A Kayak Pilgrimage

story and photos by Dan Dworkin

Looking north along the coast of Harbor Island with Black Island in the distance.

Looking north along the coast of Harbor Island with Black Island in the distance.

Paddling on the Maine Island Trail, leaving the mainland behind is embracing an existence in which my desires and fears are diminished. I give up my illusion of control. The weather directs all. I travel when it is relatively calm, camp in gorgeous surroundings with only the sound of waves on granite, seagulls, and the ever present wind massaging the spruces. I slow down to the speed of life. Camping alone on these islands is a week long meditation. It is a process of immersing myself in beauty and silence sans words. And that beauty and silence produces a taste of peace, clarity and open-heartedness.

It's a familiar process that once an intention is set in motion, resources, encouragers and support for the idea emerge. After much dithering and inertia, I decided to traverse a slice of the Maine Island Trail, a water trail from the New Hampshire border to Canada along the coast of Maine. I camp on designated islands throughout. I'm revisiting Muscongus Bay where I traveled five years ago.

To travel solo for days in a kayak is to be not on or in but of the water. It loves you, rocks you like your mother did, speaks to you with many voices, supports your meandering, bathes you, feeds you, tells you when to travel and when to stay still on the island of the moment. On every trip there is a time of storm, of being wind-bound when the judicious kayaker stays put, writes, rests, wanders, constructs stone sculptures and listens for the still, small voice.

I first traveled to Portland to visit my mother and aunt at their assisted living facility. There I met an man in a navy hat. We spoke of the sea, of Little Creek, VA, of his seventy years of lobstering, of his son now running his three-hundred traps, of his connection to an island in Casco Bay. Enjoying his warmth and openness, I was already afloat, already beginning to attune myself to my island adventure.

Beauty surrounds me but on the water I awaken to it. Escaping the busyness of everyday life, at sea, I am entranced, moved and changed by that beauty. The islands are a place to find my soul. Any journey parallels the longer journey of my life. That seeking of myself is the essence of the journey; it makes it rich, mysterious, full of feeling. 

Leaving Portland, I ride the bus to Damaricotta. There I find my outfitter, Midcoast Kayak, and Paul who takes me and my gear to Muscongus Harbor. The weather is deteriorating. Light rain falls on the windshield of Paul's car as we arrive at the put-in. Quickly loading the yak, I'm afloat at 4:45. I paddle through a field of lobster-pot flowers, leave Indian Island to starboard, find Killick Stone Is. on the chart and recognize Thief, my home for the night. As I land I have to retrieve my backpack stuffed under the spray skirt of the overloaded kayak. Putting it on, I step into knee deep, very cold water and pull the boat up onto the rockweed. After hauling three gallons of water and gear onto the island, I scramble to put up the tent in the rain, a space blanket thrown over my outfit. It rains hard for several hours during the night but I'm cozy.

With dawn comes slow clearing but no sun until noon. I follow the trail across the island to the south campsite where I read a few entries in the Maine Island Trail (MITA) journal found at each campsite. I continue around the island on the granite shore. Stone sculptures delight me. I make a couple to greet future pilgrims. I spend the day writing, getting used to being alone, quiet, surrounded by beauty.

Tent with driftwood anchors on shingle at edge of beach.

Tent with driftwood anchors on shingle at edge of beach.

On Saturday, three days into my trip, I decide to paddle to Little Griffin across the bay. After three hours approaching where I think it is, I see nun #12 in my monocular. I land where suggested in the MITA guide book. It's high tide so I don't have to lug my gear very far. The tides are over nine feet; a low tide landing makes for a long haul.

Little Griffin turns out to be covered with thorny, rose hips and thick brush; there are no interior campsites on the 3/4 acre island. So I set up my tent just above the high tide mark on the stone shingle.I use rocks and driftwood to hold the tent down, a move that pays dividends when the northeaster rolls in that evening and continues for two days. I pull the yak high up in the rocks and tie it to a piece of wedged in driftwood.

It takes silence and nature to come home to myself. Later sitting in the lee of my tent somewhat sheltered from the easterly rain, I realized that all these solo "wilderness" trips are recreating my Hurricane Island Outward Bound solo in 1977. It opened up a new world to me, a world of thusness, mindfulness, scenes so beautiful they make you cry tears of joy. Sitting there serenaded by a six-second whistle buoy upwind of me and the 20 - 30 mph northeast wind, hedged in by rose hips and bayberry bushes I'm peaceful. I can see again.

Kayak on Little Griffin having just arrived at high tide with ledge in background.

Kayak on Little Griffin having just arrived at high tide with ledge in background.

