East of Schoodic
By Bernadette Bernon
September 8, 2000
N 44 29.055 W 068 09.601
It's been a good week on Ithaka. Last Friday, we left our borrowed mooring on the beautiful Skillings River, for the first time in a while shipshape, fully e-mailed, our pantry restocked from the Ellsworth markets, and updated with newspapers. As you keep moving east, sometimes you can only buy the Sunday New York Times on a Monday or Tuesday, if at all. And then, suddenly, there are no places to buy newspapers, or anything else for that matter, at which point it doesn't really much matter what day it is anyway.
It had been a luxury to have gotten to know the Skillings over three days of tide cycles. We watched the shores reveal themselves every six hours as the tide drained out, and then we watched the flood rush in again, noisily covering the ledges of rich mussel patches that had provided us two days of dinners. We'd also experienced the impressive power of that tide one night at the flood. After a wonderful meal at our friend Kathy's home, we tried to row against it back to the boat. (Um, bad timing.) It took Douglas a teeth-gritting half hour of flat-out rowing to make the boat. We hadn't bothered to put the outboard on the inflatable because it was a short distance to shore — a space we'd closed in only a few minutes when the tide was with us. This was our 37th lesson of the day.
On Friday morning, we floated out under sail on the ebb at an astounding 7 knots in 7 knots of breeze, and spilled with it into Frenchman Bay, our bow headed for Schoodic Island, the fabled line marking the beginning of Down East cruising.
"Down East" is an old term that comes from Boston merchant seamen, who referred to their sailing voyages toward the granite quarries of Maine, with the prevailing southwest winds, as "downwind and to the east," hence down east. Today, Down East encompasses the easternmost county of Maine, extending from Schoodic to the Canadian border. Because of its geography, the region is renowned to have a slightly different climate than the lower portions of the state, hence some different wildlife and plant life, and reputedly much more fog. Anchoring here demands more attention. As you head farther east, tides can exceed 18 feet; slack water at that point is measured in minutes, and not many. It's serious fishing country. There are only a few towns, and those are wholly devoted to fishing and lobstering, their docks a mountain of traps; often there's no room for cruising boats, considered, no doubt, to be poodles among the wolves.
In addition, the VHF reception can be spotty here, and in some places is blacked out altogether. It's less convenient and more isolated, and a bigger step for us. We were excited to go east.
As we passed the red buoy at the tip of Schoodic on our own boat, I experienced one of those rare sailing moments, a threshold long-imagined and finally crossed, that I tried to preserve in my memory. Then, beyond the buoy, we began passing places I've loved reading about for years: the pencil-thin 123-foot lighthouse at Petit Manan Island, and then Bois Bubert Island — or 'tit Ma-nan and Bo-Bu-bear, as the locals say.
Our first stop was Trafton, a magnificent horseshoe-shaped granite island in Narraguagus Bay. We sailed Ithaka into the protection of the island under a blazing sun, dropped our anchor in good thick mud, hooked, paid out plenty of scope, and sat back to enjoy the shirt-sleeves warmth. Overhead, ospreys dove for their dinner.
Ithaka was the only boat there; we'd seen no boats all day long, other than those of the all-business lobstermen. Going ashore wasn't an option at Trafton, as it's privately owned, but we had no complaints. The setting was spectacular, we spent the next day puttering on board and enjoyed the quiet.
Roque Island beckoned next, and we headed out, spurred on by a forecast from NOAA weather of worsening conditions overnight, which we'd anticipated. The pressure had been falling slightly but steadily for two days. We had one of the finest sailing days we've ever had on Ithaka. She flew along at 7 and 8 knots in breezes fluctuating between 15 and 18 knots on the beam. Thrilled, we ended up circling the whole Roque archipelago just for the pleasure of it instead of heading right in. We went down Chandler Bay, tracing Roque's dramatic south flank, rounded the tempting Shorey Cove on her back side, up past the submerged ledges in Englishman Bay on her north flank. As the sun set we cleared Marsh, Bar, and Lakeman islands, headed into Great Beach anchorage, and dropped the CQR just off the mile-long, white-sand stretch for which Roque is known. Again, for two days we were alone with ourselves and the island, the only boat there.
