supposed to have beautiful weather, we couldn’t resist taking one of the shorter-looking ones (how would we know?) for a bit, “Just to see where it goes.”

We ended up crossing the island to its south shore, where we came upon a beach of big, round cobble stones with great views of the eastern part of the island and the mainland coast all of the way to Canada.

Stunning Maine scenery - beautiful fresh, lush forest growth and wild coastlines made for great hiking

The cobbled beach, framed by the sea beyond and the rocks and fir trees ashore was beautiful, but every footfall on those cobbles brought rapid movement of a spider scurrying away into the stony layers of beach; definitely not somewhere for a relaxed picnic!

Before heading back home, we decided to at least walk the length of the beach. At the other end, Maryanne spotted another trail marker. Figuring it must go to the next headland, we decided to follow it, “Just to see where it goes.”

Half an hour of steep up and down later, we emerged from the forest atop a steep headland with dramatic views of the rocky cliffs either way. It was one of those places where everywhere you look is beautiful and the word “wow” gets way too much use every time something a new vista reveals itself.

We continued to find new trail markers pulling us further on and repeating the same theme, until we both knew we were pushing it too far. It was going to be a long hike back to Begonia if we kept going outbound.

Suspecting that our trail may actually be a loop that bisects the short part of the island back to the house, we agreed to continue a bit further in search of the shortcut back. If we didn’t find it, we would return the way we came. Shortly thereafter, we started having difficulty finding the trail at all. We would start up one lead or another only to lose it and have to backtrack to a known position. During one of these backtracks, Maryanne found an engraved wooden sign at a crossing, saying “House” and pointing in a direction clearly across the island’s narrow aspect. We had our shortcut.

The trip back was through a fairy-tale enchanted forest covered at every point with many varieties of soft, thick mosses. Most of the walk felt like it was on the world’s biggest featherbed. Maryanne was feeling especially smug because she had worn her sea boots (wellies), while I was wearing sandals, since I thought we had only originally intended to have a quick look around. Following behind her, I was able to avoid most of the wet spots by avoiding where she sunk in. I did get surprised enough, though, to have thoroughly soaked feet early on. At least they were sandals, which drained and dried fast, but every time I re-soaked a foot, she’d let out a little laugh.

At about the middle of the island, we came upon a split for a new trail that was clearly headed the wrong direction. We each shot a “Don’t even think about it!” look at each other and silently agreed that it would be the next day’s goal.

Back in the dinghy, approaching Begonia from ahead, Maryanne reported that our anchor bridle lines were vibrating. They do this when the current is particularly strong. The outgoing tide was streaming through the gap between Cross and Mink Islands, sweeping us toward the boat very quickly. Even with the warning, we got to the stern and only by mad rowing in the turbulence of one of the hulls was I able to hold position so Maryanne could grab hold of the main boat. The topsides are pretty high on Begonia, so we made a mental note to leave a low-hanging cleated line that could be grabbed from alongside for future excursions in potentially strong currents.

The following morning, with picnic packed, we timed our departure from Begonia to get just the slightest push from the very beginning of the current as we went toward the Coast Guard house to tie up. Since it was low tide, it was necessary to haul our Pudgy a long way up the rocky beach to the spot where she would be floating on our return, also planned for just after slack water the other way.

Our second day ashore, and once the dingy was hauled safely up the beach the first trail took us to the outhouse! (Not part of the scenic tour at all!)

On our way to the trail we had decided to hike for the day, we spotted yet another and a sign saying, “Shore”. It headed in the direction of the beaches within view of Begonia, so we decided to have a look. It didn’t take long before we realized the shore trail didn’t actually go to the beaches, but was a return trail to the house that ran near shore. When we got to where we could see the beaches, we left the marked trail and cut through over fallen trees. The tide was still very low, the cove was a very wide expanse of rock and mud. Three men from a fishing boat anchored nearby were squelching through the mud digging as their skiff lay high-and-dry on the beach. Not having learned my object lesson from the day before, I stood at the edge of the pebbles in my sandals and waved hi. “Uyuh” and a wave were the response.