The next morning in the misty rain I have breakfast a la Euell Gibbons. Outward Bound provided us with a pamphlet by him detailing edible plants and shellfish. I go hog wild on goose grass, orache, lamb's quarters and rose hips and suffer for it later. I explore the island's flotsam and jetsam. The rain then increases. The islands close by are spruce dark and subdued in the fog. I fall asleep briefly as I write. It's misty and beautiful watching two lobstermen working in the distance.

It's 10:30 P.M. and the tent is becoming porous. I'm worried about the high tide just after midnight. Will the water reach my tent? Is the kayak up high enough in the rocks? I check the yak at 1:00 A.M.; it's still two feet above the tide. My tent has given its all. At 3:00 A.M. I'm using what's left of my dry clothes to mop up water coming in through the tent seams. The rain lessens as dawn approaches. It has been the night from hell.

Monday morning it rains a little as I pack the kayak but so what. The storm has blown itself out; it's trying to clear. As I finish loading the boat, the wind comes around to the southwest and gains strength. For the crossing to Black island, it will be on my port quarter. I won't have to go straight into it but it's close. Whitecaps and rough water await.

I speak of this as a solo trip but I've actually brought along many friends: my wife who travels everywhere with me in my heart; my mother,aunt and sisters; my sailor dad whose love of the sea infected me; my brother, also a sailor and fearless adventurer; my roommate and tugboat first mate Mike, a man's man; brother's by choice who I love; all travel with me. They enrich my life.

I start out to the west directly into large breaking waves. After twenty yards, I see this is ill advised. I turn and head back in to paddle north in the lee of Thompson Island and again try to head west. This time I'm not heading so directly into the seas; although I take an occasional breaking wave over the bow, it's manageable. I pick a lobster pot in the distance, paddle to it and pick another one staying as high on the wind as I can. Both the current and the wind are pushing me off course. After two hours the waves lessen somewhat; I'm partially in the lee of Hall Island. I can now relax; the hard part is over. I fall off the wind and head for the passage between Black and Cranberry. Paddling in I give lobster boats plenty of room. Sometime after midday I find the landing, a lovely, rock-fringed, sand beach. Playing tag with the mosquitoes, I haul my gear to the cooking area with its primitive platform, set up the tent and cover all available rocks and tree limbs with wet clothing and gear.

"Stove lit, water boiling for freeze dried. Sun shower comes. I grab all clothes drying, throw them in tent, grab one space blanket to cover food on table, another as a raincoat and fight off the mosquitoes. Seeing the sun shining, I think rainbow. I look east and there is an incredible double rainbow. I reconstitute my freeze-dried, go out on the rocks in the wind which slows down the mossies, eat standing up watching the rainbows to the east and a sundog to the west. Blessings rain down." (journal 9-15-15).

I stay on Black Is. Monday and Tuesday. The weather is now lovely. I bathe in the cold ocean. Each day I walk around the island on the rocks seeing what the tide has washed in. My wife calls this my shopping.

I break camp on Black and decide to head for Crow Is. at the north end of the bay. The sun is so warm, I strip to the waist, open the spray skirt and drift on the incoming tide. I see some loons, a seal and some diving ducks. Arriving at Crow, I am amazed at the lack of mosquitoes. I leave an unopened gallon of water there on a bench for the next campers. I hang out, write in my journal and drink in the peace.

Morning comes and it's time to head home to meet Mitch who is picking me up. I paddle leisurely toward Muscongus Harbor stopping in the shade of shoreline spruces on Hog Is., an Audubon bird sanctuary,  to eat the last of my granola and raisins. I've lost weight. Eight days in a kayak eating freeze dried once a day, pita bread and PB sandwiches with honey and granola is a marvelous diet plan.

Mitch drops me in Damariscotta. I've got two hours to wait for my bus. I enter a restaurant across the street and order a tuna salad plate. How delectable fresh lettuce, tuna, pita wedges and onion taste.

In Damariscotta I'm full of love for everyone. I strike up conversations with the restaurant owner and guys on the street; I enjoy them all immensely. Does it take an eight day solo kayak trip, the joy of challenges overcome, the uplifted spirit that comes with such an adventure? My heart is overflowing with love for humanity. Would that my heart could be that open all the time.


Dan Dworkin lives in Western North Carolina and has been married for 35 years. After leaving Fiji in 1970, he earned a Master of Arts in Education and taught learning disabled children for 23 years. He loved the work, but to avoid burn-out, he took a series of sabbaticals to carpenter, work on tugboats, and ultimately to drive a tractor-trailer long distance. He retired from teaching in 2000 but continued truck driving until 2008. He now works as a relief driver for a county recycling program, volunteers, tutors, is a bicycle commuter and enjoys hiking and playing bridge.

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