Roque is awesome, a beautiful place to walk and enjoy the birds, the beach, and the thick forest. The Great Beach anchorage is surrounded on three sides by trees, and on the fourth by island dumplings named Halifax, Anguilla, Shag, Double Shot, Great Spruce, and Little Spruce, which protect the entrance to the harbor. The weather did worsen as predicted, the wind picked up, temperatures began dropping dramatically, and a thick fog enshrouded us all the next day. We don't have a heater onboard, so the upside to this chilly predicament was that we started baking and cooking with a passion: blueberry bran muffins — we ate six of them, with hot cups of tea, in one sitting — followed by a baked eggplant, then hot soup. For dinner we made risotto, with bread warmed in the oven, and dined with lots of candlelight and lantern light, for heat as much as mood.
From Roque we headed for Mistake Island, a small cleft of an anchorage that for us was the most beautiful we've seen. We doused the sails at the entrance to the Moose Peak Channel, and motored into a narrow, snaking, wonderland of a cove, surrounded by smooth, pink granite, overgrown with fir trees, mussel-covered ledges, and swept by the Moose Peak Lighthouse. As a family of ducks swam by and seals dove all around us, I thought I'd never seen anything so subtly beautiful as this cove. We dropped the hook in 10 feet at low, laid out 30 feet of chain and anticipated a sweet afternoon. But we couldn't get a set.
Douglas hauled it back up, along with great lasagna noodles of seaweed and kelp. Again, we tried, and again, and again. Communication between the bow and stern lost its jovial lilt. Our hand signals, an ongoing effort to create a private anchoring language without hollering in both directions, was the quickest casualty.
Every time, it was the same story. The flukes of the CQR kept coming up, their jaws filled with seaweed. Fog began to waft in as the sun set. We decided to try our Bruce anchor instead, which seemed a better choice for this hairy bottom. Still no luck.
Another boat, sailed by a couple, entered the cove, anchored without incident (using hand signals, no less, thus adding to our frustration), and then they watched our troubles. Kindly, the man jumped into his dinghy, and motored over to tell us that the area where they'd dropped anchor was the one to use. "It's been farmed by years of anchors furrowing through it," said Frank Lawson. "Locals use it. It's relatively free of kelp." As the visibility dropped, I motored over to the spot he suggested, snagging a lobster float on the prop. (ugh, my fault), which was cut off by our Prop Protector (luckily), which spewed out billions of bits of Styrofoam in our wake, just like a Cuisinart. Luckily, we hadn't damaged the bobbin to which the float was attached. We planted the anchor in mud on the first try (thank God), relieved not to have to get wet to solve this problem. The day looked brilliant again.
With Ithaka nestled behind Mistake in thick fog, the lighthouse emitting its long laments, we enjoyed the island's hiking paths, and a patch of wild blackberry bushes. Back on the boat, we switched on NOAA weather radio and heard what we came to call the "Winter Warning."
"Those with agricultural interests should expect widespread frost through the region tonight, and temperatures between 30 and 35 degrees ... . Winds will be 25 knots from the northwest,
gusting to 30 ... ."
We looked at each other. Both of us already were dressed in fleece from head to toe and wearing everything warm we owned. As much as we wanted to press on, my beloved cites pride in what he calls his "wussitude," and invoked what he calls "the law of smarter animals." Translation: When cold, turn around. Indeed, although we were in no hurry to leave, it came the time to start turning the pages of the Chart Kit back rather than forward. This was some of the most beautiful cruising either of us have ever seen. We'd meander out, we decided, but slowly.
The next morning, in pea-soup fog, rain, and light winds, we studied our options, suited up, and set a course 40 miles west, for Winter Harbor, at the mouth of Frenchman Bay. Reluctantly, we were returning across the threshold of Schoodic. We passed the familiar buoy after a long, slow beat to weather. Even though we hope to have many adventures ahead, we knew we were leaving someplace that had helped to form us. It was another step. We'd finally sailed Down East, to the doorstep of Canada.
Sometimes lobster traps are marked only with a bobbin. Other times, like the set in this picture, with a bobbin attached by a line to a small float. Sometimes the float and bobbin are as much as 40 feet apart, a potential trap for a sailboat's prop.
Today, like poodles, we're snug in Winter Harbor as the cold weather worsens, and longing for the wild, which we'd found, east of Schoodic.