Maryanne, wearing her sea boots again, happily squished her way through the mud to introduce herself. She thought they may have been collecting bait worms, or possibly the whelks that littered the tidal flats, but it turned out they were digging for clams to sell directly. It looked like backbreaking work, particularly in the hot sun. Each man was using a claw with a short handle like the end of a pitchfork to scoop up a big batch of mud, which was then sifted for clams. We wondered to ourselves why they didn’t use pitchforks so at least they would be able to stand upright part of the time instead of being bent over constantly. I’m sure at some point, someone considered that and there’s a good reason why they don’t.

Backbreaking work for the Clammers on the beach, while we could retreat to the shade of the forest

When one of them asked what we were doing, Maryanne answered that we were taking advantage of the nice weather to hike the trails. His response was, “There’s trails on this island?”.

“Uyuh.”. They appeared to have been visiting the island for years; it surprised us to realize that they knew little of it beyond the clam filled beach.

We rejoined the trail and then backtracked toward the center of the island. Further along, we saw another junction with a new trail marked with the same orange ribbons as the one we'd lost the day before. We figured it must be the other half of the loop and followed it, hoping to find the spectacular cliffs again from the other side.

We emerged well down the rocky coast from where we lost the trail the day before. This time, we were able to pick our way from one “wow” viewpoint to the next until we eventually joined our old trail. Maryanne protected me by finding the boggy spots. It mostly worked, but I still refreshed my sandal water often enough to keep her chuckling at my expense. At one point she sank a little too far though and cold muddy water spilled over the top into her boot. A wave of horror, disgust and discomfort caused a grimace to slowly cross her face. Ha! Justice! Once she finally extricated her foot and boot I gingerly stepped around the boot shaped hole as it slowly refilled. I had a moment of guilty joy until she pulled off her boot and emptied half a gallon of very peaty, coffee colored water onto the ground, then I just felt bad for her. In that boot, that foot was going to stay wet until we were done for the day.

Another rare, beautiful Maine day

It wasn’t too much longer. Back at the junction for the shore route back to the house, we rejoined and completed the entire loop feeling fairly certain that we had completed all of the island’s trails.

Back at the dinghy, the water still needed to come up another couple of feet before it would float – maybe twenty minutes. We killed time by going into the old coast guard house.

There was a sign at the door asking visitors to sign the guest book, make use of anything they like, and leave the place better than you found it. The guestbook and pictures left behind by earlier visitors reminded me a lot of the many camping trips we used to take at school. On the table was a trail map. We had missed one after all, but it went way over to the far side of the island through the wetland zone in the middle. We were sore and tired enough to be sure we couldn’t have made it.

Relaxing on a bench outside the house, waiting for the last of the tide, Maryanne spotted what initially looked like reflections from a plastic bag fluttering on the rocks. Closer inspection revealed it to be a very animated seal. I got out the binoculars and found it to be the most adorable little baby seal. His animation appeared to be caused by frustration at not being able to find a comfy rock. All of the big, flat rocks were too high. He would try to get up on one of them for a while, then resign himself to one of the really uncomfortable looking sets of pointy rocks within reach. That would last a few seconds, then he would let out a little cry and struggle with much difficulty over to the next comfy looking rock that turned out to also be too high. The poor thing, he was little enough that I wanted to go over, pick him up and put him on the biggest, flattest, warmest rock around. I didn’t, of course, because I knew he would either bite me or flee out of fear. I didn’t want to cause him any more trauma than he was already going through with the lumpy rocks, but it was hard to watch.

When we got into the dinghy, I tried to go past very slowly and give him a wide berth, but he spooked and headed for the apparent safety of the water. Once he was in his comfort zone, curiosity took over fear and he accompanied us for a time as we rowed home (from a safe distance).

Maryanne waits for the tide to climb, and a glimpse of the Cutler Navy Base Submarine Very Low Frequency Radio Towers at sunrise - an unexpected site in an otherwise untouched area of the world

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